1998, for lack of a more original phrase, was a hell of a year for baseball.
The New York Yankees won 114 games in the regular season, one of the best single-season win records the sport has ever seen. Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Ken Griffey Jr. reinvigorated national interest in the game with their race to break Roger Maris’s single-season home run record.
And most importantly, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was in its 7th and final season.
In 1993 Star Trek: Deep Space Nine premiered. The series was one of two Star Trek: The Next Generation spinoffs, the other being Star Trek: Voyager, which would premiere two years later.
Deep Space Nine is sometimes seen as a bit of an oddball among Star Trek diehards and casual viewers alike.
Set on a Federation space station, (aptly named “Deep Space Nine”, obviously), one of the most common jokes I hear about the series is that the characters, “Boldly Stay Where No One Has Stayed Before”, since, being set on space station, exploration was not a primary theme of the series, diverting it sharply from the standards set by Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
The show was as notable as it was different from previous Trek however, featuring the first African-American captain on a Star Trek television series, Benjamin Sisko, played by Avery Brooks.
Deep Space Nine very wisely never shied away from or homogenized Sisko’s race either.
One noteworthy example of this was in the episode, “Badda Bing Badda Bang”, where the majority of the main characters are trying to help their friend, holographic 1960s lounge singer, Vic Fontaine, retake his holographic casino. (Well, ya know. Because. Star Trek.) In the episode, the crew reaches out to Captain Sisko for his help, but he initially refuses. Why? I’ll let him explain:
Captain Sisko: You want to know... you really want to know what my problem is? I’ll tell you: Las Vegas 1962, that’s my problem. In 1962, black people weren’t very welcome there. Oh sure, they could be performers or janitors, but customers? Never.
Kasidy Yates: Maybe that’s the way it was in the real Vegas, but that is not the way it is at Vic’s. I have never felt uncomfortable there, and neither has Jake.
Captain Sisko: But don’t you see? That’s the lie. In 1962, the civil rights movement was still in its infancy. It wasn’t an easy time for our people, and I’m not going to pretend that it was.
Kasidy Yates: Baby - I know that Vic’s isn’t a totally accurate representation of the way things were, but... it isn’t meant to be. It shows us the way things could’ve been - the way they should’ve been.
Captain Sisko: We cannot ignore the truth about the past.
On why that exchange was included, taken from the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Companion, writer Ira Steven Behr elaborates:
Behr explains, “We didn’t want the audience, especially the younger audience, to think that 1962 Las Vegas was a place where you had a lot of black people sitting in the audience at nightclubs, or enjoying themselves at hotels and casinos. That just didn’t happen. So by having someone of Sisko’s historical understanding questioning that fact, we could clarify before we got him to Vic’s that he’s well aware that Vegas was very, very, very white.”
It’s this kind of awareness that makes Deep Space Nine special, because it takes a decidedly different tone from previous Trek episodes attempting to comment on racial injustice. Rather than propping an alien race to the forefront of the discussion as some kind of metaphor for social inequality, it depicted and addressed actual human racism.
The strongest example of this however, was in the season 6 episode, “Far Beyond the Stars”, where Sisko sees a vision of himself as an African-American science fiction writer on 1950s Earth named Benny Russell. The bulk of the episode deals with Benny’s difficulties as a Black man in getting one of his stories published because it features a Black main character.
The episode is a critical and fan favorite, and when you watch it, it’s easy to see why. Brooks, who also directed the episode, gives a powerful performance, and in a retrospective from Startrek.com, Brooks comments on the episode’s handling of racism, something that is often cited as one of the guiding principles on which Star Trek is based:
“What’s insidious about racism is that it is unconscious,” explains Avery Brooks, who directed the episode while simultaneously playing Benny (and Ben). “It’s in the culture. It’s the way people think. So that was the approach we took. I never talked about racism. I just showed how these intelligent people think, and it all came out of them.
Social justice issues aside however, this show and its captain were very different from their predecessors.
Sisko was once married. He was also raising a son named Jake, played by Cirroc Lofton, nephew to former Cleveland Indian Center fielder Kenny Lofton. Sisko’s relationship with Jake became one of the series’ touchstones.
Marriage and fatherhood were a far cry from the swinging bachelor that was James T. Kirk or the methodically reserved romances of Captain Picard, who were both often defined by their absences or failures as father figures, rather than their successes at raising a child, like Sisko.
Sisko, as a captain, and as a character, wore his emotions on his sleeve. He was more likely to lash out or show his emotional hand than Kirk, who usually carried an arrogant kind of swagger, or Picard, who typically only had extreme displays of emotions in the Next Gen movies.
(Also, I’m totally not forgetting Janeway and Archer. I’m just trying to illustrate Sisko’s prominence and place as the Third Captain, and his direct relation to what came before him, and not what came after. Love Janeway though. Archer, is um...Hi, Archer!)
Hell, Sisko even got thrown out of a baseball game once.
You see, Star Trek captains tend to have a specific...thing associated with them. Usually a specific hobby or interest that often serves as a way to give them a little more depth or humanize them further.
Kirk was raised in Iowa, he only worked in space.
Picard loved archaeology and not being a Borg.
Janeway had a deep passion for science and coffee.
Doctor Samuel Beckett Archer couldn’t shut up about his dog, Ziggy Porthos.
And Sisko? Well, Sisko LOVED baseball.
In it’s 7th and final season, Deep Space Nine was in the process of wrapping up a near series long story arc involving the Federation’s war with another interstellar power known as The Dominion. This kind of serialized storytelling was a first for Trek, as the series was typically comprised of procedural and self-contained episodes, aside from the occasional two-parter.
The tone was also drastically different though from a Star Trek show. Rather than depicting the usually cheery and optimistic side of humanity that humanity is supposedly known for in the 24th century, it often touched on complicated issues of morality and war. It makes sense; one of the show’s main voices was Ronald D. Moore, also known for his work on the 2004 reboot of Battlestar Galactica, which has a similar feel to Deep Space Nine in some ways.
So it made it even more odd when the staff devoted an entire episode to Sisko and his crew playing a baseball game against a bunch of Vulcans to settle an old rivalry from Sisko’s Academy days.
The episode, titled, “Take Me Out to the Holosuite”, was something that writer Ira Behr says they always wanted to do. From issue 50 of Star Trek Monthly, he explains:
One of the things we wanted to do, and one of the many things that we wanted to do over the years on the series, was bring baseball back into the 24th century. Baseball is Michael Piller’s favorite sport, but in the first episode he ever wrote for Star Trek, he killed baseball. Why, we still don’t know, but we thought we owed it to him to bring baseball back, even though he had chosen to kill it”.
Baseball was a pretty big reoccurring theme for Sisko in the series. In his office, you could often see a baseball resting on his desk, which became kind of a minor symbol for his presence on the station in later episodes.
One episode even featured his son, Jake, trying to procure a Willie Mays rookie card for his father as a gift.
In “Take Me Out to the Holosuite”, the crew plays the game up against a superior-in-every-way Vulcan team, led by Sisko’s Starfleet Academy rival, a Vulcan named Solok.
Much of the fun of the episode is watching the 24th century crew learn about the game, as well as their complete ineptitude on the field, since at this point in Star Trek timeline, it’s no longer played professionally and is mostly a curiosity or hobby among eclectic enthusiasts like Sisko and his girlfriend, Kasidy Yates.
It’s especially hilarious watching the usually serious and dour Klingon, Worf, take to the game as if it’s an epic battle to the death. Though for some people it kind of is.
The episode also serves as a nice break to the heavy war stuff of the rest of the season, and it’s a great one-off for people who’ve never watched the show, since no prior knowledge of the ongoing plot is really necessary to enjoy it. Also, I’m not going to bother with recap; it doesn’t have a surprise ending and the plot isn’t anything spectactular. It ends pretty how much you’d expect, but that doesn’t make it any less fun.
There’s also something very Sisko about baseball though. Maybe it’s speed at which the game is played, maybe it’s the raw emotion of it.
I hate that I’m channeling Bob Costas here, but attaching baseball to the character feels so much more genuine than if it was some goofy fictional SCI-FI sport like Parrises Squares. Maybe it’s because of baseball’s deep seated and troubled history of race relations, that it causes Sisko’s love of the game and Brooks’ portrayal of the character to be that much more poignant.
Maybe it just lets me live out an innocent appreciation of the sport that I simply didn’t have as a child. I’ve seen baseball games, I’ve been to them, I get to watch and listen to them. Sisko does too, in a way. Maybe it’s all of those things.
I think most in the general public will tell you that Kirk is their favorite captain, usually due to his name recognition and lasting presence as a pop-culture icon, followed by Picard. But I almost never hear anyone say Sisko.
And that’s a shame.
Some fun behind-the-scenes stuff:
- The worst player on the team in the episode, Rom, played by Max Grodenchik, was actually the most skilled baseball player in real life, and supposedly considered going professional before he turned to acting. Apparently Armin Shimerman could also ball. Who knew Ferengi had it in them?
- The baseball coach for the cast, Joey Banks, is also the son of Ernie Banks.
- Someone actually scored the game!
I didn’t really come to enjoy sports until a few years into my adulthood, but I’ve made watching this show, along with the classic Simpsons’ episode, “Homer at the Bat”, one of my Opening Day traditions.
It’s my gateway episode for sports friends that don’t enjoy Trek, but I know they might if they would give it a chance, and for my Trek friends that don’t enjoy baseball, but might if they sat down and watched a game.
It’s silly and fun, and a good window into part of what makes Star Trek: Deep Space Nine such an enduring and standout show in the Trek canon.
Star Trek is set to reboot eventually, and I can only hope they keep some of the spirit of Deep Space Nine alive with it. Maybe they will even play a game of baseball. One can only hope.
Poey Gordon is a journalist, poet, and fiction writer living in the Bay Area.
Follow him on Twitter at ThePoey for more about comics, Gilligan’s Island 2K1 fan-fiction, or decades old Simpson’s quotes.