Once a Leader of Social Justice, MLB Is Now Embarrassingly Behind the Times

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistJune 5, 2020

FILE - In this Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017 file photo, Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell takes a knee next to teammate Mark Canha, right, during the national anthem before a baseball game against the Texas Rangers in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell says he will no longer kneel for the national anthem as he did last season as a rookie, when he became the first major leaguer to do so following the lead of many NFL players. He spoke Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018 as the A’s pitchers and catchers reported to spring training(AP Photo/LM Otero, File)
LM Otero/Associated Press

Lead, follow or get out of the way.

There was a time when Major League Baseball was among the leaders in this country's march toward social justice. Now it is inarguably a follower.

Worse, the game now risks being dusted into the "get out of the way" category as a righteous movement thunders past MLB, seeking inspiration and direction from the social media accounts of LeBron James and the words of coaches Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich.

That the sport of Jackie Robinson was the last of the four major North American sports leagues to issue any kind of statement or public acknowledgement or position during a full week's worth of passionate protests following the killing of George Floyd is beyond saddening. It is dispiriting.

Even the NHL this week checked in three days ahead of MLB, which stayed silent for days. It was Wednesday before the coast apparently cleared enough for MLB to weigh in with a public statement. And that, according to multiple sources, came after at least a day's worth of behind-the-scenes outrage from many of the industry's black players who questioned why their sport stayed silent.

"MLB released something because they came under pressure from the black players," one current black player told B/R, asking for anonymity because, well, he's seen what's happened to Colin Kaepernick, Bruce Maxwell and others in pro sports. "They were questioned by all the blacks in the game, and that's why they released that statement. We're in a group chat, and some players questioned why MLB hasn't [released a statement] when the NFL, NHL and NBA already had come forth."

From MLB's perspective, according to a spokesperson who is not authorized to speak publicly, the league spent the weekend working on a plan as the national situation moved quickly. It wanted the words to be right but also understood that after years of the impact of racism, the overwhelming feeling was to stop with the words and start with the actions.

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"What was most important to the commissioner [Rob Manfred] was to communicate internally to employees first," the spokesperson said, and when his internal memo was posted on social media by Monday night, MLB figured its position was clear and didn't feel it was necessary to rush another statement out to the public.

Whatever, some say the ultimate message—condemning "systemic racism, prejudice and injustice"outweighs the timing.

"I can understand them being upset about it and voicing their displeasure," says LaTroy Hawkins, who retired after the 2015 season and ranks 10th all-time in games pitched. "Isn't that what America is about? I think we lose sight of what America is abouteveryone is entitled to an opinion. You can't control actions but you can hold people accountable, and African American players are holding them accountable.

"But I didn't know there was a timetable for when you need to make statement about it."

It's no secret that MLB has been regressing for at least two decades now as the percentage of black players in the game continues to plummet. According to the numbers from last season's Opening Day rosters, the black population in the game was down to 7.7 percentjust 68 players among the 882 total. According to a USA Today study, 11 of the 30 MLB clubs last year had no more than one black player on Opening Day rosters, and there were just three black players total on active rosters in the entire National League West.

Through its Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, Dream Series and Elite Development Invitational programs and updated marketing campaignsLet the Kids Play being the prime example—the league has worked hard over the past several years to make progress. But MLB's borderline invisibility over the past several days on the issues of racial inequality and police brutality while the country seethes simply reveals how much distance it still has to go.

Robinson's breaking of the color barrier in 1947 was one of the most consequential moments in this country's history. The game rightfully celebrates the anniversary of his first game every April 15 with elaborate ceremonies at each ballpark.

But it is not 1947 anymore. You can't keep trotting out Robinson like a show horse year after year without, at the same time, continuing to advance the cause further.

However belatedly, MLB in its statement acknowledged the need to be better, and promised to do better:

"It doesn't bother me if they brought up the rear," said Hawkins, who has become an ambassador for the game in retirement through his work with the Dream Series, EDI and the World Baseball Classic (serving as Team Brazil's pitching coach.) "It really doesn't. For me, it's all about what they said when they came to the party. I thought the words were contrite, very sincere and on point. Sometimes you save the best for last. I took more from the MLB and NBA statements than from the NFL's."

Some of the game's black players privately point out that their sport still conspicuously avoided any mention of the Black Lives Matter movement in its statement. The NBA and NHL both have acknowledged it on their social media feeds.

The game's muted reaction hasn't been limited to the management side.

While James and other leading NBA players (Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Lonzo Ball and Jaylen Brown, among others)—and NFL players, too (Richard Sherman, Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson)are speaking out and seeking ways to help, few of MLB's leading players have joined them.

Notably, Bryce Harper offered some exceptionally poignant words on Instagram, as did Dexter Fowler. But after that, the men responsible for four of the game's five best-selling jerseys last yearAaron Judge, Cody Bellinger, Javier Baez and Christian Yelichwere silent, aside from posting black squares on their Instagram accounts on #BlackoutTuesday. Same with Mike Trout.

Still, Harper and Fowler have not been alone in stepping into the social-justice arena: Giancarlo Stanton, Jack Flaherty, Peter Alonso and Lucas Giolito are among the handful of baseball players who have spoken out. In MLB culture, many black players simply don't feel empowered to make their feelings known because their numbers are so few that they feel their grip on the game is tenuous.

Preparing for his second summer with the Acereros del Norte in the Mexican League, Bruce Maxwell, the lone MLB player to take a knee during the national anthem, figures Mexico is a pretty good place to be right now.

"Not much has changed, man; not much has changed," Maxwell told B/R. "Even my mother called and said it's amazing seeing all these people message you and sharing your photo and who want you to talk here and there, and three years ago nobody was to be found.

"Now it takes having the coronavirus strike our sports and communities and then you have to witness a man who supposedly had counterfeit money and you see him get murdered. My mom is very agitated. She says, 'The players association wasn't there for you, the MLB world wasn't there for you and your [then-] agent wasn't there for you.' I was by myself.

"It's sickening, honestly. You feel so many types of ways, especially being an African American person. The anguish, hate and anger just watching that videoit doesn't matter if you're white, black or f--king purple. … The hatred in that man's face, hearing George Floyd cry out for his mother and saying he can't breathe … the hatred is the same that people have for Colin Kaepernick, Eric Reid or myself, who tried to do something. It's ... bulls--t."

And it rages on through the generations. In the spring of 1992, as riots raged in Los Angeles after the police officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted, the late Hall of Famer Tony Gwynna Long Beach nativesat with a small group of reporters before a game in the San Diego Padres' dugout at Qualcomm Stadium and explained that his father had taught him how to behave when the police pulled him over as a black man, because he would be pulled over.

"I'm sure when my grandfather gave him that conversation, his hope was that by the time my dad had a child that he wouldn't have to have the same conversation," said Tony Gwynn Jr., who played for the Brewers, Dodgers, Padres and Phillies from 2006 to '14. "Fast forward to 1992, I was only 10 years old and we didn't necessarily have the talk, but it set the stage for the talk, right? As a 10-year-old you have questions, you see the video of police officers beating Rodney King and you ask why is this happening?

"Now fast forward another 30 years later, and I'm having to have similar conversations with my kids. It's sad, but that's how it is. I had to speed up my timeline. I had to explain it to them."

Tony Gwynn Jr. (right) feels he needs to offer his children the same advice his Hall of Famer father did to him about how to act around police officers.
Tony Gwynn Jr. (right) feels he needs to offer his children the same advice his Hall of Famer father did to him about how to act around police officers.Andy Hayt/Getty Images

Gwynn has three girls, Makayla (12), Jordan (11) and Leighton (9), and son Anthony III (4).

"In a perfect world, we'd have that conversation when they start being able to get places without my help, like when I'm not their chauffeur," he said. "But now I've got to have the conversation. We've had it, but it will be reinforced when they get to driving age."

Sadly, it also will be reinforced by personal experience as well. One college memory that continues to haunt him is a drive back to his off-campus apartment one night after he grabbed dinner at a local sandwich shop.

"I remember a police officer getting behind me and never turning on the blue or red lights; he just put the spotlight on," Gwynn says. "I was probably a mile-and-a-half from the house. I'm thinking to myself, 'Since he hasn't turned his blue or red lights on, I'm going to keep driving.'"

So he arrived home, parked and stepped out of the car, and next thing he hears is a voice shouting, "Freeze! Get your hands up!"

"You can't imagine how fast my heart was racing," Gwynn says. "I got my hands up, it's bright in the spotlight, and in my mind, 'Freeze! Get your hands up!' means he has a gun. Whether he had one or not, I don't know."

Fortunately, Gwynn had attended a volleyball game earlier that day, and as more police cars pulled up, one of the cops recognized him from the gym, and they deduced that Gwynn wasn't the guy they were looking for.

The next day, his father, who was the San Diego State baseball coach at the time, received a call from some official apologizing for what had happened.

"That most likely never happens to anybody [else] who looks like me," Gwynn said.

This is the profiling and systemic racism that so many are vehemently protesting now. And it is ingrained so deeply in every institution that it's gone unnoticed by too many privileged people for far too long.

Maxwell's agent, Lonnie Murray, who runs Sports Management Partners along with her business partner, former World Series MVP Dave Stewart, represents about 40 players. Most of them are minor leaguers, and she sees the systemic racism playing out all too often.

"You would not believe the things I hear at draft time regarding the kids who are black," Murray, who is black, said. "When someone talks s--t about a kid not showing up to an interview dressed properly because he shows up wearing Air Jordans and shorts. … When I have a crosschecker who is telling me he doesn't like a kid who sticks his tongue out as he plays and tells me he doesn't like that 'damn gold chain.' …

"Ninety percent of the time I would say what I get between scouts and crosscheckers are more questions about the mindset and mentality of the black players. I rarely get that about my white players. I get asked about their maturity. I don't get questions about is he smart? Seriously. White high school prospects vs. black high school prospects, the questions? Very different. Verrrry different. And they don't even realize they're doing it.

"This is not about you saying, 'I don't see color.' Get the f--k out of here. Everybody sees color. It plays a role for so many. You can't affect change without identifying difference. And that's OK."

All of this is why it is important that not only Harper speak up, but that his fellow players across the game do so as well. This is why it is important that everyone from the suits in the Commissioner's Office to the lowest level of minor league employees commit to action. Good teammates have each other's backs, and too often black people continue to face obstacles that nobody else faces.

Especially outrageous is the fact that veteran outfielder Adam Jones is playing in the Japanese League this year when he should have been a Baltimore Oriole for life. In a sport that should be desperate to entice black players, Jones had it all: Great talent, great teammate, starred for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, was a first-class representative for the city of Baltimore, was involved in charities in the city. He also spoke poignantly in the time of protests responding to the killing of Freddie Gray in 2015.

Adam Jones proved himself to be not only a multi-talented contributor in 14 MLB seasons, but a thoughtful representative of the game, only to find no place to play but in Japan.
Adam Jones proved himself to be not only a multi-talented contributor in 14 MLB seasons, but a thoughtful representative of the game, only to find no place to play but in Japan.Matt Brown/Getty Images

But the Orioles were following the analytics model of stripping their roster down to the studs to rebuild, and Jones was at $17.3 million in '18 and the Orioles were shedding salary.

Even then, even if he left Baltimore, he should have been in demand. Instead, he fielded little to no interest until Arizona reached out after spring training already had started in 2019 and signed him to a one-year deal for $3 million. Then, Japan.

"He was the epitome of a perfect teammate, a perfect baseball player," said Maxwell, who worked out with Jones in San Diego two winters ago. "This guy knows how to play, how to have fun, he's a leader. He greets people with kindness even if they greet him with disgust and racism. You can't find a finer person. And just because of his age and diversity issues, he's playing in Japan."

If a black player with Jones' resume can't find a place in a game that says it is making efforts to attract black talent, then MLB remains light-years away from solving its problems. And now comes not only the national protesting for social justice, but the COVID-19 pandemic that has led baseball to limiting next week's draft to just five rounds.

Murray points out that there were just seven total black Division I players taken in the first five rounds of last year's draft—and 32 taken after the fifth round. In other words, it's going to be even more difficult for young black players to find the entrance to MLB this summer.

"They honor Jackie Robinson every year but they don't speak up when it comes to humanity and events in the country," Maxwell says. "They just [belatedly] spoke up about [this week's protests]. They didn't support my peaceful protest.

"They're old school. Everybody wants to defend them because they're old school, but this old school means white. … So I feel they're doing Jackie Robinson and his family a disservice, because when you turn on your TV you might see, what, one black dude per team?"

Given the soaring popularity of the NBA (which didn't even play its inaugural season, 1949-1950, until two years after Robinson's debut) and the goliath that is the NFL, baseball has been fighting a losing battle to sign the best athletes for years. The raw numbers are damning: From 1973 to 1988, according to the Society for American Baseball Research, black players made up between 17.3 and 18.7 percent of the game's population. For the past 25 years, that percentage has declined almost annually.

Meantime, the lack of representation of black people in managing and coaching positions has been an ongoing problem. Last year, the league saw just one black manager, the Dodgers' Dave Roberts. And upstairs, none of the league's top eight executives are people of color.

For two decades, every Jackie Robinson Day, black players like Hawkins and Torii Hunter are descended on by media and asked about his meaning. Now they're retired, and the same scenes continue to play out.

"I don't think it will ever be good enough," Hawkins says. "After about the fifth or sixth year, I got to point of, You know how I feel about it; you know what Jackie Robinson means to me. Go ask other teammates who don't look like me; ask how they would have felt if I were not allowed to fly with them, or eat with them.

"At the end of the day, it's more important how they feel about it because they're the majority. When the majority gets that tired about something, that's when the needle begins to move."

Where we go from herewhether that needle begins to move as a sport, as a countrycannot be known…but we know it cannot remain the same.

"We're at a spot where we've been before, but generally speaking what happens is there's unrest, then the weekend ends, and in normal circumstances people have to return to their normal lives," Gwynn said. "It's interesting because of COVID-19, a lot of people are at home watching and having the chance to feel what they saw with George Floyd. I think it's important we keep the focus on the systemic problems that the country has in terms of black and brown folks."

And not only Floyd. While Hawkins was visiting his grandfather just before his grandfather died May 9, he showed his grandpa the horrific video of the killing of black jogger Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia in February.

As much as players appreciate baseball's salute to Jackie Robinson each season, some also feel it shows how much work non-black players still have to do to increase black representation throughout the sport.
As much as players appreciate baseball's salute to Jackie Robinson each season, some also feel it shows how much work non-black players still have to do to increase black representation throughout the sport.Kathy Willens/Associated Press

"He told me he saw a black guy get killed like that when he was 11 years old in 1936," Hawkins said. "This is 83 years later and it's still happening. What the hell? And he saw it again before he died."

This week, Hawkins is volunteering his time to manage in the Collegiate Summer Baseball Invitational in College Station, Texas. On Wednesday night, he spoke at a dinner for the roughly 100 or so players who are participating.

As he brought his remarks to a close, he said: "I asked them to go speak to somebody who is a different color than you are. Go learn something."

    

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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