Giants, MLB Now Learning New Cost of Doing the Business of Politics

It might well be that Major League Baseball suddenly has a fierce rooting interest in the Mississippi Senate race, and it might be for the candidate to whom it gave $5,000 to lose.

And that goes for Charles Johnson and the San Francisco Giants as well.

The people who own the 30 baseball teams give money to candidates during every election cycle as an attempt to keep its lobbyists visible and access-worthy, and they come from both sides of the aisle. It's called hedging one's bets, and MLB does it just as the NFL, NBA and NHL do it, and just as most large corporations do it. You can't have legislative protections without legislative protectors -- it's the nature of democracy for sale. Noble and pure of heart, it is not.

But one of the candidates to whom Johnson, the Giants' principal owner, and his wife gave money is Mississippi Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith, whose fondness for the bad old days includes a stated willingness to attend a public hanging and to suppress liberal voter turnout as part of her general view that the Confederacy is "Mississippi history at its best." Hyde-Smith, who is running against Democrat Mike Espy and is expected to win what once was a lopsided runoff election Tuesday, will have President Donald Trump campaigning for her Monday in Gulfport and Tupelo.

Indeed, both MLB and the Johnsons made the maximum donations allowed by law, which has stirred considerable anger among the liberal segment of their fan bases and even cries for a boycott and/or player action.

The MLB political action committee has requested that its money be returned, claiming it was unaware of Hyde-Smith's public comments, although the donation was dated Friday, just three days ago. Several other corporations, including WalMart and Union Pacific, have done the same.

In addition, the Giants put out a broader statement on the issue Monday, condemning Hyde-Smith's words and politics without ever mentioning her by name, or for that matter the Johnsons.

But the interesting part is that the statement, attributed to Giants CEO Larry Baer, allows for diversity of opinion on political matters, which comes short of criticizing Johnson's contribution.

"The Giants have more than 30 owners," the statement read in part. "Many give to Democratic causes, many to Republican causes and some refrain from politics altogether. Neither I nor anyone else at the Giants can control who any of our owners support politically, just as we cannot and should not control whom any of our employees support politically."

Whether this satisfies the audience remains to be seen. Baer is trying to delicately dance around the fact that Johnson holds the most stock in the team, and he hopes the statement alone will mollify the customers.

It probably won't.

But there is no real remedy for the anger aimed at MLB or the Giants for a choice that might have been sloppily conceived but now is visibly offensive to a segment of its fan base. That is, unless somehow Hyde-Smith loses Tuesday.

MLB described the contribution as "made in connection with an event that MLB lobbyists were asked to attend," which if true suggests it was one of a number of donations made to Republican candidates, just as it would do for Democratic candidates if it would help protect them from what it would consider unfriendly legislation.

In other words, the most charitable view toward Major League Baseball is that this looks like bulk donating without any kind of vetting -- a dangerous practice it would do well to discontinue. The least charitable view, of course, is that MLB sees Hyde-Smith's general views as compatible with its own, which would be far worse.

In either event, the Giants and MLB have been confronted with a new paradigm, namely actually having to decide what level of outrage they can stomach for donating to campaigns of people whose views their customers find abhorrent, like the Hyde-Smiths of the system.

It means that pleading "oops" and asking for a refund no longer is the easy way out. And if Smith-Hyde wins, the Giants' and MLB's particular "oops" here will be there to see for at least two more years, as the election is to fill out the term of retired senator Thad Cochran. That's a long time to give people a reason not to patronize your particular shop, and reason for Johnson and MLB commissioner Rob Manfred to hope at least a little for an Espy victory -- if not to gain a new friend but not to be saddled to a potential embarrassment.

More immediately, Johnson might have to face the fact that a mere third-party statement will not satisfy the customers, and that he will have to break his public silence on an issue for perhaps the first time in his tenure atop the Giants' organizational pyramid. Baseball, you see, might not actually be a public trust, but it acts like it often enough that its customers have come to think of it that way.

In short, there is some serious explaining to be done here by a lot of people, both locally and nationally, because business as usual in this case has been a disaster.

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