If we’re honest, part of baseball’s appeal to me stems from its deep, shameless love of America. That country and sport identify so closely, however, means that baseball cannot exempt itself from the United States’ tortured racial history. On one hand, it reckons with this annually, on April 15, Jackie Robinson day. On the other hand, in the 13 years that I have loved the sport, I’ve seen few conversations about its Latino players, specifically with regards to how they and their cultural gifts and expressions have been valued and adopted in the clubhouse. (Perhaps this may be one reason for the dearth of Latino managers?)
This year is special for me—I will have been a Giants fan half my life. Like every step this country takes toward racial justice, opening the sport to a new, multicultural generation has already suffered growing pains. As someone who intends to love baseball the rest of my life, I hope to contribute to its self-awareness and healing.
Leadoff hitter: Longform that lays off the first pitch.
Goose Gossage showed up to Yankees training camp this month, angry. Specifically, he had an axe to grind with a certain Dominican player who made time stand still in Toronto last October.
"Bautista is a f---ing disgrace to the game,” seethed Gossage. “He's embarrassing to all the Latin players, whoever played before him. Throwing his bat and acting like a fool, like all those guys in Toronto. Cespedes, same thing.”
When Goose Gossage made his debut, 73 percent of players were white, 16 percent were African American and 11 percent were Latino. When he retired in 1994, the league was experiencing one of its most diverse years ever: 65 percent of players were white, 17 percent were African American and 18 percent were Latino.
So why is Gossage going off now? Baseball’s transformation from America’s pastime to global sporting phenomenon has been largely cosmetic. Sure, more than half of all players in the minor and major league levels today hail from countries other than the United States. At the top, about a quarter are foreign-born. At a corporate level, the contributions of these players has been courted aggressively. Major League front offices routinely spend millions of dollars to ship scouts abroad, build ballparks overseas, and win the rights to speak with top players in Japanese leagues.
But once these players arrive, it becomes clear that they’re imported for little more than their ability to hit, catch, and throw the ball. Don’t speak English or have a personal interpreter? Learn the language or monolingual beat writers will all but ignore you. Most of your American teammates put little effort in crossing cultural boundaries—reporters consistently say that most clubhouse cliques fall along ethnic lines. (Further, it’s always a “story” when white players learn Spanish.) While most of these tensions exist in the clubhouse, it’s unfair to let the commissioner’s office off the hook. It, along with the MLB Players Association, recently finalized a rule to make Spanish translators mandatory in January. And play the game—literally, a game people—emotively? Be ready for scornful lectures from former baseball greats about disrespect, a diatribe usually reserved for Latinos.
One exception: Bryce Harper. He’s the league’s best hitter, and a young, white Mormon from Utah who came up to the majors as a teenager.
"Baseball's tired. It's a tired sport, because you can't express yourself. You can't do what people in other sports do. I'm not saying baseball is, you know, boring or anything like that, but it's the excitement of the young guys who are coming into the game now who have flair. If that's Matt Harvey or Jacob deGrom or Manny Machado or Joc Pederson or Andrew McCutchen or Yasiel Puig—there's so many guys in the game now who are so much fun.
"Jose Fernandez is a great example. Jose Fernandez will strike you out and stare you down into the dugout and pump his fist. And if you hit a homer and pimp it? He doesn't care. Because you got him. That's part of the game. It's not the old feeling—hoorah ... if you pimp a homer, I'm going to hit you right in the teeth. No. If a guy pimps a homer for a game-winning shot ... I mean —sorry.
"If a guy pumps his fist at me on the mound, I'm going to go, 'Yeah, you got me. Good for you. Hopefully I get you next time.' That's what makes the game fun. You want kids to play the game, right? What are kids playing these days? Football, basketball. Look at those players—Steph Curry, LeBron James. It's exciting to see those players in those sports. Cam Newton—I love the way Cam goes about it. He smiles, he laughs. It's that flair. The dramatic."
Baseball is great, but baseball culture is sick. It’s tried—and to some extent succeeded—in exporting its product to a diversified customer base, while attempting to retain power in the hands of traditional gatekeepers. (Dodgers are the only team coming to mind without a white, male owner. And only one of three teams with a non-white manager. There are 30 teams. Oh and the first Muslim GM of any team ever.) On the field, this manifests in enforcing “unwritten rules.” ”When baseball old-timers talk about the ‘right way’ to play the game, they mean the ‘white way,” writes Sam Adler-Bell. “And in this, I see less a genuine loyalty to the game’s existing norms, than an attachment to the privilege of defining what those norms are.”
Seventy years after Jackie Robinson broke MLB’s color barrier and 50 years after the Civil Rights era, these cultural artifacts remain pernicious. Part of baseball’s glory is derived from its shameless, exaggerated, and saccharine nostalgia. Indeed, its love of tradition, seasons, and history provide a respite for our fast-changing society. But Harper’s comments remind us that at times this conviction stands in the way of joy, personality—and humanity. Did Yasiel Puig draw Dodgers fans to the park in 2013 just because he wielded a hot bat and a cannon arm? Was his .319 batting average and swift baserunning the sole attraction in Chavez Ravine? Of course not. Puig’s appeal came from his on-field performance and the aura that surrounded the performative Cuban prodigy. But Puig’s bravado was not immune to critics chirping about his bat flips, a practice he said he’d halt at the beginning of last season. (And they say they want the game to appeal to the younger generation.)
Sometimes sportswriters will joke grown men playing a little kids’ game. But sometimes the powers of baseball assume its players are children—children that should be seen and not heard. But while we’ve realized the foolishness of suffocating youthful delight, we’re still suppressing it in the sport. Ultimately, this insistence on stoicism inhibits relating with the athlete. Ultimately, it dehumanizes them.
Harper’s the best candidate to make these accusations, not because he’ll always be right—but because he’ll have more than his talent to fall back on when he’s wrong. Harper understands the baseball culture that he was steeped in, but also knows what he—and other young people like him—find thrilling, compelling, and authentic. He’s Rob Manfred’s most valuable asset—if only because he has no issue offering the commissioner real-time feedback about an audience increasingly drawn towards other pastimes.
Part of that, of course, comes from the rare combination of Harper’s talent and charisma. But those factors go much further when paired in tandem with the fact that he’s a native English speaker and an American. His comments don’t need to be rearticulated by a translator or teammate. Sure, we can point to the number of Latino players who have achieved mainstream adoration: Pedro, Rivera, Pudge, Big Papi, and yes, Goose, Bautista. But little of this happened before they took it upon themselves to become bilingual, and, in many cases, become US citizens themselves.
If you listen to speculative pundits and former ballplayers, you’ll have heard rumblings about Harper’s massive ego.. Yet, his comments reveal how quickly he is to credit others inside and outside his sport, many of them men of color. Harper realizes that his sport’s own success—and his own long term satisfaction while playing it—relies on learning from and pointing to what other men and women have already done. (Steph, Serena, Cam, the Dominican Republic’s 2013 World Baseball Classic, we see y’all.) All of us—or none.
Stick to sports: In which we stay in our lane.
Island of Kawhi. Lee Jenkins’ wrote Sports Illustrated’s informative cover story on San Antonio’s rising superstar, Kawhi Leonard. The Spurs’ soft-spoken wingman just signed a max extension, but that doesn’t stop him saving money at Wingstop.
“He is happy to sponsor Wingstop, which sends him coupons for free wings, so he can feed his Mango Habanero addiction. This winter, after his $94 million contract kicked in, he panicked when he lost his coupons. Wingstop generously replenished his supply.”
Petition to have the reigning Defensive Player of the Year nicknamed The WingStopper®?
Delay of game: All you can read before the clock expires.
Play the gay away. Tyler Dunnington, a former pitcher in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, was a 28th round draft pick a bit old for his league relative to his age. Oh and his teammates would rather have people like him killed than befriend them. The real issue was not his 4-2 win-loss record or 3.02 earned run average; he was gay.After one minor league season, Dunnington quit. Out Sports reports:
"One teammate with the Cardinals mentioned that he has a gay brother. While there was some supportive talk, two teammates in particular questioned their straight teammate on how he could possibly be friends with a gay person, even his brother. They even mentioned ways to kill gay people.
When it came time a year ago to head to Spring Training, Dunnington bowed out. He was done with baseball. His family was bewildered. Baseball had been part of Dunnington's identity for most of his life. Not knowing his sexual orientation or the language he had heard in college and pro locker rooms, they were dumbfounded."
Dunnington, with the help of MLB ambassador for inclusion Billy Bean, is working towards a baseball comeback, this time in the front office. Wherever he winds up, (Haha get it? Cause he’s a pitcher!) we hope Dunnington’s bravery and openness help open the doors for future queer athletes and change the hearts of their teammates.
Meet Me in St. Louis (but don’t pay me there). There's a lot to like about Missouri. The golden arch. The St Louis Ra—
Well, okay. Not that. But the deeply sentimental and benevolent Rams ownership tried to preserve the spirit of St Louis' labor laws after their move to Los Angeles. Before moving the team, Stan Kroenke and his men offered players contracts under Missouri, rather than California, terms. Why? To save a couple bucks! In practice, injured employees (like, say, a lineman suffering CTE — keep reading!) are entitled a maximum weekly allotment of $886.92 under Missouri law, a 20% decrease from the $1,112.83 maximum weekly benefit in California. The NFLPA wasn’t having it:
“We believe that any reference to the state of Missouri is inappropriate since the Rams have relocated to California as evidenced by the fact that they have changed their name on their website to the Los Angeles Rams, are prepared to hold off-season workouts and training camp in California, and will practice and play their home games in California in 2016,” the union says in the memo to all agents.
Will Smith rejoices! On Monday, an NFL official admitted that 300-pound men colliding head first over and over again for six months out of the year may lead to brain injuries. Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president of Health and Safety, addressed the issue during a roundtable discussion on concussions hosted by the U.S. House of Representatives.
As always, we’re appreciative of the NFL’s steadfast pursuit of both intellectual curiosity and player safety.
Bird’s brain. Sue Bird is one of the greatest women’s basketball players of all time, but without precise analytics, we’ll never know how great she was relative to her peers. Bird, writing at Players’ Tribune, asks for an analytical revolution in the WNBA similar to the one in most major men’s sports.
“And I think there is also some subtext to the lack of data in women’s sports. Is the WNBA, for example, not worthy of a deep dive? Do women, as fans—who account for about 70 percent of our fanbase in arenas across the league—have less of a mind, or less of an interest in numbers, than their male counterparts?”
If you liked this...
If you’re 51 and can hit home runs further than a ballplayer, in the prime of his life, making $48 a minute for the next 13 years, why are you reading this newsletter? Just kidding! We love that you’re here. Stay. Also share. And look for us on Facebook, Twitter, and da web.