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Race and Beyond: Of Bats, Gloves, and an All-In Nation

SOURCE: AP/John Minchillo

A giant American flag is unfurled before a baseball game between the New York Mets and Washington Nationals on Opening Day at Citi Field, Monday, March 31, 2014, in New York.

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Baseball season gets underway this week, bringing with it the springtime hopes that a favored team will remain active into fall’s World Series.

I can’t escape the annual optimism that coincides with the first professional pitch of the year. What red-blooded American can resist feeling a sense of promise and potential that the start of a new baseball season represents? And, not to get all George Will up in here, but baseball truly is a metaphor for our national cultural life.

It begins in green spring, when the last of the snow—I hope—has fallen and plays through the intense, red-hot simmer of summer, concluding with the approach of the orange-brown glow of autumnal Thanksgiving. At the beginning we watch, cheer, and root for our home team boys to do amazing things, believing every team and every player has the potential to stand erect and be crowned champion at the season’s end.

I’ll confess that I’m more political geek than baseball fan. As Monday’s Opening Day pitches flew across home plate in stadiums across the land, I listened to PolicyLink’s Angela Glover Blackwell deliver a lecture on the importance of social inclusion in American life.

Blackwell is a riveting speaker and I’ve heard her many times. But never have I associated the need for diversity and inclusion in a baseball context. As I listened to her talk, my mind drifted to how a baseball team needs the cooperation of its individual parts to be successful. Some players can hit. Others can pitch. But to be successful, all must contribute what they can to the team effort. As Blackwell’s talk unfolded, I came to understand that the optimism of a new baseball season and the necessity of diversity in the United States share a common value-laden challenge.

At the start of the baseball season, all teams are equal with the same number of players and coaches; every team begins with an identical record—zero wins and zero losses. From their fair start, some will rise and some will suffer. There is, so we might think, equal opportunity for every team to be successful, to win enough to earn a pennant and, dare we dream, be the last team standing in October.

Not so fast. Teams aren’t really equal. Some ball clubs—yes, New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers, I’m calling you out—are richer and better stocked than other teams. Does that give them an unfair advantage? Perhaps, but some experts such as ESPN’s Jayson Stark say it’s performance on the field—not big-buck payrolls—that will determine which team wins. Why? Well, Major League Baseball recognizes that some teams are in smaller markets and can’t generate the same level of revenues as teams in big, metropolitan areas. To help level the playing field, so to speak, MLB has a revenue sharing program that requires every team to contribute about a third of its net local revenue to a pool that’s evenly divided among all teams.

But let’s look at this equal opportunity and equal outcome dichotomy of baseball as American life metaphor from another angle. Consider, for example, three young baseball fans who can’t afford a seat in the stadium and are compelled to watch the game by looking over an outfield wall. The first fan is tall enough to see over the wall standing flat-footed. The second can barely make out the action on the field by straining to watch on the tip of her toes. The third is just too short; he can hear the action but only sees a blank wall.

In this scenario, the three fans have equal opportunity because they’re each standing in the same space. But their ability to enjoy the game isn’t shared. This problem might be solved if the two shorter fans had supports, say, a milk crate, to stand on that would allow them to see comfortably over the wall. Now, they have equal outcomes.

But where do they get the milk crates? Who’s responsible for providing the shortest fan with the support he needs to enjoy the action that the tallest fan takes for granted?

Blackwell argued that’s not the most important question. If our fictional young baseball fans want fairness among themselves, one or all of them would do what’s necessary to help their shortest buddy stand tall to watch the game. That’s cooperation, teamwork, and good old American fair play.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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This is part of a regular column: Race and Beyond

For more from the same column, click here