Learning from baseball

Bruce Lear: “Swinging for the bleacher seats every time will often leave a player sitting in the dugout with a sore back. The same is true for candidates.” -promoted by Laura Belin

I love baseball. It’s a game of chess with four bases on a field instead of knights and rooks on a board. The object is to defend against runs and advance your runners around the bases. An easy game? No!

It has no clock, so the game isn’t lost until the final out at the plate or in the field. It’s slow. It’s methodical. It’s a game of statistics. The season is 162 games, so there are times of utter despair and utter joy.

James Earl Jones sums it up best in the now 30-year-old Iowa epic Field of Dreams:

“The one constant throughout the years, Ray has been baseball. America has rolled like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.”

For me, baseball is a lot like politics. Winning is based on a strategy about finding that sweet spot in a very long season. It’s slow. It’s methodical. It’s based on statistics we call polls.

This year’s crop of Democratic candidates could perhaps learn from baseball hitters through the ages. Remember, Babe Ruth led the league in home runs but also in strike outs. In politics when there is a binary choice between candidates, too many times waving or watching a fast ball or curve might get you a gig on CNN or Fox instead of the Presidency.

Let me stop my analogy here and offer this disclaimer. I’m not talking about how to win a primary, and I am not aiming at any candidate in the Democratic field. I strongly believe every one of the 21 would make a better president than the one who currently watches TV in the West Wing. I’ll make my knuckles bleed knocking doors to elect the Democratic nominee. That’s what a pragmatic progressive does.

Swinging for the bleacher seats every time will often leave a player sitting in the dugout with a sore back. The same is true for political candidates. For example, I love the idea of free college tuition for everyone, but instead of going for the grand slam, maybe it would be strategic to get someone on base and then move the runner.

This could be done by reducing the cost of college for middle- and low-income families, allowing them to once again qualify for Pell grants, low interest loans, work study, and tuition assistance. Those were available when I went to college, or I would not have been able to go. It may not be a homerun, but it puts working families in a position to score. It’s a step in the right direction. People need skin in the game, but they don’t need to be skinned.

This approach doesn’t roll off the tongue easily; it’s not sexy, but it won’t scare away the suburban independent moms who helped flip the House in 2018. Democrats largely didn’t take back the House with ultra-progressive votes. We won the House with disillusioned Democrats coming home and independents deciding they were fed up with Donald Trump.

I am afraid quite a few voters see free college as simply too good to be true, and know they will be paying with higher taxes. It allows the other side to paint us as wanting something for nothing, when what we really want is for young people to graduate not being burdened with a debt they can never repay. Baseball folks know that putting a runner on second is a better long-term strategy than trying to win with one swing.

Climate change is a very real and urgent problem, but so far, the Green New Deal is not well defined. That allows the Trumpsters to define it for the public. In baseball, if the runner doesn’t understand the signals, they don’t know the strategy.

In politics, there needs to be grassroots momentum behind something this big. Right now, the average person doesn’t understand what the Green New Deal is. Long term, we need to get the public on board with the strategy, while taking immediate steps to repair the damage this administration has done to our planet.

The midterms proved health care is a winning issue for Democrats. Baseball teams that consistently win use the same formula over and over again. My only caution is just saying “Medicare for all” isn’t enough to win. The concept must be clearly defined.

Those on Medicare know it doesn’t cover everything. You need a supplement to fill the gaps in coverage. Democratic candidates could get into position to score with the idea of expanding the Affordable Care Act to include a public option which would be Medicare and an option for an affordable optional supplement. That idea makes it much more difficult for the other side to claim our candidates are socialists bent on destroying capitalism.

Like baseball teams, Democrats need to use the home field advantage. The Democratic advantage should be in public education because the other party has clearly staked its future on private and charter schools. Democratic candidates need to champion public education as an economic development engine for rural America.

The first step would be to provide some type of incentive to avoid the looming teaching shortage in this country. America does not need rural abandoned school buildings. We need the Friday night lights burning and the classrooms filled with the future.

Finally, there is the issue of name calling. A name calling politician might get some cheers from his/her base, but that’s a lot like asking your mom if your haircut looks good. You’ll feel good because of what she tells you, but you’ll still have a bad haircut.

Getting down and wallowing in the mud may feel great for a while, but eventually a candidate has to wash the mud off and govern. A better strategy might be to own the president’s name calling. Make a joke of it. Put it on a t-shirt. Disarm the bully by laughing at him. Baseball fights are usually a lot of wrestling with a couple of punches snuck in. The same should be true in politics.

In baseball, true hitters also know you can’t swing at every pitch, even if the pitch is a strike. Democratic candidates cannot afford to take a swing at every ludicrous Trump tweet made at 2:00 in the morning. He does it to distract from what really matters.

Trump has never been afraid to throw at his opponent’s head. Democrats need to learn how to stand in but also how to dodge a pitch. Our side needs to work to brush him back when he goes too far without writing a ten-page position paper to do it.

In short, Democrats need to keep their eyes on the ball. The candidate who centers his campaign message on bringing America leadership back through honesty, transparency, and ethics while moving the country forward toward affordable health care, safer streets, attention to the environment, public education, and an economy driven by hard working families, will be able to dance a victory dance on home plate in November 2020.

Bruce Lear lives in Sioux City and recently retired after 38 years of being connected to public schools. He was a teacher for eleven years and a regional director for 27 years for the Iowa State Education Association.

Top image: Cropped from a photo by the author of a spring training game between the Twins and the Pirates, published with permission.

  • Misguided Rhetoric

    This is a rather cute analogy, comparing a game, played for fun to politics, an institution which gravely affects the lives of millions of Americans. I’d love to believe that it would be just fine if Cory Booker won the nomination and everyone was going to be fine with private insurance still covering a majority of Americans, but honestly, it’s really not. The biggest reason this silly concept of compromise, which seems to be an abstract begged for by the moderate in the name of necessity, when in reality they are the only one which stand in the way of true progressive policy. And not electorally, rather, politically, when governing and not voting, because it remains true that you could run Hugo Chavez for President and he would outperform any moderate democrat seeking the nomination. The compromise which is predicated around maintaining the current private health insurance infrastructure, will gravely under perform and cause us to end up in a similar situation in only a matter of years as Obamacare did. Granted, people got better healthcare under Obamacare, but it clearly wasn’t good enough to vote to maintain. The election of Donald Trump is the embodiment of this reality. This silly notion that we should just aim for a single or double when it comes to important issues like healthcare is just disgusting. There are thousands of people who die in this country each year from a lack of access to healthcare and that will persist until the day private health insurance no longer covers a single american for the basic medical services necessary to a basic life. Capitalism, is a system which is center around the free market, and as long as the health insurance market is capitalist, they will put profits over people, simple as that. Tuition free college, as another example is massively popular with the American people because at the end of the day, they will finally be getting a real return on their investment, and anything short of tuition free public college and universities utterly fails American students. Education should be available to everyone who wants it, just like a library. But obviously, capitalism does not create libraries on its own because it does not care about the betterment of the people which comprise it, rather it cares about the short term profits for shareholders. Fangraphs.com put the average LOB or left on base percentage for pitchers at about 70%. Therefore, about 70% of the time, a team leaves runner who got on base, there without scoring them. Perhaps I am wrong, and getting doubles and singles is the best way to “get things done,” until your clean up man strikes out on a meatball down the plate and we leave runners on every base, and don’t score any of them, and we are no longer at bat, which happened in 2016 due to people like you. Hillary Clinton, already ran, and lost, what is one good reason she does not appeal to suburban moms, she practically is one. This scearnio happens 70% of the time. Is the that the risk you want to take with this election.

    P.S. Progressives have principles, just like you do, I’m sure to some extent. Ours are just grounded in logic. Why would I knock doors for Democratic Nominee Joe Biden when he agrees with me about 60% of the time? I guess the argument goes it’s better than 50%, right?

    • Letting the perfect defeat the possible

      If you believed in progressive principles, you would knock doors because the Republican alternative would agree with you 0 percent.

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