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On the display of divisive iconography in our ballparks

Jeff Curry

Wednesday a few hours apart, there were two separate bits of news. One of them I applauded (via Twitter, of course) and the other I did not. Would you care to guess which was which?

First, a note from Derek Goold last Sunday:

Several times this season the Cardinals starter has gone to the mound to find subtle symbols scratched on its backside, near the rubber spikes used to scrub off dirt. "They’ve been there every time for me," ace Adam Wainwright said. To the left of the spikes is a Christian cross and just below it is a looped figure. It’s a "6" for Stan Musial, the Cardinals great who died in January. A member of the grounds crew puts the symbols on the mound for most home games.

Somehow, nobody really seemed to notice that until Wednesday. Not that I saw, anyway.

And then a few hours later after I saw the above, I saw this:

While the Mariners play against the Chicago Cubs on Sunday June 30, Safeco Field will fly the rainbow Pride flag, making Major League Baseball history as the first MLB Team to publicly fly the Pride flag at a game. Their second game against the Cubs coincides with the 39th annual Seattle Pride Parade, which is celebrating "Equality: Passed, Present & Future."

"Rebecca Hale, Director of Public Information for the Mariners, told Seattle Out & Proud this morning, "We're a part of this community. Our fans are a reflection of our community. We thought this was an appropriate gesture on a day that is very meaningful to the LGBT community."

Nearly all of you have already figured out which of those stories I applauded, and which I didn't. Here's my immediate reaction to the second story, followed by someone else's immediate response:

I felt compelled to respond quickly, while at the same time knowing I shouldn't ...

Even as I was sending that missive off to the server farms, I knew I hadn't thought about it enough. I knew that I wouldn't have a great answer to ... well, to something like this:

I could have explained it, maybe. Maybe even in 140 characters. But maybe not. Which is basically what I told Brian Jenner. To which he responded,

Which set my noggin to working again, if not particularly hard. That didn't happen until I saw this:

Ah, and now we've arrived at the unsettling possibility: My responses to these stories was based not on principles, but preferences and prejudices. This isn't about right and wrong, but about who can yell the loudest. Everything, as Chuck Tanner once described baseball, is just an opinion.

Well, no. I don't believe that both are about personal beliefs. It's obvious that my personal beliefs are involved, but my personal beliefs are involved in every thought that crosses my mind. Leaving aside my personal beliefs, let's instead compare these two stories and decide if they deserve the same responses, on their merits.

Are you standing by your "one is exclusive, one is inclusive" argument?
No, not exactly.

I will argue that a Christian symbol on the mound excludes non-Christians, whether watching on television or actually pitching on that mound. I will argue, on those grounds alone, that a religious symbol of any sort has absolutely no place on a baseball field or any other sporting grounds. Religion is inherently divisive. Millions of people have died, proving that. I believe that sports should bring us together, and there are few things, historically, that are more effective than religion at driving us apart.

But anything can be exclusive, right? While there will undoubtedly be many thousands of people heartened by the Mariners' Pride flag, at least some hundreds watching from the stands or on television will feel alienated, some of them angry. Just as someone has been annoyed by the U.S. flag or "God Bless America" or the kiss-cam.

So there's no difference between the cross on the mound and the Gay Pride flag?
I didn't say that. Here's one big difference: Christianity is a belief, while one's sexual/romantic preferences are largely a matter of biology. While there's some evidence that humans are predisposed to believe in supernatural explanations for natural events, there's no evidence that a baby born in the Australian Outback and raised by dingos will somehow yearn for the same god worshiped by Mel Gibson.

Sexual preferences, or at least the tendency toward one, seem to be more nature than nurture:

The prevailing scientific view of the fundamental nature of homosexuality has undergone a significant evolution in the last several decades. Where once the scientific and medical establishment maintained an unqualified belief that homosexuality was a form of psychological deviance, today a solid majority of psychiatrists and psychologists themselves believe in biological theories (genes, brain, prenatal chemistry) over environmental or psychological theories.

Okay, but what does that difference have to do with public displays?
Good question. Maybe nothing. I did want to point out that difference in case anybody was wondering.

So we're back where we started?
I hope not. Maybe ballparks should welcome everyone while offending no one. Nobody was offended when the Yankees didn't play "God Bless America" during every seventh-inning stretch, while some are now offended -- or at least annoyed -- when the Yankees do play it. So isn't that a net loss?

Ah, but maybe something important is gained. In the case of "God Bless America", I have no idea what that might be. But in the case of Jackie Robinson's retired number or a Gay Pride flag, maybe something is gained. Maybe there's a message worth sending: "Hey, we get it. We're not going to do much, but we will offer this small token of support for people who have met with terrible prejudice for doing nothing more than being the people they were born to be."

For many years, a number of teams flew, all season long, a black-as-death POW-MIA flag. Initially, those flags served mainly to promote the canard that shifty Red Communists were keeping Americans caged in dungeons somewhere. Of course it's not true, hasn't been true for 40 years. Those flags, because they've been around for so long, have now come to represent something else. But their original display was a terrible sort of pandering, sewing anger and prejudice that didn't belong anywhere near a ballpark. No good was ever going to come of it.

I don't see any good coming of putting religious symbols on our baseball fields, while I can imagine ill feelings and alienation. As Big League Stew's David Brown wrote:

Hypothetically going beyond the legal boundaries of church and state, it's awfully presumptuous and ignorant of the Cardinals to draw any religious symbol on the mound. It's not really their mound, or anybody's mound, after all. Jews use that mound. Muslims (might) use that mound. Hindus and Sikhs. Hypothetically, Zoroastrians would use that mound. Diests use that mound. People with no god use that mound. Should the Cardinals really have to be reminded that not everyone is their religion?

Wear a cross around your neck. Hang one in the dugout — maybe — if nobody on the team objects. But the mound is neutral turf and should remain as such.

When it comes to divisive iconography in ballparks, the bar should be set extraordinarily high. To clear that bar, there should be the genuine likelihood of doing some real good in the world, of helping someone through difficult times.

Christians in these United States, don't need a great deal of help. Even in Godless Oregon, "The Pledge of Allegiance" (to the Flag, under God) is overwhelmingly popular. Christians have done well in this country, and continue doing extraordinarily well. Our Founding Fathers' preferred boundaries between church and state are violated every day in thousands of ways.

But that's not my point. My point is that dropping a religious symbol into the middle of a baseball game, as a matter of policy -- and clearly, the Cardinals have established a policy here -- does not clear the bar, doesn't come close to clearing the bar. It's a purely selfish act, designed to assuage the personal feelings of a few pitchers and their manager. And that's not good enough.

But flying, for one day, a flag that welcomes a group of people who have been spurned, shamed, beaten, and occasionally killed for nothing worse than being themselves ... this would seem to clear that bar.

From where I view the world, anyway.