FOR THE BOSTON RED SOX, the Clubhouse Blowup has over the last quarter-century been as reliable a summer fixture as the August Collapse. Generally the debates have been over whether Yaz is a fathead or Lynn's a malingerer or Roger deserves his pay. But this season the whole team--along with the sports staffs of the Boston Herald and the Boston Globe--finds itself roiled by the question of the proper response to tyranny in the Middle East, as if the Bosox had somehow mistaken themselves for the editorial board of Dissent.
The controversy started last week, when Boston Herald sportswriter Howard Bryant took note of a yellow bumper sticker that veteran reliever Mike Timlin kept on his locker. Next to a peace sign was the legend: "The footprint of the AMERICAN CHICKEN." Timlin is conservative, and comes from Midland, Texas, the president's home town. But he was disinclined to make a big deal of the sticker, which a local policeman had given him. He just thought it was funny.
Bryant didn't. In his April 22 article, in fact, he reacted to the bumper sticker as if nothing had ever struck him as funny in his entire life. The language was rabid: "Whether he wants to admit it or not," Bryant wrote of Timlin, "he's dead wrong, and for some people in his own clubhouse, the implication is rightly offensive. The sticker spoke not only for him, but volumes about him." And the tone was pompous: "The sticker spoke clearly, symbolic on numerous, uncomplicated levels. First, there was the double-entendre; the peace symbol is shaped similar to the foot of a chicken, thus de facto joke." [sic] Bryant described Timlin as a "Southern neoconservative," and accused him of "politicizing his corner of the room."
This was illogical. Bryant was picking a fight with Timlin not--as he claimed--over etiquette but over ideology. After accusing Timlin of violating an unwritten rule against controversy, Bryant solicited the opinions of other Red Sox on the war to topple Saddam Hussein. Several people in the clubhouse, Bryant asserted, disapproved "of the sticker's brazen machismo, the kind of muscle-headed thinking that continues the stupidity of war." He named two. First-base coach Dallas Williams was, Bryant said, "not particularly comfortable with the Iraq war." Designated hitter David Ortiz--who probably knows more about American foreign policy than any other Dominican-born DH batting under .200 in the AL East--took Bryant's side, saying: "How can people getting killed ever be good?" (Here a corollary "unwritten rule" suggests itself: Ballplayers should refrain from expressing political opinions until their averages are securely above the Mendoza line.)
Across New England, the controversy has dominated sports talk radio for a week. Although Bryant didn't go on last weekend's Texas road trip, Red Sox starter Derek Lowe was furious. He lashed out at another reporter for Bryant's offense, saying Timlin's locker was private space. Bosox ace Pedro Martinez announced he would henceforth stop talking to the press. Rallying to Timlin's defense against Bryant were not only Bob Hohler of the rival Boston Globe but also the Boston Herald's own senior baseball writer Tony Massarotti, who began a column by asking: "So when was it exactly that Mike Timlin announced his candidacy for the Nobel peace prize?"
In fairness to Bryant, you can see how he wound up writing something so rash, tasteless, and unbalanced. He has just started covering the Red Sox, after having spent years writing about the A's for the San Jose Mercury News, and the Yankees for the Bergen Record. But before that, he wrote about technology, education, and politics for the Oakland Tribune and various Knight-Ridder papers. He even published a book last year with the scholarly Routledge press called "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston." I have not read the book, but the Routledge publicity blurb reads, in part, "Once the crucible of abolitionist humanism, the city has become a symbol of racial intolerance, and this duality, Bryant shows, is nowhere better exemplified than in the Red Sox." Crucially, Bryant appears to accuse the local media of complicity in the Red Sox' slowness to integrate.
All wordsmiths who hang around with jocks must have a bit of nagging discomfort: Here I am with my college degree and my shelf full of books, they must think, and I get looked down on and treated as a wannabe by a bunch of lunks who can't spell their names. If that really bothers you--and the venom in his prose indicates that it really bothers Bryant--then maybe you should sue your college guidance counselor for malpractice. But on top of that, Bryant is carrying a second burden. He has an idea that sportswriters have a particularly urgent sort of social responsibility. One can admire Bryant's versatility and insist that, in this, he is wrong. Social responsibility is for the "A" section, which is perhaps where Bryant belongs. If he were to return to a kind of journalism where he could address the big social and political questions more directly, it might be good for him. It would certainly be good for sportswriting.
Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.