Americans inveterately use sports metaphors in talking about everything from politics and economics to personal development and sex. But sometimes, to paraphrase Freud, a game is just a game.I mention this because John Judis, one of my few journalistic idols, posted a meditation at TNROnline yesterday on Ryne Sandburg’s Hall of Fame induction speech last weekend. Judis’ purpose was to suggest that baseball is falling prey to the same erosion of community and responsibility as corporate America at large.While I agree with Judis’ broader point about the decline of mutuality in the modern corporate workplace, I’m not sure baseball is a particularly apt example of it. For one thing, baseball, as a highly regulated competitive game, has self-correcting features not generally prevalent in other markets. And for another, the game has gone through similar problems many times before.In suggesting the Pastime’s association with the sturdy virtues of the past, Judis says: “baseball itself is a very conservative game.” I disagree. But there’s something about baseball that certainly brings out the conservative instincts of its fans.Indeed, what struck me most about the preoccupation of both Judis and Sandberg with the alleged ruination of the game by one-dimensional sluggers was a strong sense of déjà vu: their complaint closely tracked the very first book I read about baseball, more than a generation ago, My Life In Baseball: The True Record, by Ty Cobb and Al Stump. Cobb and Stump similarly fretted about the domination of the game by “humpty-dumpty strong boys pulling the ball over the fences,” and echoed every old-timer’s paen to the Total Players of the past. As it happens, they were writing near the end of a relatively brief period of home-run-oriented baseball not fundamentally different from the 1990s. By the mid-1960s, pitchers began controlling the game, and soon after, thanks to the construction of large, multi-purpose stadiums with artificial turf, the game devolved back towards something resembling the old-timers’ fantasies, with high levels of stolen bases, sacrifice bunts and other one-run strategies, and strong defenses characterizing many winning teams.Yet baseball “traditionalists” generally deplored those boring, sterile stadiums and the fake grass. In one of the great ironies of the game, the most self-consciously conservative trend in baseball history, the construction of a new generation of intimate, baseball-only, retro parks, did a lot to produce the “ruinous” and revolutionary home run derby of the 1990s. And now, though you wouldn’t know it from the Judis/Ryneberg argument, there’s been another reaction, and home run totals are steadily heading down towards historic norms.The point is that baseball moves in cycles, and it’s only the tendency of so many fans and sportswriters to idolize the real and imagined past that makes the movement look unprecedented and negative.If you want a much more balanced and nuanced view of the game and its development, along with a more measured series of suggestions about current excesses, you should read The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. As James shows, the game has always featured greedy and sometimes stupid owners; narcissistic superstars; cheaters of one variety or another; and over-evaulations of the contributions of one-dimensional players, from sluggers to batting champs to acrobatic infielders to “closers.”And while the economics of the game have indeed gone nuts, the most recent trends in baseball may well be slowly but surely producing a correction. Look at the standings today. Most of the big-payroll, big-market teams are struggling. The hottest team in baseball right now is the Oakland A’s, a team (as detailed by Michael Lewis in his 2003 book, Moneyball) that has applied Bill James’ empirical measurements of player value to win with a relatively tiny payroll. James himself is a consultant to the World’s Champion Red Sox, working for a whiz-kid disciple of his. The most successful franchise in recent history is the Atlanta Braves, who have won 13 straight division titles with stable management, a strong farm system, and a very balanced offense and defense–a very old-timey approach.Perhaps salary insanity and steroids are truly producing an irreversible crisis in baseball, but I doubt it. And while I don’t endorse this regulated industry as a model for American capitalism, I also don’t think it’s typical of capitalism’s worst features, either.Let’s continue to treat baseball as a game; as a metaphor, it’s usually overplayed.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
While mulling some recent material from The Bulwark, I thought I’d explain something to the converted “Never Trumpers” the outlet represents, and did so at New York:
For a while now I’ve had a guilty-pleasure reading habit: The Bulwark, that semi-official outlet of Never Trumpers who view themselves as having definitively broken with the GOP thanks to their former party’s thralldom to Donald J. Trump. I share its contributors’ belief that they (the tribe usefully described by Miller as Red Dog Democrats) represent not just a self-promoting claque of elite scribblers but a real if marginal faction of the Democratic Party, having burned a lot of bridges on their way out of the GOP. Their views appear to parallel those of a significant number of suburban Republicans and independents who voted Democratic in 2018 and 2020. And given the very close balance between voters of the two parties, as reflected most recently in 2020, Democrats really can’t afford to contemptuously reject any potential adherents, however alien or even repugnant they might find their backgrounds.
So it’s understandable when Bulwark co-founder Charlie Sykes expresses frustration that Democrats refuse to consider their pleas for policy concessions on grounds of holding old grudges:
“The spending. The wokeness. The repeal of the Hyde Amendment. I could go on …
“These are difficult times for folks on the center-right, who’ve tried to join Democrats in a loose alliance to protect the Republic from Trumpism …
“Litmus tests are applied: it’s not enough to be pro-democracy, NTers are also expected to embrace the elements of the progressive agenda — from free community college, to abortion, rent moratoriums, police funding, transgenderism, CRT, social spending, and the candidacy of Greta Thunberg for sainthood.”
Sykes fears it’s all very personal, and warns, “If you cancel moderates/conservatives for their past sins, you don’t have a coalition.”
Here’s the thing, though: It’s not really about the Red Dogs. Yes, I’m sure it’s been tough for them to watch Democrats largely come together around a legislative program that’s significantly more progressive than the one advanced by the Obama administration. But Democrats have been coalescing around the basics of the Build Back Better agenda for some time now. That the famously moderate Joe Biden now embraces it is a sign of how the party has slowly evolved, not some sort of betrayal or surrender to the left. And anyone who paid close attention to the 2020 presidential primaries should have understood that there is less distance between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders than between Joe Biden and the Joe Biden of the 1990s.
Part of what has happened is simply a resolution of internal conflicts among Democrats that left them defensive and at times incoherent. A classic example is one that Sykes mentioned: abortion policy. For years, Democrats claimed to value reproductive rights even as they accepted significant limitations on them: e.g., the Hyde Amendment, which made abortion services, unlike any other medical services, ineligible for any sort of federal support. That amendment, along with acceptance of some largely symbolic restrictions on rare late-term abortions, and the whole “safe, legal, and rare” messaging introduced by Bill Clinton, represented concessions to a significant bloc of Democratic voters and Democratic pols who did not recognize reproductive rights at all.
That has changed over time. Anti-abortion Democratic politicians are a rare and shrinking breed, and there are now significantly fewer anti-abortion Democratic voters than there are pro-choice Republicans. Most Democrats, including Joe Biden, have made the leap into a more coherent and unified position. They aren’t going to turn back the clock to satisfy ex-Republicans, but they aren’t insisting on a “litmus test” just to annoy or exclude them, either. The same could be said for other policy tenets once beloved by a significant number of Democrats — from fiscal hawkishness to armed interventionism to an openness to “entitlement reform” — that remain attractive to the newest proto-Democrats. As for the idea that Democrats are some sort of rigid ideological cult: Come on, seriously? Look at what’s going on with the attempted enactment of the Build Back Better reconciliation bill. If this is an intolerant and exclusive political party, I’d hate to see a loosey-goosey one try to function. It may just be that the issues Red Dogs fret about may lie outside the still relatively loose bounds of party unity.
This doesn’t mean Red Dogs should despair, but it may mean another painful reevaluation of priorities, recognizing that most have already had to sacrifice a lot of old allegiances and even the habitual language used to make sense of the political world. In many respects, the Never Trumpers resemble their spiritual (and in some cases biological) predecessors, the neo-conservatives. These were people who broke with the Democratic Party out of a conviction that Democratic views on national security made continued party loyalty impossible. But most of them retained many views that horrified their new Republican allies until they accepted the inevitable role of a factional minority and grew to accommodate or even share the policy positions and ideological language of the GOP, which was increasingly dominated by conservatives with their own ideological-consistency demands.
Most Red Dogs have no illusions about the party they’ve left and understand their constituencies are too small to form a third force or demand concessions from a position of strength. Most, I suppose, will get used to the strange and sometimes lurid landscape of the Donkey Party. Others will embrace the posture of the gadfly, the people of no party or coalition. But it’s really not personal. It’s just politics.