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The Washington Nationals are promoting their July 24 game against the Houston Astros as Armed Forces Day. Discount tickets for the game are being sold through local defense contractors, and there will be video and musical tributes to the military before and during the contest. Spectators will be told to stand and take off their hats before a performance of “God Bless America” is blared over the PA, in the middle of the seventh inning.
In other words, it’ll be just another Sunday at RFK Stadium.
From Opening Day on, nationalism has been hawked at the old ballyard more aggressively than hot dogs or Dippin’ Dots. In the days leading up to the Nationals’ debut, there were reports that the team had reached a sponsorship deal with the National Guard for naming rights to its home field. That agreement, which would have been the first of its kind between a big-league pro sports team and the U.S. military, fell through.
But as an organization, the Nationals have done more than their share to promote the military– baseball complex.
On June 27, for example, the Nationals played the Toronto Blue Jays on something billed as Military Appreciation Night, which featured Operation Tribute to Freedom, a pregame ceremony in which 10 recruits were sworn in as members of the U.S. Army. President Bush was in the stadium with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
A week later, the team signed a deal with the Pentagon to become the first sports franchise to push America Supports You, a program that, according to the Department of Defense’s press release, is designed to “give visibility to citizens across the country as they show their support and appreciation to America’s Armed Forces.” The alliance was jointly announced by team management and government officials on July 4, before a home game with the Mets. While waiting for the first pitch of that contest, fans at RFK sat through a defense-department-produced video featuring Nationals players promoting America Supports You.
And “God Bless America” is played at RFK not only on Sundays—as in every other MLB stadium in the country—but also, says Nationals spokesperson Chartese Berry, “during games when we’re honoring the military.” The playing of “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch on the Christian sabbath is “league-mandated,” Berry says, but it was the Nationals’ decision to put the jingo jangle on the playlist for the military dates.
The addition of a second pro-American jingle (the first being the National Anthem, of course) into the sporting mainstream is a symptom of the sports world’s shift toward the political right, says Dave Zirin, a sportswriter from Takoma Park, Md. Zirin is the author of What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States, a collection of essays on the historical links between social movements and sports in this country.
“This is the only country that makes this demand of its sports fans,” says Zirin of pauses for the anthem and “God Bless America.” “Sports can produce a George Steinbrenner and a Muhammad Ali, but these days it seems like the George Steinbrenners are in control. The people who stand with Muhammad Ali feel cowed to this voice of God saying, ‘All rise and support the flag!’ And it’s only sports. This is entertainment, but if I go see Batman…or any of the other summer movies, they’re not going to stop the movie in the middle and tell me to stand and salute.”
Baseball-stadium soundtracks don’t provide the only evidence of the surge in flag-waving and military promotion in American sports. On NASCAR’s Nextel Cup circuit, cars sponsored by the National Guard and U.S. Army run side by side with those shilling Viagra and laundry detergent. And, as if the Ryder Cup wasn’t small-minded enough—only Americans would believe European golfers really get a charge out of representing their continent—golf will showcase more of its own nationalistic flair in September at the President’s Cup at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, Va. A squad of U.S. golfers will putt for the dignity and honor of all Americans against a team representing the rest of the world.
But nobody pushes the red, white, and blue like baseball. The boys of summer and nationalism are old bedfellows. In 1907, a commission charged with finding the roots of the sport declared that Abner Doubleday of Cooperstown, N.Y., was baseball’s inventor. Doubleday, we now know, had nothing to do with the game’s conception. But he was a West Point grad and the son of a congressman, and his résumé showed him commanding Union troops at Antietam and Gettysburg, so he made a fine founding father for a sport that was vying to become the great American pastime.
As baseball has become perhaps the most international of this country’s major sports leagues, it has only waved the flag harder. The game lost one jingoist platform last week when the International Olympic Committee jettisoned the sport as of 2012. But it picked up another almost immediately when MLB Commissioner Bud Selig declared his support for the fledgling World Baseball Classic, a sort of World Cup of baseball that will debut next spring. During the All-Star break, Selig said he expected all major-league clubs to allow their players to play in the Classic.
Any thoughts that nationalistic fervor won’t be used to promote the World Baseball Classic were rendered moot shortly after Alex Rodriguez, a U.S. citizen, hinted that he might play for the Dominican Republic, where his parents were born. According to Newsday reports, A-Rod changed his mind when Selig announced that such decisions won’t be left up to the players.
And to spice up the home-run derby held the night before the All-Star Game, a field of eight contestants from eight countries was assembled, with each batter sporting his native nation’s flag on his jersey. (Severna Park product Mark Teixeira swung for us.) The buzz surrounding the All-Star Game itself was that to boost TV ratings, the commissioner’s office was considering a switch from the traditional American League vs. National League format, which has been used since the game’s inception in 1933, to a President’s Cup– like scheme, in which a team of U.S. players would face a team of everybody else.
Randall Balmer, who heads the religion department at Columbia University, admits being scared by baseball’s nationalistic bent. Balmer’s fright comes from his attempt to leave a Yankees home game in the middle of the seventh inning last summer.
“An announcement was made over the public-address system about ‘God Bless America,’ and all of a sudden these yellow-shirted security guards were holding chains so you couldn’t move,” Balmer says. “I couldn’t believe what was going on. I was utterly stunned. I politely said, ‘Excuse me,’ to a security guard to go around the chains, but he wouldn’t budge and held his ground. If you want to sing, that’s fine. But to be compelled to pay obeisance to this nationalistic deity—I find that fascist. The right of dissent and freedom from coercion is part of our birthright in a democracy, and this is coercion. What was even more disturbing to me: Nobody seems upset that this goes on. It’s not even an issue, and I find that frightening.”—Dave McKenna
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Max Kornell.