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
In looking at Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization from many angles at New York, one I noted was the lonely position of Chief Justice John Roberts, who failed to hold back his conservative colleagues from anti-abortion radicalism:
While the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization will go down in history as a 6-3 decision with only the three Democrat-appointed justices dissenting, Chief Justice John Roberts actually did not support a full reversal of Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. His concurring opinion, which argued that the Court should uphold Mississippi’s ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy without entirely abolishing a constitutional right to abortion, represented a path not taken by the other five conservative members of the Court.
When the Court held oral arguments on the Mississippi law last December, the conservative majority’s determination to redeem Donald Trump’s promise to reverse Roe v. Wade was quite clear. The only ray of hope was the clear discomfort of Chief Justice John Roberts, as New York’s Irin Carmon noted at the time:
“It seemed obvious that only Roberts, who vainly tried to focus on the 15-week line even when everyone else made clear it was all or nothing, cares for such appearances. There had been some pre-argument rumblings that Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh might defect, perhaps forming a bloc with Roberts to find some middle ground as happened the last time the Court considered overturning Roe in 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey. On Wednesday, neither Barrett nor Kavanaugh seemed inclined to disappoint the movement that put them on the Court.”
Still, the Casey precedent offered a shred of hope, since in that 1992 case some hard and imaginative work by Republican-appointed justices determined not to overturn Roe eventually flipped Justice Anthony Kennedy and dealt a devastating blow to the anti-abortion movement. Just prior to the May leak of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft majority opinion (which was very similar in every important respect to the final product), the Wall Street Journal nervously speculated that Roberts might be undermining conservative resolve on the Court, or change sides as he famously did in the Obamacare case.
In the wake of the leak there was some reporting that Roberts was indeed determined not to go whole hog in Dobbs; one theory about the leak was that it had been engineered to freeze the other conservatives (especially Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who during his confirmation hearings had said many things incompatible with a decision to reverse Roe entirely) before the chief justice could lure them to his side.
Now it appears Roberts tried and failed. His concurrence was a not terribly compelling plea for “judicial restraint” that left him alone on the polarized Court he allegedly leads:
“I would take a more measured course. I agree with the Court that the viability line established by Roe and Casey should be discarded under a straightforward stare decisis analysis. That line never made any sense. Our abortion precedents describe the right at issue as a woman’s right to choose to terminate her pregnancy. That right should therefore extend far enough to ensure a reasonable opportunity to choose, but need not extend any further certainly not all the way to viability.”
Roberts’s proposed “reasonable opportunity” standard is apparently of his own invention, and is obviously vague enough to allow him to green-light any abortion ban short of one that outlaws abortion from the moment of fertilization, though he does seem to think arbitrarily drawing a new line at the beginning of the second trimester of pregnancy might work. Roberts’s real motivation appears to be upholding the Court’s reputation for judiciousness, which is indeed about to take a beating:
“The Court’s decision to overrule Roe and Casey is a serious jolt to the legal system — regardless of how you view those cases. A narrower decision rejecting the misguided viability line would be markedly less unsettling, and nothing more is needed to decide this case.”
In his majority opinion (joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barrett, along with Kavanaugh) Alito seems to relish in mocking the unprincipled nature of the chief justice’s temporizing position:
“There are serious problems with this approach, and it is revealing that nothing like it was recommended by either party …
“The concurrence would do exactly what it criticizes Roe for doing: pulling “out of thin air” a test that “[n]o party or amicus asked the Court to adopt …
“The concurrence asserts that the viability line is separable from the constitutional right they recognized, and can therefore be “discarded” without disturbing any past precedent … That is simply incorrect.”
One has to wonder that if Merrick Garland had been allowed to join the Court in 2016, or if Amy Coney Barrett had not been rushed onto the Court in 2020, Robert’s split-the-differences approach eroding but not entirely abolishing the constitutional right to abortion might have carried the day in Dobbs. But that’s like speculating about where we would be had Donald Trump not become president in 2017 after promising conservatives the moon — and an end to Roe.