By Edward Overend, Lead Writer
What is a flag? What does it represent and who? Why can flags emote as much as they do?
A flag in essence is just a piece of fabric with a distinctive design after all.
However, throughout history flags have often been associated with war, with power and authority and with nationalism. In modern society, nationalism is a dirty word. It’s a belief or political ideology that involves an individual identifying with, or becoming attached to, one’s nation.
Is that such a bad thing? It certainly can be, of course, when taken to extremes but surely the theory behind it is sound. A human being doesn’t like being alone. We like to belong, whether it be to a family, a group of friends or a community. We like to be able to share, whether it be joy or sorrow, anger or indifference, or in winning and losing.
The ability to share experiences with others is one of the major reasons so many of us love our sports teams so much. Who’s to say that a guy who supported the Royals, for example, might not have given up at some stage over the last thirty years had he not known he wasn’t the only poor sod who was suffering quite so badly. It’s often in down times that we find strength in numbers and, when the good periods arrive, it is often so much more meaningful to have gone through the pain of season after season of endless failure.
Royals fans have shown how proud they are of their team and their town recently with this week’s announcement of the All Star Game lineups. Whether you agree or disagree with the selections, one thing that can’t be denied is the passion of those in Kansas City and their wish to see their guys rewarded for their current success. The KC bandwagon has been the biggest story in the build up to the Midsummer Classic. The people of Kansas and Missouri want to show the rest of the country who they are. They want to put their ‘flag’ up for all to see.
Baseball loves a flag. Bryce Harper sported a flag on his bat. The Clubs proudly fly them to commemorate winning Divisions, League Championships and World Series. Baseball loves a winner. We all do.
Flags have had an interesting few weeks. The horrific events in Charleston brought about a national debate about the rights and wrongs of the Confederate flag. Stores have stopped selling them, they have ceased to be flown outside government buildings and even a seemingly innocent TV programme from the 1980s has disappeared from our screens. The golfer Bubba Watson, who owned one of the original General Lees, even felt it necessary to paint over the flag on it and replace it with the Stars and Stripes.
This weekend was the Fourth of July holiday, Independence Day, a celebration of a nation’s identity, a day to be proud to be an American.
This weekend also brought us the final of the Women’s World Cup, a final between the United States and Japan, a repeat of the final from four years previously where the Japanese team triumphed.
Sunday evening, the focus of an entire nation was on Vancouver and a team playing for everyone. Baseball ought to have been green with envy. If it wasn’t, it most certainly should have been.
Perhaps nowhere in the world are members of the women’s national team better known than in the U.S. There’s a history of success in the tournament after all. One of the most famous sporting photographs of the last twenty years is that of Brandi Chastain celebrating the penalty that won the 1999 tournament. Mia Hamm, as well as having been a great player, is married to Nomar Garciaparra. Abby Wambach and Hope Solo are often in sporting publications.
The game in terms of playing numbers is growing, MLS is booming and coverage of soccer from Europe is as extensive as it has ever been. However, to call the sport one of America’s biggest would be erroneous, certainly at present.
Yet, Sunday evening provided a chance for revenge, an opportunity to win and a reason to cheer the country on. The girls duly obliged and a nation rejoiced.
The viewing figures were staggering, on a par with the last game of the NBA finals and the two college playoff semi finals. The numbers were so far beyond anything baseball gets or even could dream of.
Yet, really thinking about it, are the figures honestly that much of a surprise? Perhaps not when one considers that the whole country was being represented and not just a town, an area or even a state. Here was an occasion for parochialism to be cast aside, rivalries to be forgotten and the whole country to unite. Here was a chance for the nation to wrap themselves in Old Glory and shout as one. And America loved every second of it.
One of the great strengths of the four major sports in the U.S. is that the leagues are undoubtedly the strongest in the world for those particular games. However, that fact might also be a major weakness. Other than football, the sports are played worldwide, not in as many countries as soccer but certainly in plenty.
A major irritant to those of us from elsewhere is the seeming audacity of America to crown the yearly victors of the sports World Champions, when in reality all they are the winners of the local league. The NBA champions don’t play Europe’s strongest and so on. There might not be much reason to play these matches, given relative strengths, but the point is certainly valid.
In basketball and hockey, there are major international competitions that can arouse the same type of fervour as Sunday did. Whilst it’s expected that the latest Dream Team crushes all before them, the country revels when they do just that. The 1980 Miracle on Ice is still celebrated as one of the great moments in U.S. Sports history, the 1972 basketball final seen as one of the great injustices.
Having a national team to get behind is fun and not just for the hardcore sports fan. It attracts all sorts, people who might otherwise have little interest in sport itself but enjoy the fact that they can identify with the players because of commonality of country.
And yet, baseball doesn’t really have anything that remotely unites America quite like the USWNT did this weekend. Sure there’s the World Baseball Classic but that is almost an afterthought, last shoehorned into a preseason with no obvious buy in from the players, certainly the American ones. Baseball has disappeared from the Olympics, maybe to return in Tokyo in 2020, but probably only temporarily because the sport happens to be popular in Japan.
A lot of baseball is about being American. There’s the national anthem, God Bless America, hot dogs, peanuts and Cracker Jacks. But that’s as far as it goes. The fan roots for his or her team. There’s nothing else.
One thing baseball does have is an All Star Game and a right old cesspit full of manure that is. Sure its traditional, a reason to get the league’s best players together and recognise them. Even that, with the ridiculously flawed voting system, could be called into question though. And what is really riding on a game the players really don’t care for? Home field advantage! Blimey!! So nothing at all really.
A massive difference between MLB today and in the past is the huge number of players in the leagues from overseas, from Cuba, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Japan, Mexico, Puerto Rico etc. Hell, let’s throw Canada in there too.
These countries have provided some of MLB’s biggest names – Jose Abreu, Felix Hernandez, Adrian Beltre, Yu Darvish and Joey Votto for example. America has some pretty talented guys too – Mike Trout, Giancarlo Stanton, Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw, Paul Goldschmidt……..
Yeah, you guessed it. How about we make the All Star Game a United States versus the Rest of the World matchup?
The point of an All Star Game is to showcase not just the best players but the game itself. The point of a showcase is to attract as many people as possible to your product. As it currently stands, baseball’s version needs a kick up the ass. It’s a tired old format with the fringe fan totally indifferent to it. Adding some stakes might just revive the old dear.
The fear might be that the American players could be the only ones that feel that they are competing for something they belong to. I don’t believe that this would be the case in the slightest. Not only would the overseas stars be rewarded by being picked for a prestigious game but they would, I feel, almost certainly be united in a desire to ‘gang up’ on the locals.
The Ryder Cup has taught us that sportsmen from different nations delight in beating America. There should be no earthly reason for an English golfer to feel an affinity with a German one, the countries being sworn enemies, particularly when it comes to soccer. However, put a bunch of US dudes in front of them and it’s like a red rag to a bull. America makes for a great villain.
Baseball is short of superstars at the moment, players nationally identified outside of the sports watching public. Maybe by winning a game for the U.S. Chris Archer or Nolan Arenado could become the next Carli Lloyd, someone the entire country can champion and celebrate.
There’s no real reason baseball shouldn’t provide a whole heap of nationally and internationally known stars, other than the seeming reluctance to promote them the way other sports do. These are fit, good-looking guys in the most part, not your pot-bellied bowler who’s got to the top by spending countless days indoors and living on burgers at the alley. Wouldn’t it be great if it was Andrew McCutchen on your screens selling Beats by Dre and not LeBron?
Becoming a national hero, rather than solely one to the people of Miller Park, must only increase their profile. For all his now obvious warts, Lance Armstrong became the phenomenon he did not because he was a cyclist. Who really cares about cycling? Armstrong became a huge star because he was an American who took on the world and won.
Why can’t baseball grab a piece of American Pie? So what if it’s jumping on the bandwagon of something popular. So what if it’s not the way things have always been done. Times change and baseball needs to find ways to change with the world not fight it.
Maybe having a game that provides an excuse to recreate the pride so obvious on Sunday might bring some new people to the sport. Maybe it doesn’t but, if once a year, the country can cheer for Team USA you bet you that interest will be pricked. Maybe it gets the nation talking baseball and maybe it’s because of the flag. That can’t be a bad thing, surely?
Ed Overend is the lead baseball writer for Call to the Bullpen. You can find him on twitter @EdwardOverend, leave a comment in the section below or join in the conversation @CTBPodor on our Facebook Page.