Sean Doolittle wasn’t trying to make a political statement in November 2015, when the Oakland Athletics reliever and his now-fiancee, Eireann Dolan, sponsored a Thanksgiving dinner for 17 Syrian refugee families in Chicago. His motive was strictly humanitarian.
“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 said at the team’s spring training facility last week. “Never in a million years did we think that, a year and a half later, this would still be a hot-button issue.”
President Trump moved immigration to the front burner in January when he signed an executive order banning most travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries with links to terrorism and indefinitely suspended the admittance of refugees from civil war-torn Syria.
A federal court subsequently blocked enforcement of the ban, which Trump said would be replaced with a new order, likely this week.
Doolittle, a 30-year-old left-hander entering his sixth big-league season, and Dolan have supported a number of causes, ranging from a fundraiser for Oakland’s LGBT Pride Night last season to building homes for military veterans.
But their work with the Chicago-based Syrian Community Network and regular text messages and Facetime chats with families who attended the Thanksgiving dinner took on a more urgent tone in the wake of the travel ban and fears stoked by the new administration’s desire to restrict the flow of refugees to the U.S.
“I think America is the best country in the world because we’ve been able to attract the best and brightest people from all over the world,” Doolittle said. “We have the smartest doctors and scientists, the most creative and innovative thinkers. A travel ban like this puts that in serious jeopardy.
“I’ve always thought that all boats rise with the tide. 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.”
Doolittle, who aims to regain a late-inning role this spring after being slowed by shoulder problems the last two seasons, believes people would have more compassion for refugees if they better understood where they’re coming from and the challenges they face in getting here.
Before committing to the Thanksgiving dinner, which was held at the American-Islamic Center in downtown Chicago, he and Dolan, a Chicago native, did extensive research into the refugee process.
“These are people fleeing civil wars, violence and oppression that we can’t even begin to relate to,” Doolittle said. “I think people think refugees just kind of decide to come over. They might not realize it takes 18-24 months while they wait in a refugee camp. They go through more than 20 background checks and meetings with immigration officers. They are being vetted.
“They come here, and they want to contribute to society. They’re so grateful to be out of a war zone or whatever they were running from in their country that they get jobs, their kids go to our schools, they’re paying taxes, and in a lot of cases, they join our military.”
Most of the responses Doolittle and Dolan got from the holiday meal, at which Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Alderman Edward Burke served food, were positive.
But there was also criticism on social media, not a huge surprise considering Illinois was one of several states that vowed to bar Syrian refugees. A common question in the thread: Did Doolittle and Dolan plan to feed the families of homeless veterans? Doolittle found that ironic.
The couple has worked extensively with Operation Finally Home, which builds houses for wounded vets and their families, and Swords to Plowshares, which provides employment and training, housing and legal assistance to about 3,000 veterans in the Bay Area each year.
Doolittle, the son of retired Air Force navigator Robert “Rory” Doolittle, was twice nominated by the A’s for the Branch Rickey Award, which recognizes players for exceptional community service, and he was a 2016 nominee for the Bob Feller Act of Valor Award.
“I hope people don’t think our work with refugees is at all a zero-sum game,” Doolittle said. “Most of our work is with veterans organizations.”
Doolittle throws with his left hand, but despite his opinion on the travel ban, he doesn’t lean to the left politically. Or to the right. He is a registered independent, one who is dismayed at how polarizing politics has become.
“It stinks right now because those labels—Democrat and Republican—have become almost like pejoratives in a lot of cases,” Doolittle said. “It’s unfortunate because both sides of the spectrum have gone so far to the left and so far to the right, there’s not that much in the middle anymore.”
Major League clubhouses tend to lean to the right politically, but Doolittle said he has not received any blowback from teammates or coaches for his work with and support of Syrian refugees. If anything, it has helped foster dialogue about some of the country’s more controversial and divisive issues.
“It’s not something I actively promote in the clubhouse, but they know what I stand for, they understand I’ve done my homework on this, and I think there’s a mutual respect,” Doolittle said. “I’ve had some really good conversations with teammates who I might not see eye-to-eye with on certain issues.
“But a thing I wish people kept in mind more is that if you engage with someone, don’t go into a conversation trying to change their mind, because if you try to explain to them how they’re wrong—it’s just human nature, they’re gonna dig their heels in and become more entrenched in what they already thought. They get defensive. That’s not productive for anybody.
“I’ve been able to find some common ground with guys. It’s about listening first.”