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Not Sticking to Sports

The Mets and Marlins didn’t play Thursday night.

After some milling around in front of both dugouts, the Mets ran out to their positions, led by Dominic Smith [1] and Billy Hamilton [2]. Miami’s Lewis Brinson [3] stepped to the plate. Caps came off. The other players on both teams came out of the dugouts to stand in a line. After 42 seconds of silence, both teams left the field, leaving behind a Black Lives Matter shirt on home plate.

It was a powerful moment, covered with care and, yes, grace by SNY. Afterwards, Michael Conforto [4], Smith, Robinson Cano [5] and Dellin Betances [6] addressed the media, masks on as per COVID necessity. SNY threw it to Gary Apple and Todd Zeile [7], who spoke from the heart. Brodie Van Wagenen talked to the media — more on that in a moment — and then Steve Gelbs conducted a poignant, sometimes raw interview with Smith. It was surreal and confusing and moving all at the same time.

The Mets being the Mets, there had to be a sideshow. Last night, people started sniping at each other on Twitter over Smith’s decision to take a knee Wednesday night and the Mets’ having tweeted the message UNITED FOR CHANGE. That’s the tagline that’s been handed down by Major League Baseball, but it made for an awkward show of support: How united could the Mets be if Smith had acted alone?

Then, a couple of hours before the game that wasn’t, video somehow went out to the world of Van Wagenen having a private conversation with two people off-camera in which he said Rob Manfred, citing scheduling concerns, was pushing Jeff Wilpon to have the teams to walk off the field at 7:10 but return at 8:10. Van Wagenen reacted with a mix of incredulity and exasperation, saying that Manfred doesn’t get it “at that leadership level.” I was simultaneously embarrassed that someone with Van Wagenen’s CV would get tripped up by a hot-mic moment and struck that it was most honest and genuine that the Mets’ general manager had ever sounded. After the game was postponed, Van Wagenen issued a statement saying the idea for an hour’s delay was Wilpon’s and not Manfred’s, and apologizing to the commissioner. I don’t believe for a second that’s what actually happened (though Wilpon-Manfred isn’t exactly the Thrilla in Manila of credibility bouts), but I also thought it was an adept way to save face.

As for the Mets, they seem to have been caught off guard by Smith’s gesture on Wednesday, but more than made up for it a day later, supporting him and his efforts to call attention to the racial injustices he’s spoken about with candor and vulnerability and passion. Wednesday’s tweet may not have matched what we saw before the game, but a day later it was a perfect fit. The Mets also reached out to the Marlins to create a shared moment, with the 42-second hold an idea that came from Miguel Rojas [8]. And all involved — from the players in the press conference to Van Wagenen — spoke eloquently about the need for change in ways I wouldn’t have dreamed possible from baseball just a couple of years ago. The execution might have been both messy and Metsy, but in the end I was proud of my team.

After the game, because I can’t stop myself from touching hot stoves, I waded into the dumpster fire of replies on Twitter. While cathartically blocking people I wish weren’t Mets fans, I kept seeing the same complaint — that the teams had created a spectacle.

Well, that was the point. Not a tweet or a press release that you might wave away, but a moment where you had to pay attention because you were expecting a first pitch and instead got something you had to engage with. That’s how protest works — it disrupts routines so the gesture can’t be ignored. This is what those still complaining about Colin Kaepernick and those he’s inspired either don’t see or refuse to see — that a protest is ineffective and frankly means a lot less if it’s done when no one’s watching. The goal isn’t disrespect — Kaepernick started taking a knee after talking with a former Green Beret [9] who’d objected to his initial decision to sit during the anthem — but discomfort, as a means of generating awareness, sparking conversation and driving change. However strangely the Mets and Marlins arrived there, they certainly reached that goal.

I was also reminded that while there’s a segment of fans who reliably bray for athletes to stick to sports, sports have always been arenas in which we’re forced to confront questions about race relations, fair labor practices, freedom of association, safety standards, gender attitudes and a whole lot else besides. Sure, part of sports’ lure is that they let us put aside the cares of the day and watch a simple morality play — I want this team of obvious gentlemen to beat that team of thorough evildoers. But to treat sports only as that morality play is to be willfully blind to so much around us, and to denigrate the athletes we just got done exalting. Telling athletes to “shut up and dribble” or to “stick to sports” is to dismiss them as hired help. (For the last couple of generations they’ve been extravagantly well-paid hired help, which adds a queasy note to the proceedings without changing the underlying issue.)

Whether we like it or not, the larger world is always present — and sometimes it comes smashing through the frame. The biggest story of baseball’s 20th century was Jackie Robinson [10]‘s bravery in breaking racial barriers that had impoverished the game, and what that lonely effort cost him. The second biggest story of the century was the players’ long battle to be treated as something other than chattel and paid accordingly, a struggle that cost Curt Flood [11] dearly as its pioneer. And we haven’t seen the last such story — there are gay players on big-league rosters today, but you don’t know who any of them are, because they know stepping forward would cost them dearly. One of these days one of those players will decide they’ve had enough and speak up while still in uniform, and you better believe it will be intensely political. One of these days a female amateur athlete will show off a hellacious knuckleball or some other monetizable talent and get signed, and the furor will be both exhilarating and exhausting.

The Mets have been a part of this, because how couldn’t they be? There’s a plausible case to be made that Reggie Jackson [12] was never a Met because he dated outside his race, which was most certainly and shamefully political in the mid-1960s. In 1968, the Mets refused to play after the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, with the latter decision causing a showdown with Giants owner Horace Stoneham, who wanted the big gate that came with Bat Day. Tom Seaver [13] caught hell for having an opinion about Vietnam, and I guarantee someone told him to shut up and pitch. Rusty Staub [14] and Seaver were traded away for being union activists, with M. Donald Grant demanding to know where Seaver got the temerity to think he could join the Greenwich Country Club. That’s a small sample — hot-button political issues, charged assumptions, unfortunate prejudices and societal fears have shaped our team’s history just like it has every other team’s.

This morning, before so much happened, I read the terrific SABR biography [15] of Donn Clendenon [16]. (Whose A Met For All Seasons entry is here [17] — and will be joined by a salute to a teammate on Friday.) If you don’t know much about Clendenon besides his having been a Pirate and homering after the shoe-polish play, you should read it. A few of many highlights:

Clendenon played before free agency and taking a knee, but his baseball career and his life were shaped by both racial attitudes and hot-button politics. And you don’t have to be a fiery progressive to guess how many indignities and injustices his capsule biography must leave out. He died of leukemia in 2005, when Dom Smith was just 10 years old. I wish they could have had a conversation about the issues of both their careers — and that we might have been allowed to listen in. I think we would have been illuminated and challenged and inspired, as Mets fans and as people. Even if that conversation didn’t stick to sports.