Friday, September 17, 2004

Blue States, Red Sox, and Black and White Pinstripes

Yankee Ingenuity and The Secret Strategy for Victory for the Kerry Campaign

[Editorial note: this article also appeared on The Diamond Angle under my byline there as the Baseball Crank.]

John Kerry started out the week of the Democratic National Convention in Boston with a surprise unannounced visit to the Boston Red Sox New York Yankees game at Fenway Park on Sunday, July 25th. Kerry threw out the first pitch of the game like, well...a girly man. His fastball proved to be a wild changeup that took two hops and then rolled to the catcher.

At the time, the Red Sox were floundering and the Yankees were widely believed to have already run away with the AL East division. The Red Sox outslugged the Yankees to win 9-6. Bucking the traditional middle-innings exit favored by most politicians, Kerry stayed until the end of the game.

The Boston Red Sox, the team nearly synonymous with coming oh-so-close and then blowing it, have since gone 30-10 and pulled within a series victory of overtaking the Yankees. The team the President once owned, the Texas Rangers, in the same interval has passed from a playoff contender to a third-place non-entity in the AL West race. Kerry, if you want to take extremes in the polls, has dropped nearly 20 points in the polls relative to President Bush. There are two theories of linkage of the inverse fortunes of the Kerry campaign and the Red Sox since late July. One is it's a coincidence. The other is a manifestation of the phenomenon my Dad (a Washington Senators fan) calls Anti-Reverse Negative Karma: Kerry has acquired The Curse.

There's a chain of connection between the eternal Yankees-Red Sox struggle and the Bush-Kerry contest that's easier to make than linking Swift Boat Veterans for Truth with Karl Rove. The Curse of the Bambino is the well-known superstition of New Englanders, gleefully encouraged by opposing fans, that the Red Sox are fated to never again win the World Series after their feckless owner, Harry Frazee, sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees to finance a Broadway Show.

In 1947, George Herbert Walker Bush, then Captain of the Yale baseball nine, accepted on behalf of the university an autographed copy of the autobiography "The Babe Ruth Story" from the author himself on the pitcher's mound at Yale Field. (Reports that John Kerry's father once saw "No No Nanette" have not been confirmed.) Since Ruth was sold, there have been 26 New York Yankee World's Championships and two Bush Presidencies. 'Nuff Ced, as the Red Sox Royal Rooters liked to say back when Boston owned Ruth and won championships.

Kerry, need it be said, risks blowing a chance at winning his own crown faster than you can say Bucky Bleeping Dent.

The winning strategy for the Kerry campaign: embrace the Red Sox. Claim a Red Sox victory over the Yankees as a sign of Kerry being the Comeback kid, that fate can be defeated, and that hard work and dedication can triumph over the entrenched money special interests.

This is not a suggestion on my part of baseball-as-metaphor. This is as real as any politics can be said to be real.

The President, like the Yankees, is a master of using political symbols that resonate with average Americans. His first public appearance after 9/11 was to throw out the first ball at Yankee Stadium (he threw a hard strike down the middle of the zone). His favorite surrogate for strength in the crisis on 9/11 is former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, famous Yankee fan who still shows up at games wearing NYPD baseball hats with a Yankee emblem crammed alongside.

The Yankees have embraced the symbolism of 9/11 to a degree that would make even Ed Gillespie blush. The Yankees continue to force fans to stand for the playing of "America" during the seventh inning stretch for every game. Carlos Delgado, first baseman for the Toronto Blue Jays, turns his back on the song as an anti-Iraq war protest, an act which got him booed at Yankee Stadium (not to conflate 9/11 with Iraq or anything). The Yankees have made a great show of periodic appearances by the bald eagle "Challenger" (no comments on naming a bird after an exploded space shuttle, please), who, in a demonstration of the meaning of freedom, is forced to fly from centerfield back into captivity at home plate before selected Yankee games.

The Yankees themselves are not exactly out of contention when it comes to Republican politics. Yankee owner George Steinbrenner has a felony rap sheet for making illegal contributions to the 1972 Nixon campaign. Steinbrenner is a Tampa Bay resident, but can vote legally there since he was pardoned by President Ronald Reagan. And he can donate to federal elections again, including the maximum to the Bush campaign this year.

Nor are the Yankees alone among the baseball establishment in supporting the President's re-election. The Associated Press recently released a compilation of reports on contributions made by individuals associated with Major League Baseball. Not surprisingly, the ranks of Major League owners features many Bush "Pioneers" and "Rangers", champion designations of fund-raising, and over a dozen owners. (We're sure this has nothing to do with Major League Baseball's unique, Supreme-Court-enforced, exemption from federal anti-trust laws. As sure as we are that Abner Doubleday invented the game in 1839 in Cooperstown.) Kerry received contributions from only three part-owners of baseball teams, including Tom Werner of the Red Sox.

Beyond the practical support from baseball and the Yankees, it's the symbolism that the Bush campaign has capitalized on. You can bet that if the Yankees make the World Series -- which is scheduled to finish up only days before the November election -- President Bush will be throwing out the ball at the first Yankee home game. What better way to wrap up a traditional American symbol, a reminder of the country's resiliency after 9/11, and the bandwagon effect of being associated with a winning dynasty?

That's why my suggestion to the Kerry campaign is to reduce the number of sound bites about 'Wrong Choices' and start showing up for the Red Sox-Yankees game wearing full red team regalia. He can utter pronouncements like, "Come November, we're all going to be in Red States -- Red Sox States!" Should the Red Sox catch lightning in a bottle -- and the signs are good that this might indeed be the year -- there's no better coat-tails to ride than a club constantly belittled for losing that finally pulls out the big one.

Politics, it is often said, has been reduced to horse-race reporting, and modern campaigns veer from issues to meaningless negative attacks. If there's one thing an 18-55 year old male undecided voter in this country understands, it's not the Medicare system, it's sports metaphors. The Yankees are old and tired and playing on fumes, despite having a $200 million payroll. The Red Sox are playing loose, having fun, and refusing to believe in destiny or dynasties. If Kerry makes a grandstand play - literally - and the Red Sox cooperate by winning, it could be enough to swing him the election.

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