In 1910, a tradition in baseball was born. On April 14, William Howard Taft launched a ball onto the field from his box seat in Washington, D.C., in a game the Senators were about to play against the Philadelphia Athletics. The story goes that Walter Johnson picked up that ball, the first first pitch, which he then asked the president to sign. Since then, the relationship between the Oval Office and MLB has been a storied one.
There’s a funny thing about the White House that many people don’t realize — it’s a public building. Meaning, at any given point, you can sign up, go down to Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest and walk around the home of the commander in chief to see how things work. Is it a private tour with your name in lights? Of course not. But if you really want the experience of what it’s like to be within those walls, it’s plenty within reach.
That said, a presidential invite is a different matter. Being summoned to the White House is certainly not the same experience as asking one’s way in. Depending on whom you’ve been invited by, it can be the honor of a lifetime or the biggest insult of your professional career.
For the 2018 World Series champion Boston Red Sox, the manager took it as the latter. With good reason. Alex Cora, then a rookie manager, won Major League Baseball’s biggest prize in a season in which the man who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW repeatedly insulted Cora’s homeland, mercilessly.
“That’s our reality. You know, it’s pretty tough,” Cora told NESN about his decision to skip the team’s appearance in Washington, D.C., this week. “I’d rather not go. And, you know, just be consistent with everything.”
That everything is standing in solidarity with the people of Puerto Rico, where he lives in the offseason. For a person whose job it is to manage men, and their whereabouts and actions, in high-pressure and high-leverage situations, this had to be the easiest decision he’s made in months.
Since Hurricane Maria, the island has experienced approximately 3,000 deaths and countless dollars in damage and collective loss of infrastructure, never mind spirit. Yet, as the people soldiered on without electricity for longer than reasonably expected or even possible in this country, the insults from our elected leaders continued. They continue today.
The mayor of San Juan has taken criticism. The island’s government and politicians have been critiqued for wasting resources, while it also has been implied that they don’t deserve help at all. On a basic human rights level, it’s shameful. So for a baseball manager to show up amid that kind of struggle back home and pop hamburger boxes with POTUS is out of the question.
What is in question is how this reflects on the players who do choose to show up. Not many pro squads have made it there under Trump. I was there for one, the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2017, and it was a largely awkward but relatively stately affair. No major blunders or news, but then again this was during a time when daily press briefings just weren’t a thing the White House was doing.
Further complicating matters is that Major League Baseball jumped into its own personal hell of a culture war recently by suspending Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson a game for using the word “n—a” on the field. So when you couple the backlash from that puzzling decision with the obvious racial animus that’s shown from the current administration, you have a dicey combination, at best.
There is a school of thought that the Red Sox as a franchise should have never even engaged in this invitation, shutting down the possibility altogether of the team attending. That is, in a word, unnecessary. For one, there is the outside chance that a player we might not expect really does have the goal of saying something to the president that the player thinks could matter.
There’s also the very real matter of the fact that even though it’s possible, life circumstances won’t allow many of these players to get back to the White House in the same capacity at all, ever again. Can I understand the athlete who can look past the Oval Office and convince themselves that the office of the presidency is worth honoring? Sure. That’s exactly what white privilege is. To an extent, we’re all doing that at this point in America.
Here is the list. As of right now, not one white player is standing in solidarity with the players of color, who have almost universally declined the invitation. The franchise should never have let this happen by accepting the WH invite in the first place. pic.twitter.com/eSU4eECUU0
— Britni de la Cretaz (@britnidlc) May 6, 2019
But you can’t look past the fact that team members of color aren’t planning to show up. That isn’t happenstance or coincidence. It’s also worth noting that Cora initially made his announcement in a Puerto Rican newspaper.
Back when Taft showed off his arm for the first time in public, the league was nowhere close to integrated. Taft once held a position called Secretary of War. His positions on foreign policy equated to what historians call “dollar diplomacy.” You can ask Latin American scholars about how that went. Meanwhile, in our own White House, we probably can’t define such administration policies so cleanly. But we can take a look at the champions willing to publicly back the people in office, and the result in the league is the same: segregated.