Monday, March 19, 2007

The Whiteness of Willie Bloomquist

Willie Bloomquist is a utility player for the Seattle Mariners. He is also terrible. It's no fault of his own. He works hard. He's fairly fast. He just does not have the talent to be a major league baseball player. Despite this blindingly obvious fact, the Mariners keep him on the roster and give him far too much playing time. While his suckiness causes me great suffering, that is not the point of this post. Again, it's not his fault. What I am interested in is why Bloomquist is so popular with the team's fans.

Throughout his tenure with the Mariners, now stretching back to a late-season callup in 2002, Seattle fans have loved this guy. Many of the team's more thoughtful fans have wondered why this is so. There is a clear reason for this: Willie Bloomquist is white. Not only that, but Bloomquist exudes characteristics that reinforce what many fans believe are core to their identity as whites: hard-working, shows up every day, overcomes an overall lack of talent to make the most of what he has, pulls himself up by his bootstraps, etc.
A bit of evidence here. Compare fans' reactions to Bloomquist and the vastly superior Randy Winn. Winn, an outfielder for the Mariners until a couple of years ago, is a solid player. He's now overpaid by the Giants, but he is a very functional outfielder. He is a decent defender in left, he runs well, he hits for a bit of power and good enough average. In other words, he is an average (or perhaps just below average) starting player in the major leagues. Yet fans could not have cared less about Winn. In fact, they'd often grouse about how Winn wasn't good enough. It should also be said that Randy Winn is black. Winn also plays hard. He also runs well. He also shows up every day and gives his all. Yet despite these characteristics, Mariners' fans never identified with him. Nor have they identified strongly with other excellent African-American players on the team, including Mike Cameron. I attended 3 Mariners spring training games last week. Bloomquist started in all 3. The fans cheered loudly every time he came to the plate. As for immensely better players like Kenji Johjima, Adrian Beltre, or even Felix Hernandez, the fans seemed indifferent. The only player who received comparable applause was Ichiro, who is the most exciting player in baseball. Willie Bloomquist is approximately the 500th most exciting player in baseball.
Some readers might complain that the Bloomquist phenomena is not exclusively about race. Perhaps. He is after all a local boy and the Mariners certainly love their local boys. But how often do local fans identify as strongly with locally-born black players as they do with white? It may not be all about race, but it is in part. It comes down to this: many white fans almost never identify with non-white players. They may really love their black or Latin players, but they don't identify with them. They don't project the same kind of relationship upon non-white players. This is particularly true among adult fans. As children, we seem to look at the best players as heroes, but as adults we seem to identify with the players most like us. Another example of this is a big white guy from Oregon the Mariners had a few years ago: Bucky Jacobsen. Jacobsen was a big palooka who could hit home runs and that is all. He had a big season at AAA Tacoma and then got a call-up to Seattle. People LOVED this guy. My Dad, who is only a marginal baseball fan, called me up to talk about him. Ignoring the fact that he was not a major league player, my Dad was enamored with this guy. Why? Again, because he had characteristics that white guys loved: he was big and kind of out of shape, he had something of a redneck persona (he was after all from Pendleton), and there was a perception that he worked hard. There have been hundreds of black and Latino players over the years with the same or better skills than Jacobsen. Many of them have played for Seattle. But no one cared about them.
The most obvious example of this phenomena is Cal Ripken. Ripken was the ultimate white player. He showed up for work everyday, even when he should not have. He was well-behaved and well-spoken. He screamed "Conservative Values." White people absolutely loved Cal Ripken and the Streak. It was all about the streak. White, middle-class men, identified with Ripken not because of his substantial, Hall-of-Fame talent, but because he showed up to work every day, a characteristic they want to embody themselves. There are lots of Hall of Famers out there, many of whom are white. But you didn't see any outpouring of love for Wade Boggs, Robin Yount, or Paul Molitor. No, Ripken was loved because he oozed whiteness out of every pore in his exceptionally talented body. The fact that he hurt his team in later years because he insisted on playing didn't matter--he showed up to work every day, by God, and we loved him for it.
All of this relates back to baseball's race problem. Trend recently posted on this issue. To put it bluntly, African-Americans are disappearing from the game. Players, ranging from Joe Morgan to Jimmy Rollins to C.C. Sabathia, have all addressed the issue but the Commissioner's Office doesn't seem to care much. Yes, some baseball academies have opened in inner cities, but it is hardly a priority for the game. For most fans, seeing Vladimir Guerrero is close enough. They see him and see a black man, not a Dominican. But for African-Americans in the United States, baseball is an unfriendly sport. I have heard repeated interviews with black kids saying that baseball is a white man's game. It discourages the individual showmanship they value, something that basketball and football strongly encourages. They don't see their peers playing the game, so they don't want to either. But mostly, they see it is a bastion of racism in American society. They know the story of Jackie Robinson, but unlike whites, who see Robinson as a symbol of racial progress and the slowly increasing tolerance of whites, many black kids see that story as an example of just how racist the game of baseball still is today. After all, basketball and football didn't have to go through the same kind of desegregation struggles, though racism pervaded those sports as well.
A big part of this problem is the makeup of baseball fans. Go to a baseball game. Tell me how many black people you see there. The stands are almost entirely made up of white people, even in heavily African-American cities. For many whites, going to a game is the only time they will venture into the inner-city. When they do go to a game, or if they are playing in it, they can hear the fans. They can hear how much they are harassed compared to how much a player like Bloomquist is loved. They can have whatever kind of character, skill set, talent, hustle, etc., they want. They still won't be loved by most fans, unless perhaps they are very, very good. While you don't hear much of the racism that baseball fans yelled in the 1940s and 50s, racial issues still pervade the game. Players know it and they avoid the game because of it. The emphasis on whiteness within baseball has done nothing to help the game and a whole lot to hurt it. Until this fades, it is really hard to see how African-Americans are going to once again embrace the game.
One last point--I know this might be something of an overgeneralization. Sure, players like Ozzie Smith and Kirby Puckett have been beloved in their local communities. That's important. And of course, not all fans are like this. Many value actual talent over qualities others associate with their white selves. I'm not entirely satisfied with this explanation. But I cannot come up with a better explanation for the Scrappy White Guy (i.e. Bloomquist) phenomenon or the disturbing decline of African-Americans in the game. I do think the two things are related. If you think you can come up with a more satisfactory explanation, I'd love to hear it.