A few days ago Eric Trager agonized in a blog post about his divided loyalties when it came to the World Baseball Classic. It seems that Eric, a fan of the New York Mets, is so stricken with jealous dislike of the captain of the number one team in town that he worries about rooting for the American team in the tournament just because it is led by a certain future first ballot Hall of Famer who plays for the New York Yankees. The love/envy/hate thing Met fans have with Derek Jeter ought to remain strictly between them and their therapists, but Eric did stumble over the real problem with the WBC later in his post, albeit without a full explanation.
It’s not just that Spring Training is a stupid time to hold a baseball championship, that no team wants its players in the games, and that most Americans could care less about getting our national pastime back into the Olympics or selling more MLB caps and jerseys in China. Nor is the problem a matter of rooting for players on teams that you don’t like during the regular season. Rather, it is the prospect that dictators like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez or Cuba’s Castro brothers could make hay from their countries teams.
The answer is not to make sure that the Americans beat them, though I’m sure most Yankee fans have no problem rooting for players from the Red Sox or even that team from Queens if they are wearing our nation’s colors. A better response is to stop trying to inject nationalism and politics into any sport via global tournaments like the WBC or the more popular piece of global baloney known as the Olympics.
The mixing of patriotism with the playing of games — even games we love and obsess over — is itself bogus. Though many of us can’t seem to get enough of the toxic mix of jingoism and sports fanaticism, let’s understand that this isn’t a healthy thing.
Many players, no doubt well intentioned, speak of playing for the countries as if it were some form of national service. It isn’t. The only real uniforms of the United States are those worn by our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, not baseball players. Inflating a game into a metaphor for conflict between nations and ideologies is nonsense. The famous triumph of the American hockey team over the mighty Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics was an amazing story and surely one of the greatest upsets in sports history. But it was not, despite the hype and the flag-waving at the time, a victory for freedom over tyranny. Nor did it lift the country out of a Jimmy Cater-induced malaise. Ronald Reagan did that nine months later when he was sworn into office. It was just a hockey game between a group of American college players and Russian professionals. Winning it was fun for the Americans (and has given false hope to underdogs ever since) but it didn’t free anyone in the gulag or get the Russians out of Afghanistan.
Tyrannical regimes always use sports teams draped in their national flags to distract their own populations and to hoodwink foreigners. The use of the 2008 Olympics by the Communist rulers of China last year, like Adolf Hitler’s use of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, illustrated the inherent dangers of such competitions. The great thing about Major League Baseball is that it is free of such national conceits and the phony patriotism that always comes with it. So, like most real baseball fans, I look forward to the end of this travesty and the start of the real baseball season.