Spitballing: MLB should have kept the All-Star Game in Atlanta

Moving the game wasn’t necessarily wrong, but the league’s response could have been more powerful.

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“Spitballing” is a column by Nathan Ackerman about Major League Baseball.

We are six days removed from Opening Day and, already, the worst call of the season does not belong to embattled umpire Angel Hernandez.

It belongs, instead, to our incredible, beloved, in-tune and abundantly qualified commissioner Rob Manfred.

I’m sure you’ve heard about the All-Star Game situation if you follow either sports or politics, and especially if you’re interested in the intersection between the two. On Friday, Major League Baseball opted to pull the game out of Atlanta, Ga., in opposition to the new voting law passed by Georgia Republicans overhauling elections in the state.

Let’s be very clear about this new law. It does limit voting access, disproportionately so for people of color in Georgia, who turned the state blue in the 2020 Presidential Election for the first time since 1992. Perhaps most consequentially, the law gives Georgia legislators the power to override local election officials when the result is one they don’t like. Keep in mind, of course, the law was fueled by the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump, despite all evidence to the contrary.

The law is quite clearly a bad one, and though it isn’t sports leagues’ responsibility to crusade against every unpopular political decision, a significant act of opposition was justifiable.

MLB had two options when it came to its All-Star Game plans: It could’ve gone the route of symbolic gestures — as it did — or it could have challenged head-on the real, tangible impacts of Georgia’s new voting law.

The former route isn’t necessarily a bad one. MLB moving such a large-scale event out of political motivation is a move that, though not entirely unprecedented, is historically rare in professional sports. It sends a message that the league won’t tolerate voter suppression, and as cliche as “demonstrate our values as a sport” sounds, there’s some merit to the catchphrase. The decision has dominated national headlines both inside and outside of sports media spheres for the last several days, and that was largely the goal. People are talking.

Directly confronting the assault on voter rights, however, might have been more powerful in the long run. Instead of packing its bags and running, MLB could have kept the conversation around voting access going, framing it around the All-Star Game and leveraging its positioning in Atlanta — an area likely to bear the brunt of the law’s restrictions — as a means of doing that.

In the league’s statement announcing the move, MLB and The Players Alliance said they’ll stick by their plans to support local communities in and around Atlanta, and that’s all great. But the effect could have been 10 times greater if boosted by a spectacle such as the All-Star Game; now, the eyes will be elsewhere, and Georgia politicians will be under far less scrutiny, with far less pressure to actually listen.

Seriously — let’s not pretend like relocating the All-Star Game will force Gov. Brian Kemp and Georgia politicians to reconsider. That won’t work on a party that decries cancel culture at every step, whether such objections are justified (often) or not. Sure, the league shouldn’t accommodate these people or try to find a “middle ground” between voter suppression and the contrary, but ultimately, those who wield the power wield the power. If Atlanta loses an All-Star Game, so be it. When the eyes and the cameras are elsewhere, they win.

Additionally, instead of small Black-owned Atlanta businesses receiving the inevitable boost that an All-Star Game plus the corresponding build-up and tourism provide, MLB moved the event to the 80%-white Denver, and those potential beneficiaries will be left in the dust. (Holly Quinlan, the president and CEO of Cobb Travel and Tourism, estimated a “lost economic impact” of more than $100 million due to the move.) Meanwhile, this story will fizzle out of headlines within the next week or two, and when Home Run Derby balls are flying 500 feet into the Rocky Mountain air, it’ll feel like the event had been planned there for years.

You can’t fault the league for inaction. Exposure to that critique is the risk it would’ve assumed by holding firm in Atlanta, and the incentive to avoid it is understandable. But the league had a chance to make an impact — not just a statement — and, like a New York Mets two-run eighth-inning lead in their first game of the season, they blew it.

Hopefully, the conversation doesn’t die. It can’t afford to die. MLB could’ve done its part to make sure it doesn’t.

The league still may do so. If that’s the case, kudos. I have my doubts.

“Spitballing” typically runs every Tuesday.