A Creative Theater Production Knits Baseball and Politics – Hardball Times
One of the greatest cons the American baseball institution has pulled on this country is the idea that sports and politics are separate fields, never to be intertwined. Safe at Home, the latest sports production from Minneapolis’s Mixed Blood Theatre, refuses to abide by that separation from the get-go.
Safe at Home is a unique production, staged at St. Paul’s CHS Field, home of the St. Paul Saints, an independent baseball team known for its creative and wacky promotions and for being one of the best fan experiences in baseball. The Saints lent their three-year old park in the heart of St. Paul for Safe at Home. Groups of roughly 25 audience members were brought through nine areas of the stadium, with a seven-minute scene unfolding at each stop along the way. I attended the production Saturday, March 11, the fifth of the production’s six-night run.
CHS Field, a 7,210-seat stadium, serves as a stand-in for San Diego’s PETCO Park. The night of the play, the park is set to host Game Seven of the World Series between the Padres and the Rangers, creating a scenario in which a first-time champion is guaranteed. But in the play’s first scene, a bombshell is dropped at the Padres manager’s pre-game press conference: San Diego’s Game Seven starter, 25-year-old Dominican sensation Victor Castillo, is considering a monumental protest, in the form of refusing to pitch.
As the audience moves through the stadium, the story reveals itself. A conversation between a young Dominican churro vendor and a veteran white beer vendor reveals the difference in perceptions of Castillo among San Diego’s racial communities. A trip to an out-of-the-way media room reveals the club owner’s attempt to bribe the reporter pushing the boycott story. In the men’s bathroom, two friends argue over one’s decision to wear the rivals’ colors in blatant disrespect of the man who provided the tickets. The next stop, the luxury suite of the Democratic candidate for President, reveals the implications of Castillo’s decision go far deeper than just the result of Game Seven.
Below the stadium in the batting cage, the umpire crew chief clashes with an MLB executive over accusations of past racism from a member of his crew. As we head back upstairs, a dance-off between the San Diego Chicken and the Swinging Friar offers a slight, but needed, relief of tension. In the home locker room, a clash between San Diego’s black general manager and Latino pitching coach shows the complexity of the racial calculus in major league locker rooms. And finally, in the tunnel leading to the dugout, Castillo grapples with his consciousness before making his fateful decision.
If that sounds complicated, well, you’re right: Safe at Home is truly a masterpiece of logistics. To keep things properly moving for the groups of viewers following right after each other, every scene had to begin and end perfectly on time. Each room had a TV system set up to keep the actors and stage managers on track — there were Padres highlights on repeat during the breaks, in which I saw more Melvin Upton Jr. footage than I ever thought was possible.
The play was the creation of playwrights Gabriel Greene and Alex Levy, both of whom self-identify as baseball fans. Mike Veeck (Bill’s son) was one of their consultants. The production was seamless despite all the moving parts, a particularly impressive feat considering the limited amount of time everybody had together. The actors repeated each scene six times an hour for three hours a night, each time for a new group of audience members.
From the first scene, the idea that the baseball field and the political arena can be kept separate is deconstructed. Perhaps what I found most impressive about what Safe at Home managed to fit into just nine scenes and roughly an hour of content was the play’s scope. It excellently illustrated just how large of a cultural reach baseball has, how it can serve as a mirror for our class and racial politics, and how a simple game can impact the worlds of people ranging from wage workers to presidential candidates. It illustrated the role of the press in creating this separation and enforcing Major League Baseball’s apolitical vision, and how much power the press could have if it covered baseball like it covered the news.
In this willingness to challenge the dominant sports narratives, Safe at Home separates itself from the typical baseball story. It does not exist, as films like “Field of Dreams” do, to reaffirm our faith in baseball’s established institutions and traditions. It doesn’t exist to put baseball on a pedestal or exalt a bygone golden era. By eschewing these tropes, Safe at Home freed itself to explore the real stories impacting the lives of those in the baseball world, from those as instrumental as the players and owners and those as tangential as fans and public figures from other walks of life.
Victor Castillo, the play’s protagonist, may not be a real player in today’s major league baseball, but his story should read as familiar to any baseball fan. He is a phenom, a 25-year-old in his sixth season as a major leaguer who just finished a breakout campaign as a 22-game winner and is the shoo-in favorite for the Cy Young Award. But as the play’s action develops, it becomes clear the relationship between Castillo and the San Diego fans has not always been rosy. We hear from the vendors that Castillo’s early career was inconsistent, and that his talk was not always backed up by his performance, something that irked many Padres fans — especially the white ones. We learn that the city is anxious about Castillo being in a contract year, that he’ll bolt, and that the team’s newfound success will be fleeting as a result.
But equally fascinating is the impact Castillo’s decision has beyond the diamond. The Game Seven in question takes place just a week before a presidential election, and the Democratic candidate has recently revised her stance on immigration, deciding to compromise with the right and crack down on undocumented immigrants in a bid to win more votes in swing states. When the sitting president’s aide comes to tell the candidate his office would throw his support behind Castillo should he choose to follow through with his protest, she is left with a difficult decision to make: flip-flop on her new immigration stance, or face a disagreement with one of the most popular presidents in history on a key Democratic issue.
Racial politics drives much of the play’s plot. Topics range from the immigration issue to the polarization of white and Latino fans to the differing experiences of black and Latino athletes in the locker room. The scene in the batting cage provides one of the play’s most tense moments, when the white head of umpires confronts the black crew chief about a fellow umpire’s nasty history with Castillo, only to get some of his past words thrown back at him. And the scene in the home locker room between San Diego’s Latino pitching coach and black general manager shows the multiple loyalties — family, friends, race, career — influencing the decision making of every actor involved.
Perhaps most fascinating is how Safe at Home presents baseball’s race issue as not just black (or brown) versus white. Race and baseball intersect at multiple angles, and the play’s scope is massive, especially considering it all fits into nine short scenes.
I can’t finish without discussing the dance scene between the San Diego Chicken and the Swingin’ Friar, a scene which contained not a single speaking line and yet may have elicited more emotions from my friends and I than anything else we saw that night. The way those mascots moved was truly poetry in motion. What started off as pure comic relief turned into a poignant display of unrequited love between the dancers inside the costumes. Alas, in the end, it isn’t meant to be, but suffice to say I’ll never look at mascots the same way again.
Safe at Home finishes with most of its loose ends untied. Does the Democratic presidential candidate reverse her recent strong position against illegal immigration? Do the two fans we see arguing in the men’s bathroom ever make up? Does the reporter publish his story before game time, or does he take the owner’s bribe to stay quiet? And of course, the pivotal question, does Castillo pitch?
Rather than answer these questions, the play ends just before the moment of decision, which I think is a phenomenal storytelling choice. The point of Safe at Home isn’t whether or not Victor Castillo pitches Game Seven of this fictional World Series. The point is to tell the stories of all the different worlds colliding at the ballpark, and to explore the motivations and internal conflicts of the characters within. Because these questions are left unanswered, the audience focus remains on these conflicts rather than on their resolution, which I think is appropriate. These conflicts don’t end with the final out of the World Series in real life, so why should they in the play?
One reason I love Mixed Blood Theatre is because it has been utterly unafraid to confront the world of sports. Safe at Home is the 17th sports production it has put on, and the second I have seen and loved. Unfortunately, too many people believe that arts and sports are two absolutely separate realms, never to be combined. Safe at Home shows how much value the theater community can bring to sports, and vice-versa. The presentation allowed us to confront these critical and underexplored baseball stories all in one place, and the unique and innovative use of CHS Field made every scene feel that much more real as an audience member. Unfortunately, no other productions are scheduled, in Minnesota or elsewhere. Here’s hoping Safe at Home will be able to find other ballparks to call home across the country, because every baseball fan deserves a chance to see it.