By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) What are you afraid of? Me, I have issues with intimacy and get petrified by spiders larger than a pea.
Our phobias can be silly and weird to one another unless we share them. Then they’re very serious and not to be criticized and must be justified. This is scary stuff that often shake us deeply, and when we come across fellow frightened travelers — particularly famous ones whose celebrity, of course, lends more credence to our very legitimate fear — we cluster up with them and gain strength in numbers in order to ward off the evil that’s determined to kill us all.
Lately — since, oh, November, let’s say — the collective fear in a lot of Americans of things perceived to be “un-American” has been clustering like a pulsating tumor. The overcompensation people often use to mask their fears has manifested lately in a lot of serious, tangible ways. Hate crimes spiked immediately following the presidential election and, while not as frequent since the new year, still occur and on a level of obviousness in the perpetrators having some sort of loyalty to the fallacy of “making America great again,” where “great” is very coded.
It could be recency bias, but a culture of greater comfortability in expressing toxic thoughts seems greater sown lately, like when I watch a Chicagoan in the middle of downtown, comfortable enough in his own sense of superiority, scream heinous things at a black man, spit on him and then punch out a random homeless person. ProPublica’s “Documenting Hate” project is attempting to establish a reliable database of American instances of hate — including acts of blatant intimidation that may not involve or result in legal action — because there isn’t one. The New York Times runs a series “This Week in Hate,” and multiple academic studies have been done on the rise in people-phobias in America, such as Georgetown’s examination of anti-Muslim violence that still remains higher than pre-9/11 levels.
But fear of the “un-American” doesn’t only manifest itself in physical violence or slurs. In fact, that stuff is the occasional exploding cysts when the ingrown hairs and dirt of fear lurk more commonly (and quietly acceptable) under the American dermis. Tuesday showed two instances of that fear popping up boil-like above the surface. Baseball Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt was asked if Philadelphia Phillies could build around a player like center fielder Odubel Herrera.
“My honest answer to that would be no because of a couple of things,” Schmidt told the 94WIP Morning Show. “First of all, it’s a language barrier. Because of that, I think he can’t be a guy that would sort of sit in a circle with four, five American players and talk about the game. Or try and learn about the game or discuss the inner workings of the game. Or come over to a guy and say, ‘Man, you gotta run that ball out.’ Just can’t be — because of the language barrier — that kind of a player.”
Schmidt added that Herrera’s “exuberance” and doing “things that sort of irk the other team if you will, and you know what that is” as further evidence for his thesis, codes for “playing the game the right way” nonsense that infests baseball and has clear racial undertones. Later that evening, Boston Red Sox color commentator Jerry Remy took issue with New York Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka using a translator during mound visits by coaches.
If you’re not afraid of foreigners, both Schmidt’s and Remy’s comments need no explanation of their problematics. Yet both men immediately had tumors of support grow around them by fellow xenophobes attempting to explain in whatever wrong nationalistic terms their limited vocabularies would allow.
Schmidt later in the day issued a statement through the Phillies.
“It’s been made known to me that my answer on a radio interview this morning to the question, ‘Can the Phillies build a team around Odubel Herrera?’ was disrespectful to Herrera and Latin players in general,” he said. “I’m very sorry that this misrepresentation of my answer occurred and may have offended someone. I assure everyone I had no intention of that. Odubel is a dynamo on the field, and as he becomes more comfortable with the language, his leadership skills will improve, and no doubt he will be a centerpiece in the Phillies future.”
I can’t call that an apology because it isn’t one. “It’s been made known to me” means that “smarter people have told me something I don’t believe.” “This misrepresentation of my answer” means Schmidt is shifting blame off himself, even in a situation of radio and not print. “Sorry that” it “may have offended someone” means he’s not actually sorry about the words he used. To top it off, he still goes back to baseball leadership = English language skills.
Asked after Tuesday’s game about his comments, Remy said, “I’ve got no comment on that. Really.”
Schmidt’s team-written non-apology and Remy’s avoiding the subject afterward are both indications of their phobias. And as phobias are irrational in nature, they can’t be rationally justified. I fear spiders because of misinformation about them, and if I’m afraid of something, it has control over me. I have to reclaim control by either crushing the spider or avoiding it at all costs.
Baseball players (and then all people) and issues with speaking English are Schmidt’s and Remy’s spiders, almost represented in some early 20th c. political cartoon of Lady Liberty caught in some toxic web. Schmidt and Remy fear people who don’t speak English because if they can’t understand what someone is saying, Schmidt and Remy don’t have control over the situation. Either then crush (get rid of an interpreter) or avoid (dismiss/prevent subjective leadership possibilities).
This all then in typical fashion ignores an example like White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu, a team leader who uses a translator in English interviews, or even players right in front of Schmidt’s face.
Herrera is one 11 Latino players in Phillies’ clubhouse. Two of them – fellow Venezuelans Andres Blanco and Freddy Galvis – are among the team’s primary leaders.
In terms of leadership, yes, Herrera isn’t someone a team should build around in that regard. But it has nothing to do with the language he speaks and everything to do with his personality. Herrera has struggled to be accountable off the field at times, such as with timeliness, through his first three seasons with the Phillies.
We consider baseball to be a metaphor for America in a lot of ways, most of them convenient. But the idea of “Americanness” and its symbols, be they flags or monuments or sports, are all some frightened people have and damned if they’re going to relinquish it. Be it a Richard Spencer on the extreme or a Schmidt or Remy on a sports-justified “No, but what I mean is” folksier, less-articulate covert end.
When Orioles outfielder Adam Jones said “Baseball is a white man’s sport” last September, it was in the context of the disposability of the few African-Americans in Major League Baseball, but he would probably agree his statement applies beyond that. “Speak English” doesn’t get thrown around the consumption of the NBA or NHL — two extremely global sports. Hockey is predominantly white in personnel, though, and basketball has been the most progressive of the four major American sports for a while and is populated by a lot of people well aware of loaded criticisms in this country of speech and expression of Americans of color — “Speak English” always means more than just speaking English. The demand or at least doing so to be considered “valid” is requiring assimilation to the supremacy.
“Baseball language,” as Remy put it? Ask him if he knows what xFIP is. That would be baseball language to the people in charge of constructing the Red Sox. As “baseball language” — what Remy came up with after his “uh…” as he grasped for anything he thought wouldn’t sound bigoted — stands for “my comfortable type of English,” Remy is just more euphemistic than the pigs who’ll whine “Speak English!” directly at others while not being able to pass one of the ninth-grade grammar exams I give.
Despite being what Jones accurately described it as, baseball is inching along toward really being a metaphor for America. That is, very multi-cultural and not restricted to the acceptable standards of the regressive Old School.
This is the greatest of ignorant fears of some. But it won’t be crushed or avoided, foolish as they may look trying to rid the world of their own spiders. Unless you share in that silly fear.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.