Archive for the ‘baseball’ Category

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We all have our own favorite teams, and for many of us the team name plays a huge role in our identity as a fanbase.  As a result of this, it’s a fairly safe assumption that a lot of sports fans know the history behind their team names.  From my own personal perspective, I can tell you that the Cubs received their moniker from newspaper writers at the beginning of the 20th Century (after having previously been called the White Stockings, the Colts, the Orphans, and the Remnants, among others) due to the relative youth and energy of the club at the time.  The Bears received their name while they were playing in the Cubs’ Wrigley Field, when it was agreed that football players tended to be larger than baseball players, so they took the name in honor of the relationship they had with the Cubbies.  The Blackhawks, despite what you may think, actually were not named after the Native American Chief Black Hawk, but rather were named after a military unit that the original owner of the franchise served in during World War I (which took their name from Chief Black Hawk, so I suppose that may just be splitting hairs).  And finally, the Fighting Illini were not only named after the Illiniwek nation that originally inhabited the area that is now Illinois, but also in honor of the brave Illinoisans and University of Illinois graduates who fought and died on the battlefields of Europe in WWI.

The fan-named Chicago Express, a recent example of a new team taking advantage of the internet to develop early local support.

Almost every single older team has an interesting story about exactly how they got their name.  Newer teams, however, tend to have a bit more random naming system in place, as expansion and relocation franchises often take advantage of the internet to hold name your team contests in an attempt to try to develop a relationship with their future fanbase as early as possible.  Just recently, a new minor league hockey team was founded near where I live in Hoffman Estates, IL, and they went the route of holding a team naming competition to brand their new franchise.  That contest drew thousands of responses, attracted hundreds of fans on various social media networks, and resulted in several news stories in the local media, all before their very first puck drop.  As a result, the Chicago Express will begin play in the 2011-12 ECHL season, having beaten the other three finalists, the Blizzards, Hammers, and Knights, to become the new franchise’s name.  Sadly, none of my name ideas made it to the final four, so there would be no Chicago Rhinos, Chicago Druids, or Hoffman Maneaters, among the many other suggestions I submitted, but there can be no denying that the simple act of holding such a contest was a cheap, easy, and effective way for the Express to develop initial interest in the team.  Definitely the smart idea for any new team, whether they play in the major leagues or the minors and below.

Out with the old.....

.... and in with the new.

But sometimes teams are relocated or founded in areas that actually have a very long history with the sport.  Nowhere was this more evident than in Washington, D.C in late 2004/early 2005 when the Expos abandoned Montreal.  Even though our nation’s capital had been without a Major League Baseball team for over three decades, there was an initial and very strong push for the team to become the fourth incarnation of the Washington Senators (the first folded in 1899, the second relocated to Minnesota to become the Twins in 1960, and the third relocated to Texas to become the Rangers in 1971).  In fact, the assumption that they’d take up the old Senators banner was viewed as an inevitability by many fans, so much so that when the team instead became the Nationals there was actually a decent amount of surprise at the decision.  What may not be known though is the fact that the owners of the team were actually considering three separate name ideas, all of which would have been in homage to past teams that played in D.C.  The three potential names were the Nationals, the Senators, and the Grays, and any one of these three names could have very easily become the newest member of the MLB, but politics played a huge role in the naming-decision.

The history of the Senators has already been discussed above, so I’ll instead focus on the other two possibilities.  The Nationals were actually a name that goes back hand-in-hand with the Senators to the initial foundation of baseball in Washington, D.C.  All three Senators teams were also known as the Nationals or nicknamed the “Nats” by newspapermen at points throughout their existence.  While the Senators name eventually became more popular and stayed in our public memory, the name Nationals actually has just as long and storied of a history in D.C. baseball as the Senators.

The Grays, on the other hand, have a bit more of an interesting story to tell in Washington, D.C.  The name comes from the Homestead Grays, the historic Negro League team that played in eastern Pennsylvania for almost four consecutive decades from the early 1910s to the late 1940s.  Throughout the tragic history of segregation in professional baseball, the Grays are quite possibly the second most famous Negro League team of all, behind only the fabled Kansas City Monarchs.  Despite the fact that they were based primarily on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, the Grays actually considered Washington, D.C. as a sort of home away from home, even going so far as scheduling some of their home games in the nation’s capital in the ’30s and ’40s.  As a result of this, the Grays have a strong legacy in both D.C. and Pittsburgh, and both the Pirates and the Nationals routinely wear throwback Grays uniforms whenever either team plays in the select few regular season games per year that honor the memory of the Negro Leagues.

After the Expos moved to D.C., the team quickly settled upon these three names as their potential identity moving forward.  At this point, however, politics crept into the naming decision.  Despite the Senators being the seemingly-obvious choice among many baseball fans, many D.C. residents and the city council officially objected to it, arguing that it was inappropriate to name the team after the U.S. Senate when the District of Columbia does not have representation in that body.  Despite the history of that team name in the city, the owners were unwilling to go against the city council and local groups on this issue, especially as they were in the process of getting municipal support in funding the construction of a new stadium to replace the aged RFK Memorial Stadium (which they eventually were successful in receiving, with public money funding a significant portion of the $611 million pricetag for the new Nationals Park).

The Grays moniker was the next to run into a trap, this time out of fear of not being politically correct.  Despite being the name originally supported by then-D.C. mayor Anthony A. Williams, and in spite of the fact that it would be so-named to honor the legacy of a Negro League team in a city that is majority black, the name made some residents of the city and the team uneasy for the simple fact that “gray” seemed to draw negative connotations to the American Civil War.  There was a palatable and obvious sense that naming a team in the nation’s capital after the same color that a significant number of rebel soldiers wore during a war fought primarily over the issue of slavery could be viewed as inappropriate.  For the team to financially succeed in Washington, D.C., they would need to receive the support of the district’s black population, and the franchise simply was just not sure that the “Washington Grays” would be whole-heartedly embraced by the local population and the national media with this possible stigma in mind.

So, as a result of the civic opposition to the name “Senators” (and, of course, the desire to not bite the hand the would feed them hundreds of millions of dollars for their new stadium) and their sense of unease over possibly unleashing still painful memories of the old Confederacy by naming their team the “Grays,” the new team simply fell back into their only real remaining option and went with the Nationals.  Despite the fact that the “Nats” (or, as their detractors would say, the “Gnats”), have just as long and a storied history in D.C. as any other baseball name you could imagine, it seemed like an odd and haphazard fit for the newly-relocated franchise.  The name, even in short form, seems almost awkward in the National League, and the team has never really gotten off the ground when it comes to fan support, aside from brief moments of excitement over the potential for pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg.  Obviously, I am not even trying to claim that their situation would be any different if they were the Washington Senators or the D.C. Grays….

…. but all I know is that, as an outsider looking in, as a lifelong fan of baseball, and as a student of history always fascinated by the Civil War and actively against the ideals of the Confederacy, I was definitely rooting for the Grays.

People have different interpretations as for exactly when spring begins.  Some hold to the traditional calendar date of the spring solstice.  Others don’t consider it spring until you can regularly go outside without a coat, regardless of whenever that may take place.  Still more believe that it’s not really Spring until trees begin to grow back their leaves and flowers begin to bud and bloom.  And some of the more party-oriented high school and collegiate students don’t consider the season to have officially begun until spring break rolls around.

But, for millions of baseball-loving Americans, the season really begins when spring training starts.  Even if you’re still experiencing a blizzard in the Midwest or New England, the fact that somewhere in this great country, people are playing outdoors on beautiful, sunny days in front of crowds of thousands is enough to feel that spring has finally arrived.  Every year, untold numbers of Americans from all walks of life, representing all political orientations and all possible ages descend upon Florida and Arizona to watch Major Leaguers shake off their winter rust and prepare for the arduous, 162-game marathon of a season that is so tantalizingly close.  Spring training offers all fans, from followers of dynastic titans to those that root for the habitual cellar dwellers, a chance to hope and pray for success the upcoming regular season and that maybe, just maybe, their team will win the pennant and potentially even the World Series this time around.

Cactus League Logo

Cactus League Logo

As a lifelong Cubs fan, the Cactus League has always held a special place in my heart.  While I can usually be content without football thanks to the NHL and college hoops, something always feels missing after the Super Bowl ends and there are no more major outdoor sporting events taking place.  Even though I have never had the chance to go to any spring training games in person, the thought of eventually being able to go coupled with the prospect of another season being so close has always shaken the winter doldrums from my conscious and prepared me for the remainder of the year.  The idea of being able to go watch 15 MLB teams in a single metropolitan area, all within about an hour’s drive of one another, is an enticing concept, and one that I eventually hope to be able to experience in person.

But spring training, and the Cactus League in particular, took on a much more serious note last year.  In 2010, Arizona passed what is arguably the strictest piece of anti-illegal immigration legislation in our nation’s history, prompting outcries and protest marches in cities and towns throughout the United States.  Immigrant- and minority-rights organizations decried the new law, claiming that it would lead to racial profiling, unequal rights based on the color of one’s skin, and potentially even creating a veritable apartheid system as overzealous police and citizen groups harass individuals of Hispanic and Latino descent regardless of residency status and subsequently make such people less trustworthy of civic institutions and less willing to report real problems to the appropriate authorities.  Pro-immigration reform groups dismissed such notions, claiming that attempts to paint the new law in such broad strokes was irresponsible and that it would merely allow Arizona to carry out responsibilities that the federal government was apparently unable, or unwilling, to handle.

Jared Dudley and Steve Nash wearing their Los Suns jerseys. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images, via The Epoch Times)

Arizona became quickly divided between these two camps, with businesses and civic organizations caught in the middle between potentially alienating an ever-growing segment of their local population versus angering the many conservatives in the state.  Perhaps the single most prominent protest of this new law came from the Phoenix Suns of the National Basketball Association, who, in a show of solidarity with their Hispanic and Latino fans, wore their “Los Suns” Hispanic heritage jerseys to protest the new law.  This action praised and condemned by many, both as an act of courage to show their opposition to a potentially unjust law and as an act of mere bravado and ignorance by those that supported it.  Ignoring the fact that the NBA’s Hispanic heritage jerseys have always struck me as odd (as it seems like it would make more sense to have the team names in Spanish for such uniforms, as in the Phoenix Soles, Chicago Toros, San Antonio Espuelas, and Minnesota Maderalobos instead of having Los Sun, Los Bulls, Los Spurs, and…. wait, did the Timberwolves even have Hispanic heritage jerseys?), there can be no denying that this was a particularly unusual and courageous act, regardless of one’s opinion on the legislation itself.  We rarely see any professional sports organization willing to take any side in such a controversial issue as immigration reform, and as a result of that action it elicited responses from personalities such as President Obama (who praised the act) and radio host Rush Limbaugh (who deplored it).

But while the Suns received attention for their jerseys, Major League Baseball was the organization that really attracted the lion’s share of attention from immigrant- and minority-rights groups.  Almost immediately after the law was signed into law, opponents rallied outside Wrigley Field in Chicago to protest against it.  Why, you may ask?  Because the Arizona Diamondbacks were in town.  Similar protests took place both inside and outside stadiums when the Diamondbacks were in San Diego, Houston, Atlanta, Boston, Cincinnati, Washington D.C., and elsewhere.  Wherever the Diamondbacks went, protests seemed to follow.

But the protests weren’t merely against the individual team, but against the entirety of Major League Baseball.  Multiple groups have called on Bud Selig, the commissioner of the league, to relocate the scheduled 2011 MLB All-Star Game, scheduled to take place in the Diamondbacks’ own Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona.  Despite Selig’s refusal to move the game, calls intensified in the weeks following the law’s passage to expand to all fifteen teams with spring training facilities in Arizona.  These calls were especially levied against the Chicago Cubs, the crown jewel of the Cactus League and the entirety of spring training due to the vast numbers of fans that they draw to their games.  At the time, the Cubs had brand new ownership and were in negotiations with the state to fund the construction of a new facility for them, leaving many immigrant-rights activists to hope that they could hit Arizona where it really hurt and convince the Cubs to move their spring training facilities to the Grapefruit League in Florida.  Such an outcome would have undoubtedly shaken not only the local and state governments, but local businesses that thrive on Cubs business and the Cactus League itself by losing their main draw.  In the end however, the Cubs were convinced to stay in the Cactus League, but only after the locals bent over backwards and passed a slight tax increase on the other 14 teams in the Cactus League to fund the Cubs’ new facility, much to their displeasure (especially their interleague rival White Sox, who are also in the Cactus League).

Some even protested the AriZona Beverage Company, despite being based in New York. Swing and a miss!

Like most protests, anger and resentment over the law has died down considerably over the past several months, and pressure directed against baseball has likewise simmered as well, though we should undoubtedly anticipate an uptick in attention on the matter as spring training progresses and as we get nearer to the All-Star Game in July.  But this entire situation leaves us with a very real question to ask…. why was so much of the attention directed against Major League Baseball?  Granted, the Cactus League generates a significant source of income for Arizona during February and March, but so would boycotts against a variety of products from the state of Arizona.  Why would baseball receive so much attention when the NFL is by far the most popular league in the United States, and when the NHL has its own troubled Arizona-based team that could very well be pressured into moving out of the state given their own financial difficulties?

The answer to that question is multifaceted.  While the NFL has surpassed it as the most popular sport in the United States, baseball still retains the status as our national pastime to millions of Americans.    But the answer to that question goes even deeper.  Simply put, Major League Baseball is the single most international North American professional league.  While the NFL has started to attract a number of European and Australian players, it is still overwhelmingly an American game.  The NBA is most likely the single-most popular North American league in the world, with millions of fans worldwide and and ever increasing contingent of foreign-born players filling its ranks, but the league itself is still American-dominated.  The NHL is the only sport where Americans make up a minority of its players, and there are considerable numbers of European players in the league, but the fact remains that Canadians still make up the majority of its players, so it is still North-American dominated.  When you compare those leagues with Major League Baseball though, their international reach appear absolutely limited by comparison.  Even though American-born players are still a majority, it is the players from East Asia and Latin America that are truly spreading the popularity of the game like none other and making some of the most exciting innovations in the game.

This is Ozzie Guillen when he's calm, imagine when he's really angry. (The Urban Daily)

The Latin American presence in baseball is impossible to downplay.  Baseball has, by far, the largest active makeup of Latin American players of any major sport in North America, and as a result its connection to Arizona’s immigration law were particularly felt.  Huge swaths of Latin America remain one of the few locations in the world where baseball remains the world’s most popular sport, even ahead of soccer and basketball.  MLB teams have long relied on scouring the Caribbean, Central America, and South America for talent to add to their minor league teams and their major league rosters.  Fully a quarter of all current Major League Baseball players are foreign-born, of which the vast majority are from Latin America.  With half of all MLB teams having spring training facilities in Arizona, the potential impact of the law on these players was especially worrisome to the MLB Players Association.  Ozzie Guillen, the firebrand manager of the Chicago White Sox, wasted no time to express his displeasure of the new law and his concern over the impact that it could have on him, his family, and his players.  He has already announced that he will not attend the 2011 All-Star Game in protest of the law, and has claimed to spoken with a number of other Latino players and officials about their concerns with the law.  His concerns about the potential safety and well-being of Latin0 and Hispanic players, especially those that speak exclusively in Spanish or in heavily-broken English, were perhaps the most noticeably vocal and poignant criticisms that came from the world of professional sports outside the Phoenix Suns choice of jerseys.

While the protests have simmered down and the opposition to the new law seems to have mostly stalled, the protests to the new law and the focus that it brought on Major League Baseball remains a timely and important example of how the world of sports and politics really can intertwine.  Just a year ago, who could’ve possibly imagined that baseball would, at least for a brief moment, become one of the main battlegrounds in the realm of immigration reform?