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During my six and a half years covering major league baseball for Sports Illustrated, there was no player I liked more than Mike Sweeney. The Royals' first baseman was the real deal -- an honest-to-goodness decent human being who treated fans with love and carried himself with an uncommon dignity. While reporting a 1999 profile on him, I followed Sweeney around Kansas City, from an autograph show to church to the ballpark. To this day, I admire him greatly.
That said, I would no sooner seek Sweeney's political advice than I would run naked through the streets of Mahopac, N.Y. alongside Vanilla Ice, Ron LeFlore and six one-armed dwarves while whistling "Method of Modern Love" out of my third nipple.
This is nothing personal, of course, but a reaction to a recent advertisement in Missouri that counters the now-famous Michael J. Fox spot in support of stem cell research. In the response ad, Sweeney, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Jeff Suppan, Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, the dude who played Jesus in the Mel Gibson movie, and Ray Romano's TV wife make impassioned pleas to vote NO on an amendment to the state constitution that would permit extensive stem cell research.
In the course of my life, I have tolerated literally hundreds of dunderheads telling me how to vote -- from Ted Haggard on morals (uh, oops) to Charlton Heston on guns to Olympia Dukakis on her family to Annette Benning and Warren Beatty on civil liberties. Though it may well be the American way, giving the famous among us a pulpit to express their views is, usually, an exercise in cranial disintegration.
And then, just when things can't get worse
Enter: The jocks.
I know I know. There is a curious, insightful athlete out there somewhere. Three or four, even. But when push comes to shove, no population in society is less qualified to guide voters than pro athletes. Not doctors, not lawyers, not garbagemen, dogcatchers, dishwashers, librarians, sportswriters -- no one.
Unlike, say, normal people, America's professional sports stars reside in a universe that is pure Fantasy Island. Room service is included, flights are chartered, dollars are limitless, groupies are curvaceous, and deep thought is, frankly, a foreign concept. Based on the basic human ideal of togetherness, one would expect the athletic clubhouse to be a place where men from different backgrounds exchange ideas and life stories; where open-mindedness reigns supreme and a "We Are The World" sensibility holds court.
For nearly every athlete I have covered, the political process is a way to:
A. Vote for the guy who's gonna keep me rich.
B. Vote for the guy who wants Jesus to strike down all those who oppose my will.
C. Vote for the guy with the hot wife.
D. Vote for the guy I think I might have maybe sorta kinda heard of. Maybe.
E. Just skip it and get a slice of pizza.
There is a reason why, in this era of indisputable global warming, most pro athletes cruise the streets in vehicles large enough to house the Butterbean family reunion. There is a reason why, seven years after Columbine, more pro athletes than not believe it's "cool" to possess -- and often show off -- a firearm. There is a reason why, despite the ongoing integration of gays and lesbians into general society, most athletes think "queers" and "fags" are damned to an eternity in hell.
Why, I remember a conversation I had with a pair of veteran Mets pitchers before the 2004 election, when both men agreed we should go into "Egypt or wherever" and "just blow up" every "towel-headed terrorist."
It's the classic example of reaping what we sow. In demanding that athletes devote 100 percent to their craft, we are also demanding that athletes devote zero percent to their brains. Why read literature when there's Jerry Springer on the clubhouse TV? Why play chess when extra BP starts in five minutes? Why try to grasp the intricacies of nuclear proliferation or school vouchers when the chick in seat 23R is eyeballing me?
Through all my years as a sportswriter, I've come across very few athletes who possess the off-the-field curiosity to take a real, honest-to-goodness stab at politics. (As opposed to men like Sweeney, Suppan and Warner, Bible-thumpers who thank Jesus for touchdowns and base hits but never seem to ask His Holiness why the Sudan remains in disarray -- if they even know the Sudan is in disarray). One was Al Leiter, the conservative ex-pitcher who studied the issues. Another was Mike Mussina, a brilliant man who eschews the clubhouse buffet of Maxim, FHM and Playboy for the New York Times. Perhaps the best of the bunch was a journeyman catcher named Brian Johnson, who between 1994 and 2001 played for six teams and hit .248 with 49 homers and 196 RBIs.
Now a Detroit-based loan officer and financial educator, Johnson spent much of his time in the bigs wondering why more players weren't concerned with the goings-on of, say, Earth. "Clubhouses aren't segregated physically, but they are segregated in terms of ideas and what you talk about," says Johnson. "People don't get in-depth about issues in the clubhouse, because there's no apparent reason to. Everything is about winning and losing and statistics and the here and now. You bond over that stuff, not talking about how you grew up and what's going on at the White House."
Johnson, however, was different. He read newspapers, read books, watched political TV and cringed. A white kid raised in largely black Oakland, Johnson married an African-American woman and found himself fitting in (and not fitting in) with multiple cultures. When he is told of the Sweeney advertisement, Johnson pauses. "I played with Mike and Suppan -- they're both great guys," he says. "But I can't agree with what they're supporting."
What goes unsaid here is that -- according to Johnson and others -- about 98 percent of major leaguers are conservative Republicans, for reasons either financial or societal. "A lot of guys don't even know why they're Republican," says Johnson. "They see the struggles minorities and different people go through, and I'd say they even empathize. But when they go home in the offseason, they're expected to be a certain way and maintain old beliefs."
For the record, my bet is on Johnson to become the next Jim Bunning or Steve Largent. Sure, he might be a tad too liberal for national tastes (Johnson is anti-gun, pro-gay marriage, pro-environment and anti-the war in Iraq, though he is a big admirer of John McCain). But he's smart, well-spoken, affable and genuine. Plus, he has an interest.
"Just because you're an athlete with a famous name doesn't mean you'd be good at running a state or country," says Johnson. "I think a lot of people make that mistake when voting. They go for fame. But I also think someone with a sports background can serve the people well if he's righteous.
"It starts with your principals and ideals. Do you care about people? Are you worried about the future? Is it your goal to make the world better? Most important, are you open to different viewpoints and ideas? Are you an athlete who wants to be an athlete? Or are you an athlete who wants to step up and do something bigger than sports?"
In other words, are you more than just a jock?
Are you a human being?
Jeff Pearlman is a former Sports Illustrated senior writer and the author of "Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds & the Making of an Antihero."