Long before professional baseball called, two boys sat at the kitchen table and listened to the adults talk politics. They learned a few things about the world. They formed a point of view. They learned more. And they gained a sense of themselves outside of baseball.
For catcher Wes Wilson, who’s in the Yankees organization, it was Sunday nights for dinner at his grandparents, what he calls his “earliest exposure” to politics, where he heard the opinions and debates that would inform and inspire his own interest.
“I’m not sure I ever contributed much. But I was definitely listening,” he said.
The Kentucky native watched, as his parents read every section of the local newspaper. It took time for him to feel connected to all of it. Baseball was calling, and he headed off to attend Indiana State, moving on to the professional ranks after the Yankees signed him. In his first off-season he got a little spark.
“I became interested in finance. I started to understand the importance of knowing the world around us,” he said.
In Ranchos Palos Verdes, California, Lenny Linsky was getting educated in a uniquely first-hand way. Linsky’s mother is a native of Spain, and had plenty to teach and tell him about political revolution. Linsky, a pitcher in the Rays organization, cites his mother and father for having conversations with him that helped shape his worldview and inspire his activism.
“My mom and I tend to fall on the same side of the fence and talks with her continue to be incredibly constructive given her unique perspective,” Linsky said.
His earliest memory of political discourse was with his father. The young man wondered why wages haven’t “proportionally increased with productivity,” and his father gave him his first day in class on the political workings of the economy.
“My economic literacy was not up to par,” he said. “And my father being an incredibly intelligent man pretty much waxed me.”
But it helped him get on course. He would explore his own ideas and the reality of politics, while developing as a baseball player. He took up surfing, too. But there was something more beckoning him.
Through the years, both players chatted with teammates about politics. But 2016 was a year unlike any other. Everyone was witnessing a shift in the mood, a sense that things were not quite as they seemed. Were we really this divided? That question continues to be front and center everywhere, and it didn’t escape the baseball clubhouses that either player was in.
One issue in particular was “locker room” related. Donald Trump’s infamous comments about grabbing women sexually and being able to get away with it due to fame were caught on tape, when he was preparing to be interviewed by reporter Billy Bush. The comment was followed by his defense that it was nothing more than “locker room talk.”
“Let’s make no bones about it, what Trump described in that tape was sexual assault,” Linsky said. “Never, at any point in my life, have I heard anyone in a locker room brag about forcefully touching another woman.”
Wilson is also clear in his experience and opinion of Trump’s comments.
“The comments made on that bus were completely out of line,” he said. “And more importantly the kind of behavior described in those comments, if carried out, would be criminal. I don’t know of any friends or teammates, nor can I imagine anyone I know, engaging in such behavior.”
The clubhouse is obviously a place where players can relax, enjoy downtime, and have fun. Reporters are permitted to be in there for an allotted time but, otherwise, it’s a kind of sanctuary. Stuff gets said in jest. For many athletes, especially those so young, someone like Trump might embody their idea of male success: ego-driven bragging, a private jet, a beautiful model for a wife. And Linsky acknowledges the “macho culture.”
“Some like to brag about their conquests. I’m not going to sit on my high horse and say I never have, “he said. “At some point it goes from young kids puffing their chests to grown men objectifying women, and viewing them as trophies, as opposed to equal humans deserving of respect.”
Sports are treated as religion by fans, so passions run high. If athletes voice their opinions on issues or anything specifically political, there can be intense backlash. Former pitcher Curt Schilling came under fire for violent remarks about Hillary Clinton and, later, about trans-gender people on Twitter. Earlier in the year, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the National Anthem as a form of protest against racism. The response was, literally, fiery with fans making videos of burning his jersey and many taking to social media to declare him un-American.
But Schilling is retired and has no financial worries about speaking out. Kapernick is an active player making millions. They can afford to be outspoken. For minor league players like Wilson and Linsky, the risk is higher. Offending the team, or the fans, or violating the MLB Social Media Policy, is a major concern. But so too is the risk of offending teammates in the clubhouse. As the election neared, it was hard to avoid discussing the unfolding circumstances.
Linsky, a devoted supporter of and volunteer for Bernie Sanders, who ran for the Democratic nomination, saw in Sanders someone who shared many of his beliefs, but also inspired him to get as involved as possible. His energy was high and, at times, may have come off overly aggressive to his teammates.
“I was brash and confrontational at first,” he admits. “It hindered substantive discourse. As of late, I’ve learned to be a better listener and I feel those discussions have become more enriching. We talk about all dimensions of politics. Grayson Garvin and I had some great discussions. We tend to be on different sides on how the economy should be run and we haven’t budged. But I’ve gained a better understanding, and I really appreciated our calm, respectful talks.”
Wilson points to the vast and varying backgrounds in baseball as being a way for a lot of communication to flow. He’s found that humor is also more prevalent. In the clubhouses he’s been in, no one’s gotten too serious, or much in each others way about points of view.
“A professional baseball locker room might be the most diverse in all of sports,” he said. “[You’ll] find college graduates, high school graduates, and guys who signed before finishing high school. Some are American, Latin American, and some from other countries. There are players with lots of money and others who live in debt just to pursue “the dream.” That alone contributes to a wide variety of opinions up and down the roster.”
As for the current state of things, like many Americans, he hopes for a way forward, where there’s less conflict, though it’s safe to say conflict has only just begun.
“Honestly, I’m ready for things to settle down and everyone get to work. Like nearly everyone, I’ve got reservations about what might happen during the next four years. I’m excited to see where we end up. I believe in the American people and their judgment. Despite what others might say, they’re not all [Editor’s Note: The underline was Wilson’s, via an emailed response] out of their minds, racists or misogynists.”
He talks about the “energy” needing to be used for change and concerns about the country becoming even more divided. Linsky also sees a country divided on issues of race, and that came up in the clubhouse as well.
“One topic that started out divided, but after some time became more unified was the topic of Black Lives Matter and criminal justice reform. What I found was that teammates who were opposed were not so out of malicious intent, but rather misunderstanding,” he said. “I don’t fault them one bit because in our high school textbooks we are somewhat taught that after the Civil Rights Movement, racism was magically over and we lived happily ever after. To my teammates credit, they were open to evidence that clearly shows the unequal divide in the treatment of our fellow black brothers and sisters.”
The fact that “evidence” of that was needed is another good indication people are far from where we might’ve believed in our society. It was difficult to ignore many voters open anger toward people of color and other religions, particularly Muslims. How do you have civil conversations when there are such fundamental differences in how you see the state of the world, and, in many cases, simple facts? Is that possible in a baseball clubhouse, where you’re trying to create close relationships and win together? Those distinct differences can certainly be magnified and lead to tensions. For Linsky, navigating through that was not impossible. There’s plenty of common ground.
“To my teammates credit, the Rays locker room [I was in] is one of the most civil and mature locker rooms I’ve been in. Most of the discussions revolve around hunting, fishing, baseball, obviously, and politics,” he said.
At one point, he had a Facebook group that he organized with fellow Rays minor league player Keith Castillo, as well as other friends with similar needs to express themselves. But while that didn’t last, it gave him even more of a glimpse at his possible future self.
“A dream of mine is to become a US Congressman, so that is something I’d like to be prepared for as well,” he said.
He’s doing that by continuing his education, as well as continued involvement, in any way he can, with Black Lives Matter. He also attended the post-inauguration Women’s March on Washington that drew millions, making it the largest protest march in recorded American history.
Wilson, for all his humor and light-heartedness seemed poised for a post-baseball political career in politics by declaring in his Twitter bio, his future plans to run for office. But that’s not necessarily a definite thing.
“It’s incredibly hard to have an impact so that you can honestly answer the question, “is it really worth it?” I am not sure I’m serious,” he said.
There was a moment of concern for Wilson as our discussions progressed. He wondered if he’d made the right decision discussing all this. Ultimately, he was reassured. But it’s understandable. We’re in tricky times. Ultimately, Wilson went on to say, there’s a strong desire within him to connect with people, to do things in the world that he believes in.
“I love working with people and, in my heart of hearts, I believe that there can be solutions on nearly any issue,” he said. Then, he had a thought. “You never know. Maybe I should move my target to the right….[and run in] 2052?”
For Linsky, there are private, urgent questions he’s struggling to answer, while trying to keep an open mind. He learned to listen more, but he’s continuing to speak freely and fearlessly. He didn’t hold back when considering the future of America.
“It’s hard for me to describe what I’m feeling with the [new] presidency. I’m legitimately worried for the lives of anyone who is not straight, white and male like myself,” he said. “Trump spent a year and half attacking seemingly every group from the disabled, to women, to Mexicans and Muslims. I don’t think our Constitution will allow for more of his outlandish proposals to be implemented, but at the same time I’m sad at the message that conveys to our country and the world when he’s rewarded for such behavior.”
He then struck a note of optimism, saying, “There’s nothing I like more than being proven wrong. So prove me wrong Donald.”
Sports, swimming in all sorts of glorified messages about American pride, doesn’t always welcome athletes speaking out as private citizens. Will we see baseball players, and other athletes speaking out less, or more, on politics in the years to come? For minor league players, the decision to be outspoken is tougher. But they’re watching. They’re listening. And some of them have been learning to listen better, at least in the strange bubble that is the minor leagues.