This weekend at the St. Louis Cardinals Spring Training site in Jupiter, Fla., ESPN Cardinals beat reporter Mark Saxon asked newly signed center fielder Dexter Fowler what he thought of President Donald Trump's executive order to block immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries. This was not a baiting, out-of-nowhere question from Saxon: Fowler's wife was born in Iran and has family there.
Fowler, a player who is known for being active in his community, outgoing, beloved in every city he has ever played, responded to Saxon honestly, saying that his wife's sister -- an American citizen, like Fowler's wife -- had to delay a return from a business trip in Qatar to make certain she wouldn't be detained at the border. Fowler also said that he and his wife had planned on taking their two-year-old daughter -- who is an excellent sports baby -- to visit some members of his wife's family in Iran but cancelled the plans because of Trump's ban.
(Seriously, Dexter Fowler's daughter is extremely cute.)
Fowler then added this: "It's huge. Especially any time you're unable to see family, it's unfortunate."
Fowler did not say:
• "Donald Trump is a terrible president."
• "Donald Trump is a bad person."
• "I think Donald Trump's Muslim ban is evil and anti-American."
• "I disagree with Donald Trump on most political issues."
• "I voted for Hillary Clinton."
• "If you like Donald Trump, you are a bad person."
• "I am attempting to make a strong political statement right now."
He was asked a question about whether a proposed national policy -- a national policy that has been the single most widely-discussed proposal of the new president's short time in office -- would directly affect him. He said that it already had, and that it was unfortunate, because it made life more difficult for direct members of his family.
Within minutes of Saxon posting his short, one-paragraph item about this -- an item that didn't even make the front page of ESPN's baseball index page -- Fowler immediately began receiving intense backlash, as anyone does any time they say anything in the public discourse these days.
Much of this backlash -- the vast majority of it -- came from Cardinals fans. Specifically, a certain subset of Cardinals fans that tickles the internet fancy, the one of The Best Fans In Baseball twitter account. If you wanted to find people saying terrible things to Fowler on Twitter -- and it's clearly that many people wanted to find that exact thing -- they were not difficult to locate.
Fowler, whose signing with the Cardinals back in December was one of the biggest free agent acquisition the Cardinals have had in years and was celebrated by every corner of the fan base, was unable to ignore the backlash, tweeting twice in response to some of the horrific things raining down on him.
Welp.Since I have a nice little chunk of people who hate me cuz I have an opinion.I'm going to do a nice giveaway away for the good people.- Dexter Fowler (@DexterFowler) February 19, 2017
For the record. I know this is going to sound absolutely crazy, but athletes are humans, and not properties of the team they work for.- Dexter Fowler (@DexterFowler) February 19, 2017
It is probably worth noting here that Fowler is one of the most popular, fan-friendly athletes in all of professional sports, and if you are screaming with fury at him about anything, it is time to re-evaluate your place in the world.
As frustrating as Cardinals fans like me find the widespread, deeply inaccurate notion that all Cards fans are knuckle-dragging racists who spend most of their days screaming epithets at people on the internet … the first thing I thought -- the first thing -- when I saw Fowler's comments to Saxon was, "Uh-oh."
Not "uh-oh" in that "Dexter Fowler just said something he shouldn't have," because obviously Fowler can say whatever the hell he wants and also he didn't even really say much of anything in the first place. But "uh-oh" in that, "This is not going to go over well with a small subsect of Cardinals fans and they're going to release a bunch of horror on the internet and this is going to become a Thing."
We have seen some of this spill into the real world, not just the online one. The story about Cardinals fans yelling racial epithets at Jason Heyward in his first game back in St. Louis turned out not to be true, but there is the incident outside Busch Stadium during the National League Division Series in 2014, in which a group of people protesting the Michael Brown shooting in nearby Ferguson were met with disgusting language and overt threats of violence. That video is no longer available online, but it remains one of the more repulsive things I've ever seen at a sporting event. And of course let's not forget this guy.
The instant force field Cardinals fans put up when jerks like those fans yelling at Fowler is always something like, "All teams have jerk fans like that. Obviously not all Cardinals fans are like that." And both of those statements are true. Witness this:
But it is also increasingly difficult to ignore that the Cardinals have too many fans like that.
This is not something sinister about the Cardinals, some secret organizationally nefarious plan to succeed by appealing to racists and monsters. This seems to be largely a case of geography. The Cardinals have a lot of fans, but also draw many fans -- more fans than most teams -- from rural areas. Rural Missouri, rural Illinois, rural Iowa, rural Arkansas, rural Tennessee, rural Oklahoma, rural Indiana, rural Kentucky, rural Mississippi, rural Alabama … these have always been hotbeds for Cardinals fans. Many families in these areas -- including mine, in Central Illinois -- have passed down Cardinals fandom for generations, much of it forged from when the Cardinals were the Westernmost team in baseball and when the KMOX Radio signal provided the only baseball games available for countless fans. Cardinals fandom is a central aspect of identity in rural areas, and has been for nearly 100 years.
But as has been made abundantly clear in the past two years of our public conversation, those rural communities have grown increasingly angry -- in some cases justifiably, in some cases entirely irrationally -- and have found a voice in President Trump. They are the ones most likely to support his Muslim ban -- they are also, totally not coincidentally, the least likely to have ever met a Muslim person -- and the ones most likely to scream about it in ugly ways online, something that we're all acutely aware of, certainly outside the context of just baseball.
This is Trump's base, and it is heavily concentrated in rural areas. And traditionally, in these rural areas, the most popular baseball team has been the St. Louis Cardinals.
It should be noted that your average Cardinals fan is not from these rural spots, and your average Cardinals fan would never yell at Dexter Fowler about how frustrating it is that he can't travel freely to see his own family. Your average baseball fan wouldn't do that. Your average human wouldn't.
But the ones that would still exist. And as long as these are the demographics, this is going to be a bigger problem for the Cardinals than it will be for the San Francisco Giants or the Seattle Mariners. It doesn't mean that the Cardinals organization is racist, or that Cardinals fans, in total, are racist. It just means that a team like the Cardinals, which has a big fan base and is more likely to have fans in these rural, pro-Trump areas than many other teams, is going to always face this.
It is also worth noting that the Cardinals themselves could do more to combat this. When your star free agent signing, the guy you just installed as one of the faces of your franchise for the next five years, is noticing that, uh, there's a lot of racist Cardinals fans who will attack him for entirely innocuous comments about his family that aren't even particularly political, it wouldn't hurt to acknowledge that.
Dexter Fowler is going to be beloved in St. Louis. He's a high-wattage, infectiously likable presence who, oh by the way, is precisely what the Cards needed in the field, in the lineup and in the locker room. I already own his jersey, and so does my dad, and we'll both be wearing them, along with thousands of others, when we watch the Cardinals play at Busch Stadium this year. It remains a wonderful city to play baseball, as any player who has put on a Cardinals uniform will tell you.
But this is a franchise, and a fan base, that should stop denying that there is a vocal, ugly minority of the Cardinals Nation. If Fowler -- who, again, was just talking about his family -- can see it before he's played a game at Busch Stadium, the rest of us need to be able to see it too. And try to do something about it.
Baseball season is almost here, and seeing Fowler put on a Cardinals uniform is a unique pleasure and opportunity: He's an absolute joy to have on one's team. (Ask any Cubs fan.) This is the opposite of how a player like him, a gift like him, should be welcomed. I can't wait to watch him play. I just hope, after this weekend, he wants to be here as badly as I want him to be. I love this team, and I love this town, and I love that Fowler is now a part of it. But you can't pretend ugliness isn't there: Fowler surely can't. The Cardinals' top star, their primary source of offseason optimism, the driving force of the whole 2017 season and seasons beyond, said he's worried about being able to go see his family in another country, and the first thing I thought was "uh-oh, that's going to be rough for him." If the Cardinals organization can't see that's a problem, I'm not sure what else it might possibly take.