Baseball used to be seen as a reflection of the country’s progress on race. Its 1947 integration, which predated the Civil Rights Act by 17 years, has been upheld as a sign of the sport’s essentially democratic spirit; generations of writers and thinkers, like Philip Roth, Don DeLillo and Chris Rock, found in baseball an embodiment of America’s great experiment, contradictions and all. But there was always a saccharine dimension to the idealism about the game: Baseball represented a very particular, buttoned-up version of American identity, and players who deviated from it were often subject to harsh criticism.
I came of age during the reign of Ken Griffey Jr. My god, was he cool. And as all of my teammates were flipping their caps around and wiggling their shoulders and hips at the plate and perfecting the art of nonchalantly catching fly balls, I was being instructed to disregard all of it—wearing your cap backwards was akin to wearing a sign on your chest that said, I Don't Take Baseball Seriously; trying to emulate Griffey's stance would ruin your swing; not catching a fly ball with two hands would surely, at some point, lose a game for The Team.