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Games Better if Politics Don't Intrude on Fields... Patriotism at Its Best Instinctive, Not Forced

Games Better if Politics Don't Intrude on Fields

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

July 23, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

You like seeing the flag at the ballgame? You like hearing the national anthem? You like the feelings of pride those hallowed symbols of American freedom provide?

Then you probably shouldn't be too upset that Toronto Blue Jays star Carlos Delgado chose to ignore the singing of "God Bless America" at Yankee Stadium this week.

Actually, Delgado has been doing it all season. He disappears into the runway behind the Blue Jays' dugout while his teammates line up for the song. It's his silent protest against the war in Iraq.

No one noticed Delgado's actions until he shared his anti-war feelings with the Toronto Star earlier this month. "I think it's the stupidest war ever. Who are you fighting against? You're just getting ambushed now. We have more people dead now after the war than during the war. ... It's just stupid."

That prompted a pro-Delgado column in the New York Times Wednesday that lauded him for his strength in taking a public position on a sensitive issue, which, of course, prompted boos and jeers for Delgado when the Blue Jays played the New York Yankees the past two days.

All of this was so predictable.

It was only a matter of time until an athlete picked his or her arena to protest the war. Delgado was a likely candidate. He has spoken out on political issues, notably the Navy's use of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques for weapon testing. He grew up on the Puerto Rican mainland.

The fan reaction to Delgado also was expected. It's easy to boo and jeer someone who takes a different stand, especially if that someone is an opposing player and is making $18.5 million in the final year of a $64 million contract. "Hey, ya bum, how can you be anti-American after what this country has done for you? If you don't like it here, leave!" If one fan yelled that at Delgado, hundreds probably did.

I have no problem with that. At least Yankee fans didn't throw anything at Delgado, a criminal act that many moronic fans find the courage to do when they're in a faceless mob. The boos and jeers were fine. The fans had every right to protest Delgado's protest. Isn't that what the flag stands for? The freedom to express yourself without fear of reprisal?

For that same reason, I have no problem with Delgado. His protest was personal, even respectful. He didn't go out of his way to call attention to himself or his cause by turning his back on the flag, as Manhattanville College basketball player Toni Smith did in 2003. Nor did he sit on the bench during the anthem, as Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf did in 1996. He merely chose not to take part in the George Steinbrenner-mandated "God Bless America" festivities and disappeared in that runway. He, too, has rights.

I guess my problem is with our continued insistence on mixing sports and politics.

They have no more business being wed than sports and gambling.

As long as they are, we're going to have protests from athletes and subsequent protests from fans, which detract from the games, which is why everyone gathered in the first place.

I've long maintained that the anthem at sporting events is an idea that's past its time. If it stirs emotions in you, that's fine. But it's fairly safe to say it doesn't have that effect on everyone. For many, it has became almost trivialized.

Look around tonight if you're at PNC Park for the Pirates- Cincinnati Reds game. See if some people aren't sitting through the anthem. Notice how many more are talking among themselves or -- curse modern technology -- on their annoying cell phones. Look at the players. See how many appear bored out of their minds. Tell me they're not standing at attention by rote.

Be honest here. Haven't there been times you wanted to cry because the anthem singer went on too long, no matter how beautiful the rendition? You came for a game, not a concert. Didn't you want to get to the first pitch?

Now, since 9/11, there's "God Bless America" at the ballparks. A lot of fans love it, although they and baseball survived more than 100 years without it. Others just want the game to resume. I'm sorry, that doesn't make them bad people.

It's nice to think the Steinbrenners of baseball had good intentions with "God Bless America." But, if you're cynical like me, it's easy to believe they did it more as another hollow public- relations gesture. "We might be gouging you on ticket prices, but we sure do love America!"

All of this doesn't mean I'm any less American than Steinbrenner or anyone else. It doesn't mean I'm not thankful for our fallen heroes who protected our precious freedom. And it doesn't mean I don't support our troops in Iraq, no matter how I might feel about the war.

It just means I don't need a forced moment of patriotism at a sporting event to realize this is the greatest country in the world. It means I don't need to hear the anthem or see the flag furling in the wind to know how lucky I am to be living here.

Maybe, most of all, it just means, on any given night, the ballgame is enough.

Patriotism at Its Best Instinctive, Not Forced


The San Diego Union-Tribune

July 23, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

Maybe Carlos Delgado is on to something. Maybe packaged patriotism has no place at the ballpark.

Maybe the Toronto slugger's decision to forgo ritualized renditions of "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch is an act of taste as well as an act of conscience.

Maybe we'd all be better off if expressions of nationalistic fervor occurred sporadically and unprompted instead of as orchestrated, obligatory overkill.

Few singers have sufficient range to attempt "The Star-Spangled Banner," and fewer still can be trusted to A) remember the lyrics and B) deliver them with reverence. A May Harris Interactive survey of 2,200 adults showed that 61 percent did not know all the words and only 39 percent of those who claimed to know all of the words correctly identified what line follows, "whose broad stripes and bright stars."

Evidently, we're becoming a melting pot for morons.

Worse, our national anthem has become a vehicle for the execrable experimentation of vacuous vocalists. Last week, during Fantasia Barrino's horrific screeching at baseball's All-Star Game, the anthem finally surpassed the close of an NBA playoff game to become the longest two minutes in sports.

And now that Ray Charles is no longer with us, perhaps we should follow Irving Berlin's lead and stick "God Bless America" in a trunk until the right moment and the right singer again reveal themselves. Perhaps we should save these songs for special occasions and extraordinary performers instead of exposing them to daily butchering by the likes of Roseanne Barr and Carl Lewis.

Perhaps less really is more.

Delgado's protest, of course, is political rather than musical. The Puerto Rican slugger objects to America's Iraq policy -- "the stupidest war ever," he calls it -- and he has chosen "God Bless America" to register his dissent. Though he continues to stand for both the American and Canadian national anthems, Delgado has declined to participate this season in the seventh-inning solemnity baseball introduced after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"I'm not trying to get anyone mad," Delgado told The New York Times this week. "This is my personal feeling. I don't want to draw attention to myself or go out of my way to protest. If I make the last out of the seventh inning, I'll stand there. But I'd rather be in the dugout."

Delgado did not take his position impetuously. Whether you support his stance or wish him keelhauled, Carlos Delgado has thought this through.

His history of activism includes a successful two-year campaign to pressure the U.S. government to stop naval weapons testing on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. More recently, Delgado has contributed thousands of dollars to the effort to pressure the government to address the environmental issues that arose from those tests.

Patriotism takes many forms. Sometimes, it's saluting the flag. Sometimes, it's stamping your foot when the government fails to live up to its ideals. Rarely is it enhanced by scheduled songfests or paramilitary rituals at sporting events.

Each time I witness a low-altitude military flyover at a championship game, my first instinct is not to swell with pride but to recoil in anxiety. How many training exercises must end in tragedy before the top brass decides it's an unnecessary risk to be buzzing ballparks? (Precision parachute drops, by contrast, are always entertaining and invaluable advertising.)

Historically, professional sports has promoted flag-waving as a means of providing political cover for its athletes. Declared a nonessential industry during World War I, baseball conducted its 1918 World Series through special dispensation of the War Department. Organizers demonstrated their gratitude by staging a ridiculous spectacle in which players from the Cubs and Red Sox marched in military formation with bats on their shoulders in place of rifles.

Not until 1931 was "The Star-Spangled Banner" officially designated as the national anthem. Not until the 1940s did it become a staple of the ballpark experience.

In 1969, as spectator decorum deteriorated during the national anthem, the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team began substituting a recording of Kate Smith singing "God Bless America." When statistics showed the Flyers played better after Smith's rendition, management invited her to make live appearances for key games.

The Flyers' 1974 Stanley Cup clincher followed one of Smith's performances and solidified her reputation as the team's trusty talisman. In 1987, a year after Smith's death, the Flyers unveiled a statue of the singer outside the Spectrum.

In that town, at that time, "God Bless America" was the stuff of goose bumps. In San Diego, you can experience that same sensation on those days when uniformed spectators bolt to attention at the first notes of "The Marines' Hymm."

Patriotism has its place. It's just better spontaneous than scheduled.

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