Many years ago, then-President George H.W. Bush, whom I had known since the 1950s, taught me a valuable lesson. Meeting with him, I lost my bearings briefly and slipped into habit, calling him by his family nickname, “Poppy.” Embarrassed, I immediately apologized and corrected myself, switching back to “Mr. President.” He was preternaturally gracious and his comment has remained with me.
“Look, Fay, don’t feel bad,” the president said, as I recall. “I understand. The reason I accept the use of this title is my great respect for the office I hold. It is not about me. The respect you, and I share for this great position and our country is why I think the use of the title is important. You respect this office as I do. Thanks for that.”
The other day, some sports figures got confused and failed to make the essential distinction between the person who is the head of state in our nation and at the same time the head of the current government. Some of the Boston Red Sox, led by their fine manager, Alex Cora, refused to attend the traditional White House ceremony at which the most recent World Series victors are honored by the president. Happily, many other players showed up, but several stayed away in protest of President Donald Trump and his policies.
The Red Sox boycotters were not the first professional athletes to shun the Trump White House — football and basketball players have made similar political statements by staying away. And players in the past have skipped White House events, whether out of loutish indifference or for political reasons, as when Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk declined to join the 2013 Super Bowl champions over President Barack Obama’s advocacy for abortion rights.
The superb lesson taught by my old friend when I failed to respect the presidential office should serve as a reminder that the head of our nation ought never be the target of disrespect.
I do not challenge the right of Cora and his players to protest the U.S. government’s failures in aiding Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017 (Cora’s concern) or to protest any other government policy. But the president was honoring the Red Sox on behalf of the nation and even on behalf of Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees and Houston Astros fans, whose teams had been vanquished by Boston on the way to the title. Trump has the authority and right to speak for all Americans when he is acting for all of us, as he did at the White House ceremony.
Protesting the Trump administration’s failures can be done at other times and in other venues — the halls of Congress are a good forum, but well-known sports figures do not lack for megaphones where their opinions can be expressed. In all cases, though, criticism of the president, any president, should be lodged in a civil manner, with solid arguments.
One of the duties of citizenship is the making of fine distinctions. Baseball, too, is a game of fine distinctions. When a pitcher hits a batter with a pitch, the batter must decide how to respond. If he angrily rushes the pitching mound, he will be tossed from the game. That goes into the scorecard, just as the sport records any other error he might have made. Baseball is unusually attuned to mistakes — every error is permanent, a matter of the baseball historical record, no matter whether the player who committed it later hits a game-winning home run.
In the real world, away from sports, players are public figures and not merely from what has been called “the toy department” of life. The players know they are objects of affection and serve as role models, whether they accept that obligation or not. They cannot easily redeem their public slips.
At my age (I’m 80), I can warn younger generations about the dangers of taking actions in protest that cannot be undone. The acts of youth sometimes remain recorded in obituaries. The Red Sox protesters may remain forever proud of boycotting the White House ceremony, but in a few years, some may have second thoughts. They may develop an appreciation for the distinction between the office of the presidency and the person who temporarily is entrusted with it by the American people.
But as in baseball, life does not permit do-overs. The Boston Red Sox may win another World Series in the coming years and be invited to Washington by a different president, but last week’s White House event will never be repeated, and the failure to attend was an error.
Fay Vincent was commissioner of Major League Baseball from 1989 to 1992.