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
Reading through the ambiguous to vaguely positive remarks made by Republican pols about the historic auto workers strike, one of them jumped off the page, and I wrote about it at New York:
One of the great anomalies of recent political history has been the disconnect between the Republican Party’s ancient legacy as the champion of corporate America and its current electoral base, which relies heavily on support from white working-class voters. The growing contradiction was first made a major topic of debate in the 2008 manifesto Grand New Party, in which youngish conservative intellectuals Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam argued that their party offered little in the way of material inducements (or even supportive rhetoric) to its emerging electoral base. Though Douthat and Salam were by no means fans of Donald Trump, the mogul’s stunningly successful 2016 campaign did follow their basic prescription of pursuing the economic and cultural instincts of white working-class voters at the expense of doctrinaire free-market and limited-government orthodoxy.
So it’s not surprising that Trump and an assortment of other Republicans have expressed varying degrees of sympathy for the unionized autoworkers who just launched a historic industry-wide strike for better wages and working conditions. But there was a conspicuous, even anachronistic exception among nationally prominent GOP politicians: South Carolina senator and presidential candidate Tim Scott. As NBC News reported:
“It’s the latest of several critical comments Scott has made about the autoworkers, even as other GOP presidential candidates steer clear of criticizing them amid a strike at three plants so far …
“’I think Ronald Reagan gave us a great example when federal employees decided they were going to strike. He said, you strike, you’re fired. Simple concept to me. To the extent that we can use that once again, absolutely.’”
Scott’s frank embrace of old-school union bashing wouldn’t have drawn much notice 40 or 50 years ago. And to be clear, other Republicans aren’t fans of the labor movement: For the most part, MAGA Republicans appeal to the working class via a mix of cultural conservatism, economic and foreign-policy nationalism, nativism, and producerism (i.e., pitting private-sector employers and employees against the financial sector, educational elites, and those dependent on public employment or assistance). One particularly rich lode of ostensibly pro-worker rhetoric has been to treat environmental activism as inimical to the economic growth and specific job opportunities wage earners need.
So unsurprisingly, Republican politicians who want to show some sympathy for the autoworkers have mostly focused on the alleged threat of climate-change regulations generally and electric vehicles specifically to the well-being of UAW members, as Politico reported:
“’This green agenda that is using taxpayer dollars to drive our automotive economy into electric vehicles is understandably causing great anxiety among UAW members,’ [Mike Pence] said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“Other Republicans followed suit, with a National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesperson calling out Michigan Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin — Democrats’ favored candidate for the state’s open Senate seat — for her Thursday vote allowing state-level limits or bans on gas-powered cars as choosing her ‘party over Michigan.'”
More strikingly, Trump, the 2024 presidential front-runner, is planning to hold an event with Michigan workers at the very moment his GOP rivals are holding their second debate next week, notes the Washington Post:
“While other Republican candidates participate in the Sept. 27 event in California, Trump instead plans to speak to more than 500 autoworkers, plumbers, electricians and pipe-fitters, the adviser said. The group is likely to include workers from the United Auto Workers union that is striking against the Big Three automakers in the country’s Rust Belt. The Trump adviser added that it is unclear whether the former president will visit the strike line.
“Trump’s campaign also created a radio ad, to run on sports- and rock-themed stations in Detroit and Toledo, meant to present him as being on the side of striking autoworkers, the adviser said.”
There’s no evidence Trump has any understanding of, much less sympathy with, the strikers’ actual demands. But in contrast to Scott’s remarks endorsing the dismissal of striking workers, it shows that at least some Republicans are willing (rhetorically, at least) to bite the hand that feeds in the pursuit of votes.
Meanwhile, the mainstream-media types who often treat Scott as some sort of sunny, optimistic, even bipartisan breath of fresh air should pay some attention to his attitude toward workers exercising long-established labor rights he apparently would love to discard. Yes, as a self-styled champion of using taxpayer dollars to subsidize private- and homeschooling at the expense of “government schools,” Scott is constantly attacking teachers unions, just like many Republicans who draw a sharp distinction between public-sector unions (BAD!) and private-sector unions (grudgingly acceptable). But autoworkers are firmly in the private sector. Maybe it’s a South Carolina thing: Scott’s presidential rival and past political ally Nikki Haley (another media favorite with an unmerited reputation as a moderate) famously told corporate investors to stay out of her state if they intended to tolerate unions in their workplaces. For that matter, the South Carolina Republican Party was for years pretty much a wholly owned subsidiary of violently anti-union textile barons. Some old habits die hard.
One of the useful by-products of the current wave of labor activism in this country is that Republicans may be forced to extend their alleged sympathy for workers into support for policies that actually help them and don’t simply reflect cheap reactionary demagoguery aimed at foreigners, immigrants, and people of color. But Scott has flunked the most basic test threshold compatibility with the rights and interests of the working class.