Maxwell’s star-spangled hammer

2018-12-26 BruceMaxwell
Bruce Maxwell, taking a National Anthem knee in September 2017.

How much it was noticed outside Oakland seems an open question, but now-former Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell was designated for assignment in early September, released in due course, and, lacking a new job since, he fired his agent around this month’s winter meetings. That’s how ended a year that began with the A’s planning on him being the everyday catcher and ended with Maxwell under-performing in the minors after his demotion following eighteen games.

In between, the plan for Maxwell as the everyday catcher turned into signing Jonathan Lucroy as a free agent after Maxwell came to spring training overweight. Lucroy entering 2018 went from thought-elite once upon a time to lucky-to-have-a-job in spring 2018, even seeming to lose his once-formidable pitch framing skill as well as his batting stroke. The A’s made it to the wild card game but Lucroy wasn’t really an improvement.

Maxwell has two other issues thought to be weighing against him. One is that he’s the only major league baseball player yet to take a knee during any playing of the National Anthem, which he did in September 2017. But Maxwell, a German-born son of an Army officer, actually saluted the flag while he was on his knees, hand over heart. (A few of the notorious National Football League anthem kneelers have done likewise.) He said soon enough that that was because he believed protesting real or suspected racial injustice didn’t have to equal disrespecting the flag or the military.

A month after he took that knee came issue number two, when he was busted in Arizona for pulling a gun on a fast food delivery worker, a case in which he ultimately took a plea deal that reduced the charge to disorderly conduct. Amplifying it, according to San Francisco Chronicle baseball writer Susan Slusser—the same writer whose nomination led to enshrining New Yorker legend Roger Angell in the writers’ wing of the Hall of Fame—was a police video of his arrest in which he spoke “antipolice sentiment.”

Also as the winter meetings ended, an unnamed baseball executive told Slusser the anthem knee may mitigate more against Maxwell than the Scottsdale arrest. But another unnamed baseball figure told her it was “as if Colin Kaepernick had knelt for the anthem and also been arrested for a gun crime.” And a third, a National League scout who also apparently asked not to be identified by name, suggested Maxwell’s only route back to the majors may be playing in the independent minors. “[T]here is too much baggage,” the scout said.

If Maxwell’s now-former agent Matt Sosnick is right, the anthem knee weighs more heavily against Maxwell than the Scottsdale arrest case and a subsequent incident in Alabama, where Maxwell was refused restaurant service by a waiter angered over the anthem knee. The waiter said Maxwell portrayed the incident wrongly, and the restaurant stood by their man, but a local politician in Maxwell’s party backed his version.

By his actual playing record alone, Maxwell wouldn’t exactly have teams crowding the streets to reach him, especially now that he’s 28 years old. This isn’t exactly a Hall of Famer in the making we’re talking about. But any team passing on taking another flyer on him won’t really know, unless they make it straight, no chaser, whether people believe it’s because he’s not a great or even a decent player or because he took a stand that’s anything but massively accepted.

As a player, Maxwell was a second-round draft by the A’s in 2012, but he’s played only three partial seasons with the A’s. (His 127 games over the three is still shy of a full single season worth of play.) His slash line at the plate is modest enough (.240/.314/.347); his minor league record suggested he wasn’t terrible against the running game but he’s never really been tested that way in the Show. And the A’s pitchers who’ve thrown to him have a 4.58 ERA to show for it as a group when he was their catcher.

Is it those red flags or is it The Flag?

I’ve argued in the recent past that it’s probably time to reconfigure when the national anthem is played before baseball games or other sporting events. Even remembering a Casey Stengel biographer, Robert Creamer, recording something “I hope is true” (Creamer’s words): On his 1975 death bed, stricken with inoperable lymphatic cancer, Stengel watched a baseball telecast begin with the pre-game playing of “The Star Spangled Banner.” As the anthem was announced, the story went, Stengel slid out of bed, held over his heart the Mets cap he kept by his bedside, and said to himself, “I might as well do this one more time.”

“If patriotism and respect can’t and shouldn’t be compelled officially,” I wrote last May, “is it time to modify the national anthem tradition regarding sports?”

Is it terrible to suggest American (and Canadian, for that matter) professional sports leagues can it with national anthems before every last game, but save it for games played on significant national holidays? Would it be terribly un-American if “The Star Spangled Banner” were to be played only before baseball games played on Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labour Day? Before football, basketball, and hockey games played on Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, and Presidents’ Day? Before NASCAR races run on most of those? (Would it be terrible likewise if Canadian sports teams limited “O Canada” to their home games on Canada’s national or provincial holidays, one of which they share with the U.S., though they call it Remembrance Day and not Veterans Day?)

Saluting during “The Star Spangled Banner” began organically at a baseball game in the first place—in 1918, when the song wasn’t yet ordained as the national anthem of the United States. (During Game One of that World Series, Red Sox second baseman Fred Thomas, on furlough from the Navy to play, saluted the flag in Fenway Park while the U.S. Navy band played the song . . . during the seventh inning stretch.) By the way, there’s no formal Major League Baseball rule, still, about playing “The Star Spangled Banner” at the ballpark. So far, so good.

There’d be absolutely no harm done, except to over-politicised sensitivities, if playing the national anthem was restricted to games played on significant national holidays and before the opening games of assorted championships. (The World Series, the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup final, the NBA final, the Masters, the Triple Crown thoroughbred races, whatever’s the NASCAR championship, you get the idea.) Even allowing that there are fans of the combatants who often consider them matters of life and death, if not heaven and hell.

But that won’t help Maxwell right now. If he isn’t employed as a catcher by a major league baseball organisation any time soon, it should be because of his lack of performance. (It wouldn’t be terribly unfair if the Scottsdale incident were factored in, depending on Maxwell’s thinking about it now. Objecting to particular real police misconduct by itself shouldn’t be held against a man, but doing it when you’re being cuffed for waving a gun at someone makes you the fool.) And the organisations to whom Maxwell’s new agent petitions should say so clearly, without apology, without a single mention of the anthem issue.

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