“This team has too many Latinos on it to win,” mused the old scout beside me. “Get too many of them together on a club and they take over. The club divides, has no sense of itself. They might not be terrible. I mean, them boys can play, but they ain’t gonna win no championship. They’re too emotional to go the distance.
“No, no”—he shook his head—“I ain’t seen no team with this many Latinos in the lineup win.”
It was 2013. I’d just been hired by the Rogers Corporation to cover their in-house Major League Baseball team, better known to you as the Toronto Blue Jays.
I was brought in as part of a big publicity push to cover the new superteam that general manager Alex Anthopoulos had assembled. His heavy offseason wheeling and dealing netted a Cy Young winner, R.A. Dickey, another potential ace, Josh Johnson, and a left-handed work horse, Mark Buehrle.
It also landed several new Latino names, including Dominican shortstop Jose Reyes, second baseman Maicer Izturis, super utility man Emilio Bonifacio and Dominican outfielder Melky Cabrera. Add those names to the incumbent Latino players, Esmil Rogers, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, and the Jays' Opening Day roster included seven Latino players, or “too many,” according to the old scout watching the new group warm up in the Dunedin outfield.
Nevermind that the Dominican Republic had just won the World Baseball Classic, and that three of its players were currently in big league camp with the Jays: Reyes, Encarnacion and Moises Sierra.
Nevermind that they did it without one of the game’s best power hitters, Bautista, also Dominican, also on the Jays’ roster.
Nevermind that the second-place finisher was Puerto Rico, and that the Americans didn’t even place in the top three.
Despite all that, the Jays were destined to lose because of an overabundance of Latinos.
The comment didn’t shock me. Spend enough time around the inner workings of the game, you’ll hear this kind talk. Mostly from its antiquated members who’ve been overexposed to the same idiosyncratic, psychosomatic, superstitious behavior that brought players classic baseball rules of thumb like, “The darker the skin, the tighter the spin."
What may be shocking to you is that this scout was a valued decision-maker. An evaluator of talent whose job it was to see what the team needed in order to win. He was the kind of old dog that was brought in by young, sabermetrically inclined officials to help bridge the gap between eyes-on baseball experience and cold, mathematical production analysis. His big contribution so far: The team was dark.
Racism is still in baseball. You may not notice it as often as you would in other places because, in baseball, with its unspoken rules, unsolved equation for team chemistry and ridiculous obsession with false corollaries, you can minimize racism by placing it against a bigger, more pressing issue: winning and losing.
I wasn’t the only person who heard the comments. I was with fellow writers. After the comments were made and once batting practice ensued, we broke ranks to discuss. Not how the scout's comments were racist. Not how we hoped he didn’t hurt anyone’s career because he had the wrong color skin. We conjectured over whether he was right—did a mix of too many Latinos mean a team couldn’t win?
The obvious answer was no, the ethnicity of your team did not matter. And yet, we’d all been in major league locker rooms, seen how the Latino players occupied one side while the whites took the other. We'd seen how that chasm got wider when teams floundered. Seen how rarely the language barrier was broken save for a few choice swear words, and how annoyed the nations got when one challenged the other's right to precious resources, like the locker room stereo.
Even if you wrote it all off as male vitriol in a jocular environment, it was still there; and that word, “factions," was always what it felt like. Even when guys were joking around—and there was a lot of joking around—there still seemed to be factions, or camps with different agendas unto themselves.
When I started playing as a kid, my teammates, my neighborhood, my school districts—they were mostly white. I played with one black player in college and didn’t have a Latino teammate until I reached the minors.
The Latino players carried themselves differently than the white players. They played a different brand of baseball. It was more emotional, more intense, flashier.
We were always taught to be humble. Don’t pimp home runs. Don’t talk to players on opposing teams like they are your friends. Don’t show emotion on the mound, infield or in the batter's box. If you did any of these things, it marked you as a person who didn’t play the game the right way—a phrase that would go on to justify many of baseball’s most ignorant behaviors.
But it would stick, unquestioned, unchallenged and undefined. It would become a separator, not just of minds, but of who deserved to be blessed by the luck and opportunity that life in pro baseball seemed to hinge on. When you don’t know who is going to make it to the top, you start to keep score on who deserves to, based on what you believe is the correct way to play.
You become selfish. And for many freshly drafted whites, selfish and worried about who deserves to go forward, the thinking is that these new Latin teammates—the ones that can’t speak the language, write a check or read a physical evaluation form, but can effortlessly showboat on the ball field—don’t deserve it.
And the feeling will grow like a weed if it isn’t dealt with.
In 2008, I was with the Portland Beavers in Triple-A. I hadn’t written The Bullpen Gospels yet, but I was keeping the journal that would become the book. The Padres had just acquired Mauro Zarate from the Marlins.
He spoke no English, couldn’t use an ATM, was clueless on check-writing and didn’t know how to pay a cell phone bill. Yet he’d made it to the majors, granting him ultimate power by way of baseball’s ultimate measuring stick: big league service time. To top it all off, he was hurt, which made him dead weight, but dead weight with more power than guys who didn’t have a day in the bigs.
Zarate was kind, quiet, and in no way malicious to anyone, but was resented by all the career minor league American-borns who mewled endlessly over how, if no one ever helped him, he’d have never made it where he was.
“…What’s your brother Zarate doing these days Fish? Has anyone seen him eat? Has anyone seen him period?”
“He probably wades out into that river with a spear and stabs dinner.”
“Yeah! Then he starts a fire on the hotel room floor and roasts it.”
“Come on guys, you’re all being ridiculous. His right arm is injured and you can't just relearn how to throw a spear with your left over night. He's probably shooting birds with a blow gun or something.” Everyone laughed.
“Annnnnnnd, he’s been to the big leagues.” Echoed Ox.
“How does that happen?” Said Fish.
“He was in a weak organization.”
“I don't think he really knows how to pitch. He's got decent stuff, but I don't think he really knows how to pitch. Still, even if he does, he's used eye black for chap-stick, stabbed himself with a nail, used hair spray for deodorant. And Reek said he can't even use an ATM or write checks. The guy has been here for years and doesn't speak a lick of English. I just don't get it.”
“He came up with a weak organization. He is talented, he's got some good stuff you know.”
“Yeah, but it seems to me he shouldn't have made it this far with the level of ignorance he operates on.”
Racist humor is ubiquitous in every clubhouse. Most of it is a give and take between lion cubs of all ethnicities, wrestling and biting each other with no one ever getting hurt. When I was there, a reliever with the Rays would call players “whities” and “darkies." Though it doesn’t make it appropriate, no one was ever offended. Such is life belonging to a team, where you either show you can give up your individuality in order to be celebrated for it, or you have it stripped, insult after insult, until you are part of the collective.
But what happened with Zarate was different. It was the mixture of jealousy and disgust over someone deemed inferior and therefore not worthy of an opportunity. In the vacuum of communication, under the strain of competition, narratives were built to serve an agenda, and he suffered, even if unknowingly.
This process is still alive and well today. The selfish, the ignorant and the insecure justifying why they deserve something more than someone else, forced to create reasons where none exist.
That’s where it starts, anyway. Then it grows and becomes a part of you, a part that you think is fair, even helpful. Years pass and you eventually find yourself standing in the outfield, watching a group of Latin players warm up, musing over how too many talented, but flashy, emotional, undeserving players can’t make a champion.
Every year when Jackie Robinson Day comes, I think about my time in the pros with mixed feelings. On one hand, the game has come such an incredible distance. On the other, there are still decisions-makers who espouse nonsense in the name of victory, like, “too many Latinos to win.” I’m sorry, but no accomplishment, no matter how great, justifies racism.
Every time I hear someone talk about playing the game the right way, I can’t help but think of how often he or she gets it wrong. I can’t help but think of how much ignorance gets perpetuated under the guise of baseball cliche, all of it done to make a winner.
Being the first black man in baseball wasn’t Jackie Robinson’s greatest feat. He did something much bigger, something timeless: He brought attention to that deep human cancer that leads us to believe certain races are better than others because they behave the way a consenting majority feels they should.
Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, but barriers still exist, in baseball and in the world, and we will never have a true winner until they are all broken down.
Dirk Hayhurst is a former pitcher who spent nearly a decade in professional baseball between MiLB and MLB. He is also an accomplished author, and has appeared on Baseball America, ESPN, TBS' MLB postseason broadcasts, Sportsnet Canada and more.
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