Elephants in Pinstripes

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Oct. 28 1999 3:30 AM

Elephants in Pinstripes

Republicans trounce Democrats, take World Series!

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The kids page on George W. Bush's campaign Web site explains that "Running for president is a lot like playing baseball. ... There are two divisions in professional baseball--the American League and the National League. In politics there are two large parties, the Republicans and the Democrats." The Ames, Iowa, straw poll, the site advises, is like baseball's regular season, the primaries are the playoffs, and the general election is the World Series. (The Federal Election Commission, apparently, is the umpire.) The implicit message of all this seems to be that because Dubya was president of baseball's Texas Rangers, he certainly can be president of the United States.

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If politics is like baseball, baseball can be a lot like politics. This week's World Series, for example, is a political contest: The Bronx Bombers are, well, the Yankees--the original Republicans. This begins at the top with owner George Steinbrenner, who is the very model of the Republican businessman. Steinbrenner recoils at the socialistic demands of the poorer, small-market teams of Major League Baseball that want rich teams such as the Yankees to give them a cut of their revenue. Steinbrenner loathes this redistribution of wealth: He considers it a welfare program that rewards bad teams for not trying and robs successful teams of their hard-earned riches. Like all good Republicans, Steinbrenner's Yanks buck regulation: When other owners tried to stop Steinbrenner from signing a separate endorsement deal with Adidas, arguing it would undercut the entire league's endorsement plan, he told them to get lost. It is no accident that the Yanks wear pinstripes. The business of the Yankees is business. (Steinbrenner's Republicanism runs deep: He funneled illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon in the early '70s, winning himself a two-year suspension from baseball in the process.)

Steinbrenner may be a righty, detesting all who might intervene in his business, but he's happy to bat lefty when it comes to government aid: He has eagerly petitioned New York City to spend $500 million or more to build him a new stadium.

The Braves, by contrast, are Dixiecrats. The Yankees' most famous fan is New York City's Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani; Atlanta's No. 1 fan is left-wing icon Jane Fonda, owner Ted Turner's wife. Steinbrenner's charitable contributions go to orchestras; Turner is giving $1 billion to the United Nations. (The Braves' Web site devotes almost as much space to the team's community service projects--"Straight A" Program, the Atlanta Braves Foundation, Opportunity Through Baseball, Neighborhood Revitalization Program, Weekend of Caring, etc.--as it does to triumphs on the diamond.) Steinbrenner spent the last years of the Cold War bidding on Navy contracts for his (now defunct) shipyard. Turner spent those years organizing the Goodwill Games, his squishy plea for Soviet-American friendship.

The Braves are democratic in their recruiting efforts. They reintroduced the "open tryout" to baseball, an audition where any schlub has a chance to make the squad. They endorse an open-door immigration policy. The Braves have eight foreign players on their roster, compared to the Yankees' five. The Braves' foreign players hail from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. The Republican Yankees, by contrast, have Cuban refugee Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, the anti-communist, anti-Castro pitcher, and Hideki Irabu, who comes from wealthy, capitalist Japan.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

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T he GOP Yankees, like all good Republicans, favor an extremely strong defense: They are among the best fielding teams in the majors. The Braves, who represent former Sen. Sam Nunn's state, are equally strong on defense.

The teams mimic their parties' greed. The Yankees, like the GOP, brazenly take enormous "contributions" wherever they can be found (fans, cable TV operators, Adidas, etc.). The Yankees pull in close to $200 million a year, more than any team, and own baseball's highest payroll, $87 million in 1999. Like the GOP, they exhibit no shyness about raising and spending record amounts of cash to ensure victory. Like the Democrats, the Braves are as rapacious as their rivals, but subtler. The Braves collect tens of millions from their nationally broadcast games and strong ticket sales, and they pay lavishly for players. They raise and spend more than all but a handful of teams. As the Democratic Party claims to speak for the little guy while dunning Fortune 500 companies, so the Braves hold themselves out as a modest, small-market underdog.

The Braves and Yankees resemble the Democrats and Republicans in one more important way: In this World Series, as in most American elections, too little separates the contestants. Elections match corporatized, moneyed, and ideologically similar parties: The World Series matches corporatized, moneyed, and athletically similar teams. Both the Yankees and the Braves play highly competent, professional baseball. They rely on careful teamwork and role-playing, eschewing superstars and flash. They are impossible to dislike. (Here, again, the Yankees mirror the Republican Party. Yankee-haters used to despise Bombers such as Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and Reggie Jackson, just as the American left abominated hard-core conservatives such as Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Gradually, that conservatism has been accepted and embraced by America. So too have the Yankees, who are no longer the villains of the Bronx. Today's Yankees have assuaged the Yankeephobes with their skill and modesty.)

This similarity of style and talent between the Yankees and the Braves flattens the World Series as it flattens politics. The regular season and playoffs have eliminated more quixotic teams: The Donald Trump-like Baltimore Orioles, willing to spend endless millions to prove their incompetence; the Alan Keyesian Chicago Cubs, hopeless but mesmerizing; the Reform Partyesque Boston Red Sox, erratic, crazy, but with just enough brilliance to be dangerous. We are left with the wealthy, talented, mainstream, likable achievers: George W. Yankee and Albert Brave.

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