Baseball is one of the most captivating sports today. In Expanding the Strike Zone: Baseball in the Age of Free Agency, author Daniel Gilbert examines the history and meaning of the sport’s tumultuous changes over the years. Author Daniel Gilbert joined Bill Littlefield.

Highlights From Bill’s Conversation with Daniel Gilbert

BL: You write that we “derive special significance from the triumphs and failures of baseball teams because they represent the places we imagine ourselves to be from.” Why the use of imagine in that context?

DG: Well I think at a certain level cities really are imaginary communities. We’re sitting here in Boston and there are close to a million in this city right now and millions more around the world who somehow identify themselves as Bostonians. Those people don’t know each other.

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BL: It means something to them, but maybe more in their imaginations more than in reality. 

DG: Yeah, it seems to me that baseball is one of those things and baseball parks and baseball broadcasts are some of those places where people are able to imagine and live out those very real connections.

BL: Speaking of the power of imagination, you say that baseball and I suppose by extension other sports, “traffics in the powerful fiction that corporate franchises can represent communities.” Is that concept utterly an illusion?

DG: I don”t think its entirely an illusion. Right? I think there is a way in which when a team wins a championship, it wins that championship on behalf of the community in which it’s based. What I’m trying to get at is this curious fact that teams have been able to extract such extraordinary public subsidies, for building ball parks for example, in an age of real budget crises.

BL: So the illusion of it somehow trumps whatever economic reality may be associated with all of that subsidy.

DG: Yeah, I mean there’s much stronger economic arguments to building a structure that will be filled with consumers 365 days a year instead of 81.

BL: You devote a large portion of Expanding the Strike Zone to the history of the Major League Baseball Players Association, which has been exceptionally successful at raising salaries  achieving free agency and otherwise improving the circumstances of major leaguers, especially over the past 40 years or so. But doesn’t the success of that particular association run counter to recent developments in labor history in general?

DG: It does in a real sense and that was really one of the starting places for me for this project. Thinking about this curious union of professional baseball players having all kinds of success in their industry right at the moment when the rest of the U.S. labor movement has really run up on hard times.

One of the moments that really interested me in the book was the summer of 1981. The summer that President Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers in really one of the most devastating blows to the labor movement in recent memory. That same summer, the Major League Baseball Players Association were quite successful in their strike and were able to protect the system of free agency and win real gains for their members. And so that relationship between a union built on Major League ballplayers’ star power and the rest of the labor movement is really one of the most interesting things about recent baseball history.

Bill’s Thoughts on Expanding the Strike Zone

Daniel Gilbert’s Expanding the Strike Zone reflects the author’s conviction that a lot of the ambiguities and contradictions that characterize the U.S. are evident in the history of the game that used to be known as The National Pastime before the NFL rendered that distinction absurd.

Consider, for example, that although the Brooklyn Dodgers were the first Major League team to break the de facto color line and one of the earliest to employ numbers of players from Latin America, their new ballpark in Los Angeles was made possible by the forcible eviction of the members of a working-class Latino community.

Gilbert also points out that the relationship of contemporary MLB teams to the Dominican Republic, an apparently inexhaustible source of minor league and Major League players, is based on a principle any corporate executive would applaud: no matter how you do it, cutting labor costs is good. If you can sign 20 prospects in the Dominican Republic for what it would cost you to sign one youngster out of Arizona State, you sign the 20. And if you can bully the baseball culture in San Pedro de Macorís into abiding by the rules you’ve established to keep costs relatively low at the expense of whatever player freedom there might have been, so much the better for your bottom line. No wonder that, as Gilbert points out, writers such as Ramon A. Reyes have seen players who’ve struggled against the manifestations of that system as accomplished beyond their performances on the ball field because they’ve confronted “a deeper hemispheric history of resource extraction and market manipulation” that goes well beyond baseball.

Gilbert also writes at length about the impact of Ichiro Suzuki in Seattle and beyond, and he argues that when Ichiro departed the Mariners for the Yankees to “powerful applause” from the city where he’d played for a dozen years, it may have provided “an index of longings for collective purpose in the face of free market individualism that has defined our era.”

As that last bit from the book suggests, Expanding the Strike Zone is perhaps not for fans looking for discussions of who should be in the Hall of Fame. Those inclined to be curious about the way various economic, social, and cultural developments have been apparent in baseball’s increasingly complex world will find the book rewarding.