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John Baker, Jeremy Brown, coal mines and class

Coal Miners

NOTE: John Baker responded to this article on Twitter. His comments are reproduced below.

Larry Stone of the Seattle Times has an interesting article about journeyman catcher John Baker, who is trying to make the Mariners this spring. Interesting in multiple ways, really.

Baker, a self-described liberal from the Bay Area, comes from an educated background. His parents both have graduate degrees from Stanford and his brother is a highly skilled musician who plays in a symphony orchestra. Baker, for his part, is well-read -- especially for a baseball player, not a lot of whom seek to debate Christopher Hitchens with teammates -- and has an intellectual bearing which makes him something of an exotic in baseball circles. There aren’t a ton of players in the game at any given time like Baker. And when there is, they tend to get hung with the nickname “Professor” or something.

But there’s a second level of interesting here, and that comes when Baker -- part of the famous 2002 Oakland Athletics “Moneyball” draft class -- talks about fellow “Moneyball draftee” Jeremy Brown. Brown, a fellow catcher, may have been the most famous of anyone in that draft class for he was the non-traditionally physiqued fellow who prompted Billy Beane to famously tell his assembled scouts that “we’re not selling jeans here.” In the movie, film is played of him falling down while circling the bases, making him both a focus of some humor and a symbol for Beane’s non-traditional approach.

As Jerry Crasnick reported a few years ago, Brown quit baseball after a brief career which saw him make the majors for a cup of coffee but not much more. Crasnick’s story suggests that Brown had an issue of some sort adjusting to baseball life and that he went home to Alabama. Brown now works in a coal mine. Baker elaborates on that:

“That’s a sad one for me, ‘’ Baker said. “We were catchers drafted at the same time, we played together for a long time and became really close. We had contrasting personalities. You have the kind of liberal, educated guy from Berkeley, and then the Southern coal-miner’s son from Hueytown, Alabama. Me and him hit it off really well and became very, very, very good friends while we were playing, even though the A’s kind of tried to pit us against each other and make us compete.
“We took that as, let’s figure out how we can win baseball games and be good teammates to each other. We became close, so it’s been sad for me since he quit in 2008. It’s sad to see that path and him in a coal mine because he’s one of the more talented guys I’ve ever seen in baseball.”

It’s the kind of comment that may not make a lot of people bat an eye. But contrast it with Brown’s own recent comments about his lot in life and job in that coal mine. This comes from a photo essay by photographer Tabitha Soren, who has followed the 2002 Athletics draft class around for over 12 years, chronicling their progress through life:

In 2008, the Alabama native announced his retirement, walked away from the game and returned home to Hueytown to follow in the footsteps of his father and become a coal miner. In his life after baseball, Brown and Dad descend into the mines at night, emerging the next morning covered in coal dust. “Playing baseball is something that I loved to do, but I’m happier now because of my family and not because of my job,” Brown says. “I’m married with a little boy and a little girl. I’m able to coach youth baseball.” Most important? “I’m home and not traveling all the time.”

Coming from West Virginia, I grew up with a lot of kids whose fathers, uncles, brothers and cousins worked in coal mines. Indeed, I grew up with a lot of kids who themselves ended up working in the mines. My children have several uncles and cousins who do as well. It’s hard work most of us couldn’t begin to imagine and the danger it presents and the toll it takes on miners’ bodies is extraordinary. The companies which run these mines exploit their workers and the land they mine in ways are just as shocking as they are criminally underreported and under-regulated. Most people in coal country would prefer it if their children didn’t have to follow them into the mines. Most people realize, however, that there isn’t always that kind of choice available given all manner of circumstances.

But that notwithstanding, Brown doesn’t sound particularly “sad” to me. Does he sound sad to you? Yes, all of us try to put the best face on our life to strangers, but it’s quite a presumption, however well-meaning, for Baker to assume that Brown’s lot in life is a “sad” one. It’s certainly a life that a son of two Stanford educated parents who grew up in the Bay Area in relative comfort and who has made a few million dollars playing baseball can’t particularly relate to, but I wonder if Brown truly thinks his situation is “sad,” even if coal mines are bad places to work. Even if he’s not living the life he dreamed of when he was a teenager.

I don’t mean to be too critical of Baker here. I doubt there was a ton of thought or meaning behind his comments to Stone. But there is a tendency among people of a certain type -- educated, usually liberal and of a certain financial and social class -- to assume people of a different type -- rural, blue collar -- are unhappy with their lot in life. Or, more to the point, can’t be happy with their lot in life by virtue of where they live or what they do for a living. There’s a paternalism and a classism to that sort of sentiment that grates on me. It’s a phenomenon that lends itself to a lot of hand-wringing about the “poor souls” of less unfortunate circumstances but not a whole hell of a lot of action or change which could actually make those “poor souls’” lives better.

You know what makes the lives of people with hard, blue collar jobs enjoyable and endurable? Family and religion and, sometimes, country music and stuff like that. Next time you find yourself in a conversation with a well-off person who grew up in a liberal background in the Bay Area who likes to read Christopher Hitchens and whose brother plays in a symphony orchestra, turn the conversation to evangelical Christianity, country music and family. Oh, also bring up the idea of building a nuclear power plant someplace in the Bay Area (nothing would close coal mines faster than a few more nuclear power plants). I’m guessing that conversation will be kind of fun.

And yes, here I am now stereotyping. We all do it to some degree. We should probably do it way less. And we should probably avoid trying to determine how happy and content someone is based on where they live and what they do. For the simple reason that we’re not, in fact, in their shoes.

UPDATE: After some extended conversation between someone on Twitter and me, Baker responded: