I followed the meteoric rise of the Taney Dragons, the little league team from South Philadelphia, with great interest during the past month. This mixed-race, inner-city “rec league” travel team went from unknowns to icons in quick succession. For a nation gripped by the racially-charged unrest in Ferguson, Missouri at the same time, Taney stood as a welcome respite.
I have actually attended several Taney baseball games, long before such a thing was covered by ESPN. My cousin actually plays in the league; he is a year or two younger than the team that went to the Little League World Series this year. Therefore, I have probably seen at least some of these kids play before over the last several years. From what I have seen, Taney does not conform to the umpire-cursing, winning-obsessed culture which youth sports has largely become.
Partly because of those developments, I was something of a skeptic to the idea of Little League baseball being shown on national television. It is difficult enough for an 18-year-old college freshman to have his likeness all over CBS and video games. I am even more sympathetic to middle school students. When I was 12, I definitely didn’t want the whole country to know when I dropped a pop up or struck out on a fastball. Then again, I was never good enough to play baseball on TV anyway. ESPN, for whom I have a healthy amount of disdain, makes tons of money by televising these games. The idea made me grimace.
Yet I saw how the city of Philadelphia rallied around these young people. Suddenly theirs became household names: “Mo’ne’s fastball looked good today,” people started saying, as if we were discussing Cole Hamels. For me, the team was a microcosom of what Philadelphia is becoming: a diverse, quirky, ambitious place complete with the grit which has characterized our city since Ben Franklin landed on the shores of the Delaware from Boston. I was proud of these streets on which I grew up in a completely new way. Taney represents what the United States can still be.
One of the greatest of ironies is the fact that Taney is named after Roger B. Taney, a man whom history remembers for one reason: he was the author of Dred Scott v. Sandford, one of the most controversial and unjust rulings in the history of American jurisprudence. Dred Scott sent the North and South on a collision course which finally ended at Appomattox. Taney’s name has in some ways been recovered thanks to a group of ordinary kids from the inner-city whose backgrounds seem to cover the entire racial spectrum.
Baseball brought them together. As my friend texted me the other night, we know baseball is still America’s Pastime, because no one would be on the edge of their seats watching pee-wee football. Indeed, baseball has a long history of bringing people together in the United States. What changes hearts and minds is, in the end, not a legal opinion or even non-violent protest. What changes hearts and minds is the encounter with another. In these decades after integration, the flames of division have only been settled by the mutual recognition that these people share my values. That realization, repeated innumerable times over the past 238 years has allowed scores of different groups – European, African, and Asian – to be accepted in American life.
That is why I would rather reflect on the successes of America’s Little League Team than the failures of Ferguson. If justice was not served that day a few weeks ago with the death of Michael Brown – and that seems like a possibility – then that must be addressed. At the same time, the recent protests – however justified – will do nothing to soothe the feelings of resentment and hostility which have clearly been rising in Ferguson for years. Only when the men and women of that town – cops and civilians, black and white – begin to trust each other will that wounded city begin to heal. Maybe the Taney Dragons can go teach them how to play baseball.