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Jane Lo is an assistant professor at Michigan State University and a board member at Generation Citizen, an organization working to transform civics education. Scott Warren is a visiting fellow at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University and founder of Generation Citizen. This was written for the Baltimore Sun.
A critical and uniquely American institution is in trouble, experiencing a historical lack of trust and enthusiasm. Reformers are advocating for big, foundational change. Traditionalists are holding onto the past. There are outcries of cheating and outrage because of a purported lack of systemic accountability and dependability. Some wonder whether it is truly an existential moment.
Are these sentiments reflective of the state of our American democracy? Or Major League Baseball?
Both, as it turns out.
In the last few weeks, the alarm for our American democracy reached a fever pitch. In the wake of unprecedented Republican-led efforts to suppress the vote, President Biden gave a speech in which he called the current assault on voting rights, “the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War.” According to the Brennan Center for Justice, at least 389 bills have been introduced in 48 states to restrict access to voting, and 14 states have already enacted laws that tighten the rules around casting ballots.
Republicans have homed in on a strategy of promoting election integrity because of a purported lack of trust in the electoral process. Many on the right also warn of a growing collective failure to appreciate the greatness of America. In response, a movement has emerged to ensure that schools do not teach about race or oppression.
This action is occurring in the context of a country that is historically polarized, with a large swath of the electorate still contesting the results of the last election. A recent poll indicated that two-thirds of Southern Republicans say the South should break away from the Union.
Meanwhile, Major League Baseball held its annual All-Star Game in Denver instead of the originally planned location of Atlanta, expressly because of a restrictive voting law passed in Georgia earlier this year. While the game did showcase new, young talent, the start of the baseball season has been concerning.
Teams are scoring runs at historically low rates, and striking out at comically high rates: almost 25 percent of at-bats end in strikeouts, resulting in a midseason rules change on spider tack used to increase the spin rate of pitches. The average time for a game keeps creeping up, and is now 3 hours and 10 minutes (up from 2 hours 54 minutes in 2010). Attendance at games is steadily decreasing: Almost 79 million tickets were sold in 2008 while fewer than 69 million fans attended games in 2019.
There are parallels between the discussions to revive baseball and our democracy. Some contend that the solution to baseball’s challenges is to return to the past, embracing the sport’s traditionalist streak. They worry that too many of baseball’s new stars are not American, do not speak English and do not respect the “unwritten rules of the game.” Others want baseball to explore changing previously sacrosanct rules, like bringing the designated hitter to the National League, moving back the mound, or enforcing a time limit between pitches.
While one can make the very valid argument that the crisis in our American democracy is much more pressing than that of a sport, the comparisons may lead to creativity or, at least, hope. Indeed, baseball is the all-American sport because of its many imperfections.
Just as American democracy has always been, and will continue to be, imperfect, with a constant need for improvements, so is baseball. Our American political system, originally designed for only white landowners to participate, has been reformed again and again, allowing for more inclusion and adjusting to new technologies and innovations. Similarly, baseball was slow to embrace diversity and large-scale change within its ranks but has increasingly become international and instituted rules and regulations to improve upon the game.
This moment, however, does bring unique, and potentially existential challenges to both democracy and baseball. The way forward should not be tepid, but ambitious. For governance, the future should arrive in the form of legislation that protects the right to vote irrespective of, or perhaps to impede, state restrictions. And for baseball, it should come in the form of experimenting with more drastic changes like restricting the infield shift and moving back the mound.
So perhaps as we journey through this current existential political conflict, a new vision of baseball, with new players and updated rules, can also provide insights into where we go next as a collective of diverse individuals who are learning once again how to place our trust in one another. Perhaps baseball, or an improved version of the game, can lead to a more common American identity.