Baseball’s DNA

The novel coronavirus has changed the world. Shutdowns, slowdowns and–in Japan–self-restraint, have allowed wildlife to flourish and cleared our skies of airborne filth. Yet, we are now locked in a cultural debate about how we can return to “normal”, if this is the new normal or what the new normal should be.

Authoritarian regimes across the globe have used this as an opportunity to restrict liberties and that goes for baseball as well. No one should be surprised at this. After all, following rules in baseball—particularly “unwritten ones”–is praised to the skies as “playing the right way.” Suppressing free spirits is as much a part of America’s game as three strikes and you’re out.

There is no doubt that baseball values rule-keeping, but the children’s game we love also seems to be a vehicle powered by those who want to make sure others obey their rules as well.

Japan reverts to old ways

With the pandemic forcing changes left and right, Nippon Professional Baseball opened its season on June 19 behind closed doors. In addition to scrapping its all-star series and cutting five league games from each team’s calendar, the leagues opted out of interleague play. The Pacific League trimmed its postseason playoffs from a three-team, two-stage affair to a two-team final series that is a best-of-five instead of a best-of-seven. The Central League, citing its old-fart rallying cry of “giving priority to league games,” did away with its postseason tourney.

What that means for fans is more of the CL “playing its game the right way”—read “old way”—and fewer meaningful games for fans. Once the Yomiuri Giants clinched the pennant on Friday, Oct. 30, the 24 remaining CL games became meaningless. If teams were allowed to fill up their parks during the pandemic, it would be obvious that the old way is bad for everyone except those who consider preserving the old way a virtue.

That’s why, in 2007, the CL adopted the same PL format it had been ridiculing for three years because most PL teams were playing meaningful games in front of big crowds until the final days of the season, while the CL games were just there to make the weight.

This year’s PL pennant might be decided, but who gets to be in the Japan Series is not. In both leagues, there is a razor-thin margin between third and fifth. That difference is moot in the CL, but cause for excitement for fans of a league that is less concerned with “playing the game the right way.”

So much of the talk around baseball is in this vein, not only a desire to define right and wrong for others but a battle to determine who is eligible to describe the narrative. That’s where PR comes in.

The gate keepers

Decades before he was the Fighters’ general manager, Nippon Ham exec Hiroshi Yoshimura was a former sportswriter working in the Pacific League office. When I started publishing critical analytical books about the ways of Japanese pro baseball in 1994, he reached out to me. When I asked him how to contact team’s PR people, he said: “Japanese baseball PR people are gate keepers rather than facilitators.”

The attitude of PR people in Japanese baseball has softened some since the 1990s, when PR staff occasionally interrupted and threatened English-speaking journalists having pregame conversations with players, saying they were forbidden to talk without permission.

Such behavior is often dependent on the individual in charge of a given team’s PR department. The Pacific League, less uptight from top to bottom, has tended to be cooperative, while Central League clubs have tended to cast a more suspicious eye.

There have, however, been outstanding individual PR guys in Japanese baseball. I don’t want to get him in trouble for singing his praises, but the all-time superstar of NPB PR guys was a former player who used to run the Yomiuri Giants’ PR shop. His attitude of going out of his way to help the media do good stories about the Giants and their players would probably not sit too well with their current boss.

So far as I can tell, the Giants, the Tigers—notoriously the least cooperative and most authoritarian—and Yakult Swallows have all used the pandemic as an excuse to block out media requests to interview their players. The DeNA BayStars, to their credit, have not, and although that organization is perhaps the most authoritarian in Japan, they have procedures and are simply sticking to them rather than using the coronavirus as an excuse to be as pernicious as possible.

As expected, most of the PL teams have been about as welcoming and helpful as they usually are with a special shout-out to the Fighters, who have bent over backward in these difficult days. It seems that if your league is bent on being innovative, as most PL teams have been, there is less room for an authoritarian disposition in your organizational culture.

Baseball’s cultural divide

Something I’ve long struggled with is why intelligent former ballplayers have leaped onto the authoritarian-side–or “traditional-side” if your sensitivities demand a euphemism–of America’s current culture wars. These people are, for the most part, white, although not exclusively so.

The response to the publicity surrounding police brutality and Black Lives Matter has been met with ridicule by many white former players I know. These same people have the highest respect for black former teammates’ honesty, intelligence and humanity. The former players speaking out against protests for social justice are not demonstrably racists, so something is going on that is tough to figure out.

For a long time, I’ve attributed this to people not understanding the scope and impact of white privilege. Until a few years ago, I understood aspects of white privilege without being able to give it a name or explain it well. I figured ballplayers who also grew up in homogeneous mostly white communities might be in the same boat I was.

If one grows up in a homogeneous environment, one sees that those who succeed often have ambition, talent, or money, while those who fail often don’t. If our peer fails, it is easy but unfair to label their failures as individual failings because we know things about them. If one does that, then it’s only a small step toward labeling failures of people we know nothing about as their own individual failures.

This response must be particularly acute for athletes, who are taught early on not to whine about failure but to perform better. Baseball is not fair. One can play better than an opponent and still lose, but the answer is still the same. The only way to ensure winning is to play even better, still.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that ballplayers respond automatically to failure by urging others to do better. If someone is being set upon by law enforcement, the solution may be the same: “Don’t whine about the system but do even better to avoid being in situations where law enforcement will beat your brains in.”

But I now think that while a failure to recognize white privilege might be one influence, a bigger one might simply be baseball itself, a sport that nurtures and promotes authoritarianism. It’s a sport that encourages those people who are wired to think that way.

It could be genetic

In a 2014 New York Times opinion piece, Thomas B. Edsall surveyed research of a genetic component in one’s disposition toward authoritarianism. He cites the work of Steven Ludeke, Wendy Johnson, and Thomas J. Bouchard Jr. They concluded that “authoritarianism, religiousness and conservatism,” which they call the “traditional moral values triad,” are “substantially influenced by genetic factors.”

Baseball is played by a code, although a code that differs from culture to culture, with each culture referring to its code as the unwritten rules that prescribe the “right way” to play. In Japan, players can land on home plate with a handspring after hitting a home run and no one worries about a fastball behind their ear, but they will be ostracized if they suggest that current doctrine is nonsense.

Promotion in pro baseball is a long arduous process of enculturation, limiting the number of cultural outliers who make it to the elite levels. At every step, on-field success is rewarded with promotion but deviance from the unwritten rules is punished.

It’s easy to see how, given two players of equal promise and quality, the one who better represents baseball conservative values will likely be promoted ahead of a free spirit.

It’s not that baseball is inherently authoritarian, but it is a culture that more easily rewards those who are inclined to follow the rules and insist others do as well and preserve a kind of idealistic status quo.

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