Ignore the groundhog, Foul and Fair family. Spring starts today. Why?
Pitchers and catchers report.
Morgan and I aspire to cover all sports with intelligence and grace. But as our logo (and my totally normal and healthy respect for Derek Jeter) might indicate, baseball has a special place in our heart. Hope you enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed writing my hope for a black battery.
Leadoff hitter: Longform that lays off the first pitch.
After an entire offseason of intense research and preparation, I've compiled a comprehensive list of African American catchers playing Major League Baseball in 2016.
Are you ready?
HERE IT IS!
If you clicked the link—or you follow baseball closely—you'll know that there are none. (The closest you'll get is Afro-Canadian Russell Martin. Plus, who knows what light-skinned dude has a black great-grandmother, right? Or hey, as Bill Clinton said, "We're All Mixed Race"). Sure, the position has never been rich with African American catchers since integration, but we haven’t seen any since—can you believe it?—Charles Johnson, most famous for playing the ‘97 World Champion Florida Marlins. I’m not surprised by this absence. African American participation in baseball has been on the decline since the 1990’s. It’s no secret: even Chris Rock gave his take. And there are plenty of reasons to consider the decline of black participation without attributing it to a naked racism. But, as an African American fan, it stings that the position arguably most valuable to a team's on-field performance, the only player capable of making an equivalent impact on a team’s offense, defense, and pitching, doesn't have a single black American player.
Baseball fans concerned about African American involvement in the game should be concerned about the implications of the decade-long drought of black catchers.
Here’s the morally neutral, colorblind argument explaining the lack of black catchers: A disproportionate number of African Americans live in communities that on the whole, don't have the same access to space and equipment as the majority of whites. Gloves, bats, cleats, and maintaining a ballpark cost a lot more than keeping up a concrete blacktop. It's a money thing. Nothing Bernie Sanders can't fix. However, those economic realities haven’t halted African Americans from excelling in baseball. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins and pitcher CC Sabathia won the highest awards at their respective positions even though they grew up in rough communities in Alameda and Vallejo, respectively.
A far more uncomfortable consideration: the history of racial stacking in sports. Stacking, as Lou Moore, a professor of history at Grand Valley State University, puts it, is when “Coaches put black players in traditionally ‘athletic’ positions [like center field] and keep them away from ‘thinking’ positions like catcher.” The most prominent example of stacking: the quarterback position. Only a generation ago, the media and fans believed that the quarterback was a role too brainy for black boys to handle. Even today, quarterbacks that excel in college or the NFL—Cam Newton is the obvious case study—are more likely to be credited for their physical gifts than their mental makeup or moral character. (John Carvalho, a journalism professor at Auburn, summarizes these modern QB myths at Vice Sports.)
Catchers are quarterbacks of sorts in baseball. As the "field general", they’re responsible for extensive scouting reports for every opposing player, mastering a secret code of gestures and signs, and sometimes needing a decent handle on upwards of three or four languages to communicate with an internationally-sourced pitching staff. (Fastball, curva, 체인지업, and フォークボール.) You’ve got to be cerebral, cultured, and able to squat two hours a game. What does it say about the expectations of the black athlete when so few — currently, none—play this position? Is it a subtle emphasis of the black body over the black mind? The post-racial Al Campanis?
The lack of black catching talent has consequences on other problems in the game. A catcher's multi-faceted knowledge of the game and leadership savvy make the best managerial candidates —at least that’s how the conventional wisdom goes. They certainly make the most popular ones. Sixteen of the 30 active MLB managers have catching experience on the college or professional level. Two of the 30—Dusty Baker of the Washington Nationals, and Dave Roberts of the Dodgers—are black. (One other, Fredi Gonzalez, is Latino.) MLB commissioner Rob Manfred knows this, and he’s expressed his concern before. "Field managers are high turnover jobs, and you're going to have peaks and valleys in terms of representation. Having said that, we are focused on the need to promote diversity—not just African Americans but Latinos as well—in the managerial ranks."
This bears repeating: I don’t think the Theo Epsteins and Farhan Zaidis are ripping away the “tools of ignorance” from their black scouting prospects. Nonetheless: two managers, out of 30 spots. (Better than zero African Americans filling the approximately 60 openings on most active rosters.) Maybe Manfred and Korn Ferry, the executive search firm working with MLB to diversify baseball’s leadership pipeline, are tracing the correlation. Hopefully they notice that among the rare crop of young, black athletes that want to join the Boys of Summer, almost none of them are scouted and developed as the most likely on-field leaders. Hopefully, MLB empowers talented and experienced baseball men like Tony Reagins, the senior vice president of youth programs, to inspire young black players’ towards developing more than their athletic gifts.
Happy Pitchers and Catchers Day, everyone. Let’s cross our fingers together for a resurgence of the black battery.
Stick to sports: In which we stay in our lane.
105 days until Simone Biles does her thing in Rio. So read this NYT profile of her in the meantime.
Simone insists that she is just like any other teenager, but she’s not. She was identified as a gymnastics prodigy when she was 6, when her coach, Aimee Boorman, saw her in a day care class. She is such a talent that now she has a signature move on the floor routine named after her: It is called the Biles, and it’s a double flip in the layout position, with a half-twist added at the end. You will see it soon enough.
Delay of game: All you can read before the clock expires.
This time, Pey attention. For years, most profiles of Peyton Manning contextualized his sexual harassment allegations as a mildly complicated character streak in an overall Good Man. I, and millions of other Americans, went along for the ride. Read ESPN’s Howard Bryant on how we—women, Patriots fans, racial justice advocates, everyone—all see what we want to see in the NFL (and media’s) treatment of Manning. Then, read Will Leitch at Sports on Earth chiding us for assuming that we know the character of the athlete-celebrities we worship on—and often off—the field.
We get attached to them. We believe in them. We act as if we have special knowledge. But we don't. We have years and years of evidence staring us in the face that the idea of public knowledge of a private soul is an illusion. We still ignore it. But let's say it again: We don't know a damned thing.
Can’t outrun white supremacy. Not gonna lie, as a kiddo, I read (these) history textbooks for fun. One of my favorite stories to read recounted Jesse Owens showing up Hitler in his own backyard in the 1936 Olympic games. But, like most historical accounts you learn as a child, the past is complicated. Yes, Owens became a symbol of showing up Hitler. But it meant little for his success in his own segregated country, a NYT article recently highlighted. “He had a family to come home to, and he did everything he could do to support them,” said Owens’s granddaughter Gina Hemphill-Strachan. “I think that some of things that he did back then, like working at gas stations and running against racehorses, unfortunately were the only types of things available to him because of the era.”
Some more Craig Calcaterra heat! In our inaugural F&F, we highlighted NBC Sports baseball writer Craig Calcaterra’s discussion with former Astro Lance Berkman regarding the Big Puma’s disparaging remarks about trans people. Despite occupying opposite poles of the political spectrum, Calcaterra articulated generous and respectful sentiments about Berkman. He challenged his progressive readers to do the same. We will encourage our readers to keep reading Calcaterra. Why? Because he’ll won’t make just make you a smarter sports fan, he’ll help you become a more emotionally intelligent human being. Here he opines about the shallowness of our journalistic bias accusations. Here he examines how baseball’s implicit bias and its effect on imagining leaders. (Sound familiar?) And here, he seems to be borrowing straight from the F&F raison d’etre in his declaration that he’ll never “stick to sports.”
The entire point of it is to understand and appreciate that sports are part of the real world, impact the real world and that the real world impacts sports as well. Why not talk about how they do so and what it means, both for sports and the real world?...Even if you follow sports for escapism, understand that sports don’t take place in a vacuum...once you make that realization, it’s interesting to talk about what sports means for life and what life means for sports.
Thirteen thousand words of burying the lede. On Wednesday, SB Nation ran a longform article about Daniel Holtzclaw, a former college football player, police officer, son, brother, “brother”, and friend. And serial rapist and abuser of 13 women, all black, many poor. That’s where the trouble started. From Bradford, the brave soul willing to read the whole thing: “plenty of ink about the first sentence, and not nearly enough of the second.” (More from Slate and Deadspin.)
Within a couple hours, SB Nation yanked it. “There were objections by senior editorial staff that went unheeded. It was tone-deaf, insensitive to the victims of sexual assault and rape, and wrongheaded in approach and execution,” wrote editorial director Spencer Hall in his apology. “There is no qualification: it was a complete failure.”