Culture / October 6, 2023

Sean Doolittle, Baseball’s Left-Wing Lefty, Retires

How the Nationals’ star reliever became the conscience of baseball.

Peter Dreier
Former Washington Nationals player Sean Doolittle pitching
Sean Doolittle pitching for the Washington Nationals. (Bill Kostroun / AP)

Sean Doolittle may lack the notoriety of Colin Kaepernick, Megan Rapinoe, or LeBron James, but he’s the most outspoken progressive professional athlete of the 21st century.  

Doolittle will never make the Hall of Fame as a ballplayer, but he’s a Hall of Fame activist and humanitarian. Sports Illustrated called Doolittle “the conscience of baseball.” He spoke out for the rights of workers, women, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and military veterans, as well as racism, gun violence, and DC statehood. He stood up to Donald Trump and sat down reading to children at bookstores. His joined the Democratic Socialists of America, which in 2022 hosted him discussing baseball and socialism.

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“When I was a kid, I remember my parents would say, ‘Baseball is what you do, but that’s not who you are’—like that might be my job, but that’s not the end-all, be-all,” he told The New York Times. “I feel like I might even be able to use it to help other people.”

In 11 years in the majors, Doolittle was the ace left-handed reliever for the Oakland A’s and Washington Nationals. A two-time All-Star, he helped lead the Nationals to the 2019 World Series championship. But his career was hampered by constant injuries.

Doolittle never fully recovered from his July 2022 elbow surgery. He spent this season in the minors, but made only 11 appearances, his elbow problems compounded by a knee injury.

Last month the 36-year old Doolittle announced on Instagram that he was retiring “with gratitude and a full heart” from “the sport I love.”

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Doolittle was among the most popular players among fans in Oakland and Washington. A huge Star Wars fan, Doolittle calls himself “Obi-Sean Kenobi Doolittle.” His Twitter handle—@whatwouldDOOdo—was filled with his enthusiasm for sports, books, music, movies, and politics. He and his wife, Eireann Dolan, whom he met while she was a reporter covering the A’s and married in 2017, approach life with a sense of humor, often poking fun at each other and themselves in their constant tweets.

At the University of Virginia, he was a slugging first baseman as well as an outstanding pitcher. Drafted by the A’s in 2007 as a first baseman, Doolittle left college after his junior year and spent three years in the minors. He missed the next three seasons to injuries and surgery. The 6-foot-2 Doolittle began his comeback in 2012 as a relief pitcher for the A’s. By 2014, he made the All-Star team.

Traded to the Nationals in 2017, he had another All-Star season in 2018 and the following year had 29 saves, 66 strikeouts, and only 25 walks in 60 innings, despite frequent injuries. In three World Series appearances that season, he didn’t allow a run. He and Dolan made Washington, D.C., their home, were active in the community, and embraced the cause of D.C. statehood.

Doolittle has always been clear about his priorities: “Sports are like the reward of a functioning society.”

In 2015, the couple organized a Thanksgiving dinner for 17 Syrian refugee families in Chicago, Dolan’s hometown. “We just felt it was a way we could welcome them to America, to let them know there are people who are glad they’re here,” Doolittle recalled.

That year, the A’s hosted their first Pride Night. Some social media trolls threatened to boycott the event. In response, Doolittle and Dolan hatched a plan to buy tickets from season ticket holders. They raised almost $40,000 from over 1,000 contributors through a GoFundMe campaign, which provided tickets and buses for 900 LGBTQ youth to attend the game.

“There should be no discrimination or hate in the game or a stadium,” Doolittle said.

In 2018, when the media exposed antigay slurs tweeted by several ballplayers, Doolittle tweeted:

It can be tough for athletes to understand why these words are so hurtful. Most of us have been at the top of the food chain since HS, immune to insults. When all you’ve known is success and triumph it can be difficult to empathize with feeling vulnerable or marginalized. Homophobic slurs are still used to make people feel soft or weak or otherwise inferior—which is bullshit. Some of the strongest people I know are from the LGBTQIA community. It takes courage to be your true self when your identity has been used as an insult or a pejorative.

At the Nationals’ 2019 Pride Day, Doolittle wore a trans flag on his right baseball shoe, a rainbow flag on his left shoe, and a Nationals-branded rainbow shirt under his uniform.

“Everyone deserves to feel safe and free to be who they are and to love who they love. Love is love,” said Doolittle.

In October 2019, after fellow Nationals pitcher Daniel Hudson faced criticism for missing a game to be with his wife for the birth of their child. Doolittle defended his friend on Twitter: “If your reaction to someone having a baby is anything other than, ‘Congratulations, I hope everybody is healthy,’ you’re an asshole.”

In 2016, after then-candidate Trump dismissed his vulgar “grab their pussy” comment as just “locker room talk,” Doolittle retorted: “As an athlete, I’ve been in locker rooms my entire adult life and, uh, that’s not locker room talk.”

In January 2017, Trump signed a travel ban against Muslims, sparking nationwide protests. Doolittle commented:

These refugees are fleeing civil wars, terrorism, religious persecution, and are thoroughly vetted for 2yrs. A refugee ban is a bad idea…. It feels un-American. And also immoral.

Refugees aren’t stealing a slice of the pie from Americans. But if we include them, we can make the pie that much bigger, thus ensuring more opportunities for everyone.

When white supremacists descended on Charlottesville in 2017, Doolittle tweeted: “The C’ville I knew from my time @UVA is a diverse and accepting community. It’s no place for Nazis.”

When the Nationals won the 2019 World Series, Doolittle and several teammates boycotted the White House celebration with Trump. He criticized Trump’s “divisive rhetoric and the enabling of conspiracy theories and widening the divide in this country.” He told The Washington Post, “I don’t want to hang out with somebody who talks like that.’”

In 2019, the New Era Cap Company, which makes caps for all major league teams, announced it was closing its unionized factory in Derby, N.Y., to move to nonunion facilities in Florida. In a Washington Post op-ed column, Doolittle wrote that ballplayers “will be wearing caps made by people who don’t enjoy the same labor protections and safeguards that we do.” He told ThinkProgress, “It’s basically union-busting, plain and simple,” adding that major leaguers should be “wearing caps made by people earning a union wage.”

When MLB put its season on indefinite hold in response to the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, Doolittle and Dolan hunkered down in a Florida house, where he could exercise and stay in shape. They hosted a podcast about their daily lives, discussing the books they were reading during the lockdown. No player was more eager to return to play than Doolittle, but he was the first to publicly oppose MLB’s plans to restore play without adequate public health protections and guarantees that players and other workers would be compensated during the long layoff.

Dolan, his alter ego, tweeted:

What about the non-millionaire hotel workers, security staff, grounds crews, media members, team traveling staffs, clubhouse attendants, janitorial workers, food service workers, and the billion other people required to make that 3.5-hour game happen every night?

Doolittle urged his fellow major league players to demonstrate “solidarity with those workers who are in those supporting roles.” He added: “Sorry, I had to get that out of my system. Stay safe. Keep washing your hands and wearing your masks. I hope we get to play baseball for you again soon.”

When MLB proposed shaving $100 from every minor leaguer’s $400 weekly paycheck during the pandemic, Doolittle and several Nationals teammates pledged to cover the lost income of players on the Nationals’ farm teams.

“Minor leaguers are an essential part of our organization and they are bearing the heaviest burden of this situation as their season is likely to be cancelled,” Doolittle explained. “We recognize that and want to stand with them in support.”

Players on other teams did the same. Embarrassed, the owners withdrew the plan.

In response to the mass shooting at a school in Uvalde, Tex., in 2022, Doolittle posted a series of tweets that began: “The issue of gun violence is too important and too urgent to stay silent. We have to use our voices because if we don’t, the people who profit from gun violence will continue to obfuscate and change the subject.”

After Minneapolis police killed George Floyd in 2020, triggering nationwide protests, Doolittle tweeted:

Race is America’s original sin…passed down from generation to generation. And we struggle to acknowledge that it even exists, much less to atone for it…. Racism and violence are killing black men and women before our eyes. We are told it is done in the name of “law and order,” but there is nothing lawful nor orderly about these murders. We must take action and call it for what it is. We must recognize our shared humanity and atone for our Original Sin or else we will continue to curse future generations with it. RIP George Floyd.

Doolittle—who in 2017 had stood by his former A’s teammate Bruce Maxwell, who refused to stand for the national anthem—talked to his teammates about protesting during the song. He concluded that the decision should be made by Black players.

“The goal should be to amplify the voices, not to be louder than them and steal the spotlight away from what the movement is trying to accomplish—trying to end police brutality and end racism and injustice,” Doolittle explained.

Doolittle’s father served in the Air Force for 26 years and taught aerospace science to ROTC high school students in New Jersey. His stepmother served in the Air National Guard. A distant cousin, aviation pioneer Jimmy Doolittle, led the first attack against Japan after it bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941.

“I came from a military family, so there are a lot of things I think about when the anthem is playing,” he told ESPN. “One thing that bothers me is the way people use veterans and troops almost as a shield. But where is that outrage in taking better care of veterans? The most recent statistics say that we still lose 20 veterans to suicide every day.”

In D.C. and during road trips, Doolittle regularly visited locally owned independent bookstores, promoting them on Twitter. The big online chains like Amazon, he said, “might be a little bit cheaper, but they’re not furthering anything as far as authors’ careers or supporting their workers.”

Doolittle often participated in a reading program for the children of soldiers. After reading Where the Wild Things Are to children from D.C. area military bases, Doolittle observed, “I hope they came and saw a professional athlete that reads books. It shows that maybe reading is not something that’s just a part of their homework. It can be something that you enjoy as much as being outside and playing sports.”

Doolittle and Dolan support Swords to Ploughshares and Operation Finally Home, which help veterans find jobs and homes. The couple worked with Human Rights Watch and wrote a Sports Illustrated column urging the Veterans Administration to provide adequate mental health services to military vets with less than honorable discharges, or “bad paper.”

Doolittle criticized ostentatious displays of patriotism at ballparks. He claimed it wasn’t enough to “just capitalize on people’s patriotism, and sell hats and shirts with your team’s logo and camouflage on it.” He observed that “as long as we have an all-volunteer military, it’s on us—the civilians at home—to advocate for our military families. To make sure they are deployed responsibly and that they get the care they were promised when they signed up.”

“There’s teenagers leaving the country with M-16s and I get to play baseball every day. You really appreciate the opportunities you have and some of these things other people do for you getting little or no recognition for it.”

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Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier teaches politics at Occidental College and is author of several books including Baseball Rebels: The Players, People, and Social Movements That Shook Up the Game and Changed America, published in April, 2022.

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