Things move quickly at altitude. In less than six week’s time, the Rockies went from being approved to play baseball with no fans, to being allowed a 25 percent capacity crowd of 12,500, to an upgraded 42.6 percent capacity approved for 21,363 fans, and now — after landing in the cellar thanks to a 1-3 start against the World Series Champion Dodgers — they're hosting this summer’s All-Star Game.
It’s been 24 years since the Rockies last hosted an All-Star Game, and they’ve got the Georgia legislature to thank for the sudden homecoming of the “Midsummer Classic.” On Friday, Major League Baseball announced the decision to pull the All-Star Game from Atlanta in response to new legislation passed in Georgia and signed by the governor that will effectively suppress the ability of Peach State residents to vote, especially in minority communities.
“The best way to demonstrate our values as a sport is by relocating this year’s All-Star Game and MLB Draft,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said Friday. “Major League Baseball fundamentally supports voting rights for all Americans and opposes restrictions to the ballot box. In 2020, MLB became the first professional sports league to join the non-partisan Civic Alliance to help build a future in which everyone participates in shaping the United States. We proudly used our platform to encourage baseball fans and communities throughout our country to perform their civic duty and actively participate in the voting process. Fair access to voting continues to have our game’s unwavering support.”
The decision has sparked two primary reactions. In the world of baseball, there is a heightened presence of salivation as fans, players and pundits drool over the thought of a Mile High Home Run Derby.
But beyond the seamheads, folks from every corner of the country can’t help but react to the implications of moving one of American sports’ jewel events away from a state determined to openly disenfranchise its voters and bring it instead to Colorado, a leader in voting modernization with an enduring commitment to protecting access to the ballot box.
For a sport that has generally been slow to act on issues of social justice since the Brooklyn Dodgers’ landmark signing of Jackie Robinson to a Major League contract in 1947, this is the boldest stance the league has taken in nearly 75 years. After a long drought, baseball is leading the way once more.
"I’m from Atlanta, I grew up in Atlanta, I went to college in Atlanta, and I still spend a lot of time in Atlanta,” Charlie Blackmon told the Daily Planet Tuesday afternoon in a moment of welcome candor. “This is a crushing blow to Atlanta, absolutely. Hundreds of millions of dollars, economic impact. Everything that is so great about Denver getting (to be the host) city, is what's so bad about it leaving Atlanta. It's going to really hurt those people and they're going to miss out on an incredible opportunity. They're great people in Atlanta, and it's an unbelievable new ballpark that I like to play in, so I don't think it should be lost about how controversial it is to move the game. This is absolutely a big deal.”
For their part, when they announced their decision to move the game, MLB made a point to also announce that their “planned investments to support local communities in Atlanta as part of our All-Star Legacy Projects will move forward.” But that investment is a small piece of the influx of the revenue moving from the Smokies to the foot of the Rocky Mountains.
Blackmon’s certainly on point in bringing up the controversy. It was also controversial to many fans, players, and owners when Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers opened the door for African Americans to play in the Major Leagues, but baseball was on the right side of history.
And though there was much less controversy when 49 states recognized Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday, Arizona played the role of outlier in refusing to formally recognize the honor in 1987. In response, the National Football League pulled a planned Super Bowl from the state, and despite the same kind of bluster we’re hearing in 2021, the impact on the state both economically and the hit the state’s reputation took ultimately led to Arizona voters deciding to recognize King in 1992 and hosting multiple Super Bowls since.
Closer to home, Colorado also saw the backlash when it passed Amendment 2 in 1992, legislating that LGBTQ citizens did not have the equal rights in the workplace. A boycott by major entertainment artists sparked a national debate and ultimately led to the United States Supreme Court overturning it.
"I personally don't have an opinion on the bill, and the reason for the move,” Blackmon told the Planet. “I haven't read it cover-to-cover, I don't have all the facts, and I'm not arrogant enough to think that my opinion matters.
"I do know that that Major League Baseball is one of the most diverse collections of people on the planet, competing at the highest level, in part because of what Jackie Robinson did 75 years ago. That's why we have the best league. It doesn't matter where you're from, what language you speak, what you look like. If you can play the game at the highest level, you can be on this field and compete. And that's the beauty of what this means to have an All-Star Game, and to make it so special, because it is the greatest collection of talent in the world.”
The Rockies were a natural pick to host the game — and not only because Colorado is as far-removed as a state can be from the kind of voter suppression tactics that are staining Georgia’s reputation. Their 42.6 percent COVID capacity is roughly double nearly every other ballpark, with the notable exception of Texas. And the fact that they leap-frogged from 12,500 to 21,363 before ever playing a game gave them a chance to show Major League Baseball that perhaps fairly full ball parks with carefully socially distanced fans could work in 2021.
But the Rockies have never been candidates to be the poster kids for diversity. In fact, they’ve been criticized in the past for a culture short on — and not always welcoming to — minorities. They currently have three African American players on their 26-man roster. Numbers have steadily declined since the 1970s in terms of African Americans in the Major Leagues, but the game does embrace diversity, including significant growth in presence of Latin American and Asian players.
“We have that diverse group of people within our brotherhood, within our greater Major League Baseball family,” Blackmon noted. “It's changing it's very inclusive, men and women, minorities, it doesn't matter, if you can enjoy the game and compete, then this is for everyone.
"And in saying that, we're going to have a diverse outlook, and lots of different opinions. That needs to be OK. It needs to be OK for me to have a different opinion from my teammate over here, or my teammate over there. We should embrace that. That's what makes America great. Everything that makes baseball great and Major League Baseball great, it is also the greatest parts about our country.”
As Blackmon elaborated on a weighty question, he made the case for why his opinion does, in fact, matter. Blackmon has long been known as a free spirit in a sport that has grown to increasingly embrace the individualism and independence of its players. And while players, coaches and front office folks still instinctively shy away from saying anything of substance that reaches beyond the sacred space between the foul lines, Blackmon will speak thoughtfully and poignantly on everything from deep dives into analyzing baseball “with an altitude” to questions of social justice, tolerance and the way a country forged by immigrants lives up to its founding values.
"It needs to be OK to disagree,” Blackmon emphasized. “It's important to have the right to vote, absolutely. That's the epitome of the dream that founded our country, is to have the ability to vote, and then have that vote mean something. We have votes so that people can express their opinion, and so that their opinion can be heard. It's an awful lot of power for one man to neglect that and unilaterally implement something when his opinion differs.
“I'm just a ballplayer. Is that right or wrong? It's controversial certainly, and I don't know what the answer is, but I do know that I love and respect my teammates and I'm going to accept their opinions on the matter.”
Blackmon hits on a trait in sports that is often overlooked these days in the marquee arenas but continues to be stressed at the developmental level: the value of teamwork. Whatever issues the sport has faced in the past, and whatever baggage the players have stored in their lockers, their presence as teammates, their commitment to each other, their ability to put “the name on the front of the jersey above the name on the back of the jersey” remains a critical harbinger of their ability to succeed between the lines.
"I think that's how most of Americans feel about each other,” Blackmon said, perhaps giving us more credit than we, as a nation, have earned of late. “It's OK to love your fellow man and also disagree with them. That's part of what makes America great."
If anyone needs the kind of lift that sport can offer — both in the confines of the clubhouse and in the community as a whole — it’s the extended family of purple-pinstriped players and fans in Colorado.
And if anyone needs a boost to their public relations image in the midst of the alienation still lingering in LoDo in the wake of the Nolan Arenado trade, it’s the Rockies. Hosting the All-Star Game may not make anyone forget the trade. On the contrary, it will bring national attention to Arenado’s likely homecoming as he makes an All-Star return to Coors Field to wear the National League jersey, albeit in a Cardinals cap. But the Rockies have an opportunity to make a little lemonade out of the lemon of their lacking leadership — and to charge $8 a cup for it. Baseball can lead again, reminding us of what we “could be.”