To a baseball fan, the month of March is all about hope. Each team sits first (or last, if you’re a pessimist) in the standings: zero wins, zero losses.
Fans herald their team’s hopeful rookies and the resurgence of the veterans: Has Angels first baseman Albert Pujols truly healed and what about outfielder Josh Hamilton’s fragility? Even hyperbole fails, though, when you consider the talents of the Angels’ young center fielder Mike Trout.
This column comes to you from spring training in Arizona’s Cactus League, where, for the past several years, I’ve co-chaired the academic baseball conference known as NINE.
The inspiration for NINE came from Bill Kirwin, a professor of Social Policy at the University of Calgary in Edmonton, who accurately reasoned that baseball scholars, authors, and serious fans, particularly from the snowy northern and eastern parts of the continent, would want to gather to present and exchange ideas about the game’s history in sunny Arizona, enticed further by some “field research” (attending a couple of ball games). The Boston-bred Kirwin, being a lifelong Red Sox fan, well understood the vagaries of hope; and I remember the sense of rightness I felt when, in the last months of his life, the Red Sox won the 2007 World Series.
Twenty-one years after Bill’s great idea, we still gather to examine, through baseball, aspects of American culture, history, and politics – from labor, gender and racial issues to immigration and U.S. foreign policy.
This year’s conference featured various takes on the racism surrounding Jackie Robinson’s breaking of Major League Baseball’s color line in 1947: a critique on the film “42,” Hollywood’s version of Jackie Robinson’s legacy, as well as “Dixie Walker’s America: 1947,” a caution against the use of presentism (judging the mores of the past by today’s).
Another intriguing subject to me, given the Angels’ negotiations with the City of Anaheim over the lease at Angel Stadium, is the political complexities between local government and Organized Baseball. Over the last two decades I’ve seen it unfold in Phoenix’s Valley of the Sun, as one after another city has acquiesced to the clubs’ demands for ever-grander ballparks.
Should a city resist, the club will simply move on to a more amenable locale. The Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority funds between half to two-thirds of the cost of these ballparks, but the money comes mostly from car rental and hotel bed taxes – which includes us baseball-smitten tourists. Let’s hope that the City of Anaheim and the club can reach an agreement.
Sometimes it all does work out well. NINE’s leadoff speaker was Janet Marie Smith, vice-president of planning and development for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Smith, an architect and urban planner, has a passion for the preservation of what some fans call “green cathedrals,” our ballparks. During the early 1990s, she was instrumental in the design of Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, which set a precedent and a high benchmark for the building of downtown major-league ballparks throughout the country. She also worked on the renovation of Boston’s beloved Fenway, MLB’s oldest ballpark.
She is now engaged in renovations to Dodger Stadium, working closely with the City of Los Angeles and the owners of the Dodgers to get it right. Each of these ballparks has a profound effect upon the “sense of place” that contributes to the health of an urban environment. Much of Smith’s work involves the political and demonstrates that when factions are willing to work together, much can be accomplished.
In our current wintry political climate, I find that hopeful. Even so, I have my limits: To the NINE colleague who kept chirping about the Angels’ great prospects this season, I reply, “I refuse to get sucked into optimism like I did the last couple of years. Show me the wins.”
The writer can be reached at [email protected].