Monday , July 4 2022

Gabe Kapler: MLB’s liberal jock in America’s most conservative league | San Francisco Giants

They were teammates on the curse-busting 2004 Boston Red Sox: Curt Schilling, the brilliant and brave pitcher, and Gabe Kapler, a journeyman outfielder who boasted the physique of Charles Atlas yet was somehow never a home run threat.

Schilling became a far-right pundit-provocateur in retirement, a man as committed to owning the libs as he once was to beating the New York Yankees. The Donald Trump supporter has considered running for Congress and his Twitter feed was a predictable festival of Fox News-grade fatuity following the Uvalde massacre (because it is clear America will slide into autocracy if teenagers can’t buy AR-15s).

Kapler, meanwhile, was hired as the San Francisco Giants’ manager in late 2019 after a stint in charge of the Philadelphia Phillies. Rather than resort to memes, insults and straw-man arguments after 19 children and two teachers were killed at a Texan elementary school, he posted a 700-word essay on his blog explaining his decision to stop standing on the field for the pregame national anthem.

“I’m often struck before our games by the lack of delivery of the promise of what our national anthem represents,” he wrote. “Every time I place my hand over my heart and remove my hat, I’m participating in a self-congratulatory glorification of the ONLY country where these mass shootings take place.”

The 46-year-old added: “I am not OK with the state of this country … when you’re dissatisfied with your country, you let it be known through protest. The home of the brave should encourage this.”

His move, coming after the Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays used their social media channels last Thursday to post facts about gun violence rather than game updates, catapulted America’s most staid major sports league, and one of its most unconventional personalities, into the middle of a deeply contentious political issue.

Born in Hollywood, the tattooed and bespectacled son of a piano teacher, Kapler loves Scotch and steak and wears a broken watch, an ESPN profile noted this month. In 2014 he wrote a post on his lifestyle site extolling coconut oil as a moisturiser, mouthwash and masturbatory aid. A diversity advocate who hired MLB’s first female coach, Kapler has an image of Martin Luther King on his Twitter feed and posts as often about social justice as about balls and strikes.

Though it has spent millions of dollars lobbying Washington over the years, Major League Baseball long fancied itself above the partisan fray. “We always have tried to be apolitical,” the commissioner, Rob Manfred, claimed to reporters at the 2021 World Series.

To the frustration of some players, baseball was quiet when the former San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem in 2016, eliding the space between sports and politics and igniting a conservative backlash as then-presidential candidate Trump seized on the quarterback’s protest against police brutality and racial injustice.

It took until September 2017 before an MLB player – Bruce Maxwell, then a catcher with the Oakland A’s – took a knee in what proved to be an isolated and isolating act. The climate changed nearly three years later.

The league of Jackie Robinson drew criticism for its slow official response to the murder of George Floyd in 2020, then allowed teams and players to show support for Black Lives Matter on uniforms and the field. Kapler led the way, becoming the first manager to kneel during the anthem because he “wanted to use my platform to demonstrate my dissatisfaction with the way we’ve handled racism in our country.” Several games were postponed in August that year as a result of a multi-sport player boycott following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man from Wisconsin.

That players’ voices have grown louder is especially notable since one analysis found that the percentage of African American players in MLB has declined from 19% in 1995 to 7.2% at the start of this season. The fanbase skews whiter and older than the NBA, the league which has most strongly amplified demands for social justice.

Still, a 2019-20 Morning Consult fan survey found that the difference in political affiliations between the leading leagues was not vast, with 38% of MLB followers identifying as Democrats and 32% as Republicans – almost the same as the NFL – while 42% of NBA fans were Democrats and 26% Republicans.

MLB moved last year’s All-Star Game away from Atlanta in response to a voter-suppression law passed by Republicans in Georgia. However, team owners, who tend to be older, white billionaires, give substantially more to Republicans than Democrats, with MLB owners by far the most generous conservative donors, according to FiveThirtyEight.

Charles Johnson, the 89-year-old billionaire who is the Giants’ principal owner, has given millions of dollars to Republicans, including far-right figures such as the gun-toting Lauren Boebert. But some of the most influential progressive voices hail from the Bay Area, as might be expected given the culture and history of San Francisco.

Steve Kerr, head coach of the San Francisco-based Golden State Warriors, backed Kapler on Sunday. “I think it’s important for everybody to express their frustration, their disgust, their anger, whatever it is in any way that they deem fitting,” he told reporters.

Kerr, whose father was shot dead in Beirut in 1984, last week made an impassioned plea for action on gun violence. “I support everybody’s right to demand better from their country,” he said.

The reaction from some of Kapler’s fellow managers was qualified support, with several telling reporters they respected his right to protest – while choosing their words carefully to avoid being drawn into a left-versus-right fight and not themselves pledging to skip the anthem.

It’s a distinctly fraught subject in baseball, which sources much of its appeal and identity from rigid adherence to daily rituals and traditions and has a history of hostility towards iconoclasts and heretics, from Jim Bouton to Pete Rose.

Baseball also played an important role in forming the American habit of airing the national anthem before domestic sports fixtures. After 9/11, MLB teams supplemented the Star Spangled Banner with another exhortation to patriotic unity: God Bless America, often played during the seventh inning stretch.

Kapler wrote in his blog on Monday that he would stand for the anthem during the Giants’ Memorial Day game in Philadelphia in order to honour military members.

Chicago White Sox manager Tony La Russa, who in 2016 called Kaepernick “disrespectful” and possibly insincere, earlier said he agreed with Kapler’s stance but not his method. “I like him. And I think he’s right. But it’s not the flag. And it’s not the anthem,” he said. “You need to understand what the veterans think when they hear the anthem or see the flag. And the cost they paid and their families. And if you truly understand that, I think it’s impossible not to salute the flag and listen to the anthem.”

Perhaps La Russa should have checked the Rays’ Twitter feed last Thursday. Hurt feelings would be a worthwhile trade-off if protests help shift the status quo. “An average of 4,500 veterans die by firearm suicide every year – about 12 veterans every day,” the team noted.

Schilling also argued that Kapler’s stance is inappropriate. “Gabe is a dear friend, we disagree on a lot of our politics, that doesn’t mean I don’t still love him,” he wrote. “But as the manager of the team it’s NOT about you, ever. It’s about the players. Now you make your players answer questions about stuff that has nothing to do with winning games.“

In other words: stick to sports. Even in baseball, that’s now a firmly outmoded view, as Schilling knows to his cost. Hall of Fame voters did not judge him solely on his pitching performances. Enough were so repelled by his extremism that he was denied a place in Cooperstown. After a 107-win season, meanwhile, Kapler was named the 2021 National League manager of the year.

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