With Absence Called For, MLB Is Disappointingly Present

From the moment that MLB decided to try to plow ahead with a season in a country seemingly coming apart at the seams, it’s been an open question as to what value sports should have in our lives. “Sports are like the reward of a functioning society,” as Sean Doolittle put it in back in early July — a quote that’s routinely resurfaced on Twitter in the weeks since and mushroomed all over timelines on Wednesday, as the men and women whose bodies and work provide the foundation for their sports decided that this is a society that no longer deserved the privilege.

In the wake of yet another police shooting of an unarmed Black man — this time in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where local cops fired seven rounds into the back of 29-year-old Jacob Blake as he tried to break up a fight — and protests unfolding across the nation, NBA players, frustrated that their pleas for social and racial justice were bouncing off the walls of the league’s Orlando bubble, said enough. Led by the Milwaukee Bucks and followed soon thereafter by the rest of the teams slated to appear on the day’s playoff schedule, the players — and only the players, without seeking approval from or giving advance knowledge to the NBA — effectively canceled their games. “Boycott” was the initial word of choice, followed by “postponement,” but the most accurate descriptor for all this is “strike” — a labor force demanding change through an emphatic and sudden stoppage.

The NBA was soon joined by the WNBA (here it’s worth noting that the latter league has long been at the forefront of the conversation and action around the Black Lives Matter movement, the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis, and countless other social endeavors) and MLS in bringing itself to a halt. For a moment, it looked like MLB would follow suit. The Brewers, who have been one of more vocal teams when it comes to supporting the protests and Black Lives Matter on the whole this season, held a meeting during which they voted not to play in their scheduled game against the Reds; Cincinnati’s players, in a show of solidarity, agreed to cancel the contest. Similarly, the Mariners and Padres called off their game in San Diego, as did the Giants and Dodgers in San Francisco.

That baseball — a predominantly white and conservative sport — got any level of buy-in or offered actual material support to this sudden movement feels somewhat hard to believe. But those six squads were the exception, not the rule: Beyond those three games (which were officially recorded as postponements and are, as of now, scheduled to be made up in doubleheaders on Thursday), the rest of the night went on as planned. Given an opportunity to stand for something bigger and more important than themselves, the great majority of the league seemingly decided it wasn’t worth it.

MLB has struggled with race for both its entire existence and over the last three months, as the protests over Floyd’s death gave way to impassioned conversations about the state-sanctioned violence and oppression that Black people in the United States face every day and the systematic way in which they are excluded, targeted or minimized across society. Baseball’s own history is ugly enough in that regard, marked by decades of segregation and then a slow, painful integration. Every year brings a new discussion about the declining numbers of Black ballplayers, and how the league doesn’t do enough to promote or create diversity in its ranks — on the field, in the press box, in front offices, in the hallways that Rob Manfred and his almost entirely white executive staff walk through every day. The Negro Leagues are feted, Jackie Robinson is honored as a trailblazing hero, appropriate noises are made about the game’s culture — hidebound and stodgy — moving something closer to the style of its Black and Latinx players. Yet change is fitful and progress is intermittent, and nowhere can that be seen more than in the stop-and-start way that MLB has tried to address this national reckoning around race.

You’ve seen it already in the way that a small yet vocal number of players, most of them Black, tried to organize a visible protest at the beginning of the season. You saw it in the way the league, clumsily at first but then with a more steady tone, declared that there is no place for racism in the game, and that Black lives do, in fact, matter. You’ve seen it in the t-shirts and slogans and messages that players and teams alike have adopted, and in those conversations once again about the lack of diversity, only with more urgency now. Or so it seemed. But those early protests never got much off the ground, amounting to a limp, confused gesture in which teams held a piece of black cloth together before their games, followed by a handful of players choosing to kneel during the national anthem, only for that too to fade away shortly thereafter. It was easy enough for teams to stencil “BLM” on their pitching mounds, but within a few days of the season starting, most of those had been replaced by corporate logos. In the battle of social justice versus advertising dollars, MLB’s power brokers unsurprisingly chose the latter.

Which isn’t to say that the league has up and forgotten the things it’s said, or that the gestures and words from players have gone unheard. It’s been genuinely uplifting to see more players than in years past speak in support of their Black teammates and talk about a need to listen and learn and stand with them — to see opinions and beliefs changing in what feels like the blink of an eye. “We’ve worn t-shirts that say JUSTICE EQUALITY NOW, we’ve made statements,” Ryan Braun told reporters after Milwaukee canceled its game. “But at some point actions speak louder than words.” The Dodgers heard the words of Mookie Betts, their Black teammate who said he would not play, and they followed him to a man. “It’s not a political issue,” said Dave Roberts, who like Betts said he would not have taken the field on Wednesday night. “This is a human being issue.” Why exactly Floyd’s death proved to be a dam breaking remains unclear (and has to be frustrating for those who remember all the names that came before his), but what it brought forth is something that can’t be undone, and the result has been, if inconsistent, a sign that change is possible, if not inevitable (albeit routinely and frustratingly prompted only by the sight of Black bodies and trauma).

But change is also far from a straight line, more a series of spaced out dots and dashes, and Wednesday was proof of that. Jason Heyward took himself out of the Cubs’ lineup and sat out of their game against the Tigers. In St. Louis, Dexter Fowler and Jack Flaherty did the same, with the Cardinals’ Twitter account labeling Fowler “a healthy scratch.” Matt Kemp sat as well, opting out of the Rockies’ matchup with the Diamondbacks and explaining his rationale via an Instagram post: “I could not play this game I love so much tonight knowing the hurt and anguish my people continue to feel.” None of those players — all four of whom are Black — were joined by their teammates. Heyward reportedly told the Cubs to play on without him, but what else could he have said? And regardless of whether or not he gave them his blessing, when presented with the opportunity to make a sacrifice and stand in solidarity, his teammates didn’t. Their choice was the game or the movement, and they picked the former, and it’s hard to understand why.

What is the value of a baseball game against a human life? How much does a late-August tilt against the Tigers matter compared to the struggle that Heyward and the rest of baseball’s Black players, to say nothing of millions upon millions of Black Americans, live every single day? No amount of fame or fortune can protect them from becoming the next Jacob Blake or the next George Floyd, or can insulate them from a society and government that views them as lesser if not insignificant. Like the NBA and WNBA players — most of whom are Black — who wanted to make a statement, Heyward and Fowler and Flaherty and Kemp decided that only through their absence could they say and do something, anything at all, about the injustice that surrounds them and every other Black person in this country. And despite that, their teammates and their league largely left them on an island, or left them to talk alone about their pain like Dominic Smith, fighting through tears as he spoke of how hard it hurt to feel like people didn’t care about Black lives.

America right now is far from a well-functioning society. Nearly 200,000 people have died in the COVID-19 pandemic owing largely to a governmental response that’s alternated between incompetence and negligence. Police continue to brutalize the people they’re supposed to protect, largely with impunity; the civilian protests against their violence are frequently met with scorn, suspicion, indifference, more violence, and, in the case of Kenosha, armed vigilantes, one of whom shot and killed two protestors — law enforcement’s response to the incident was wanting to say the least. Fires rage across California, a Category 4 hurricane is threatening a sizable chunk of the Gulf Coast in Texas and Louisiana, and in governors’ mansions and statehouses and the White House itself, our elected officials present us with a version of reality in which all of this isn’t happening. No sport could fix all or any of this, and in the face of these urgent issues, baseball and basketball and everything else feel more like a surreal distraction than any kind of relief.

But there is a power in sports to affect the discourse and the course of the country — to act as an agent for change. Sports aren’t so much the reward of a functioning society as they are a marker for where we’re at, and with their wildcat strike, the NBA and WNBA have told us that things are at a breaking point. BLM stencils and symbolic gestures and league-approved messages on the backs of jerseys are not and will never be enough. Direct action is the only solution, and in the face of all this terror and anger, sacrificing one night of baseball and using your platform to call collectively for something — anything — better feels like the only possible response to a world flying off its axis. Instead, MLB and the majority of its players chose silence and the status quo, which says far more than any slogan ever could.

On Friday, the league will hold its annual Jackie Robinson Day celebrations, postponed from April, to mark the 73rd anniversary of his breaking of the color barrier. As usual, players and coaches will wear the number 42, and there will be tributes around the game to Robinson’s courage and resilience and all the other platitudes that take the place of the far messier reality in which he strove, frequently alone and often dispirited, to make baseball a more equal place, and of how long it took to get anywhere close to that, and how far MLB still is from the ideal that it puts forth every season. The league had an opportunity to take a significant stride in that direction on Wednesday and failed. Maybe by the time Friday rolls around, they’ll have found their voice.





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Giant Slor
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Giant Slor

Good piece — thank you. Solidarity with those striking. Would like to see players who are not Black show that same solidarity with their Black teammates. As Dave Roberts said, “this is not a political issue. This is a human being issue.” Folks playing politics are actively denying the humanity and experience of Black people in the US.

32roland
Member
32roland

This is an impossible distinction. Call it a strike, a boycott, a protest or anything else–such conduct as a call for social change is inherently political because it is our government’s policy makers who are responsible for making changes to our society. The players are making a political point just as much as anyone else is bringing politics into this.

OddBall Herrera
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OddBall Herrera

I don’t fully agree – I think most everyone involved is expressing ‘we’re upset about the issue and want someone to fix it’. I am sure everyone has their ideas about who might fix it best, and so I suppose you could infer political endorsements from it, but to focus on that instead of the message turns it into an issue of party and politics instead of a conversation about the merits of the message.

32roland
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32roland

The message itself is entirely uncontroversial. The only controversy is about how best to address the underlying problem, which is a matter of politics. There’s a reason LeBron James and the Dodgers are making Dodger Stadium a polling place–because they know that this is a political issue that requires people to make a change through voting.

mookie monster
Member
mookie monster

Correct. As it turns out, almost everything of any importance is political. It’s not a dirty word.

When people say things are “political” in a context like this, they usually mean “partisan.” And this shouldn’t be partisan, although it is.

sadtrombone
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Member
sadtrombone

This is what I was going to say. If something involves two factions who disagree on the issue and/or policies then yes, it is political. Saying “it’s a human issue” is an appeal to the humanity in us, to say “put aside your politics and empathize” but realistically lots of people won’t.

I understand why he said it that way but technically he’s not correct.

TKDC
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Member
TKDC

The article identifies Jack Flaherty as black. He is white. This doesn’t change the general thrust, but worth correcting.

snood
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snood

https://www.mlb.com/news/jack-flaherty-on-jacob-blake-shooting

“Flaherty, who is biracial and identifies as Black”

TKDC
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Member
TKDC

I stand corrected. In my defense, he very much looks white.

docgooden85
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Member
docgooden85

The confusion on Flaherty is a perfect example of the totally arbitrary nature of racial hatred. Non-white people who “pass” get a depressing front row seat to some of the worst behavior of humans.

free-range turducken
Member
free-range turducken

The confusion on Flaherty reminded me of the situation with the singer Sade. In her native Nigeria, she is considered “white”, but in the UK and US she is considered “black”.

bluerum29
Member
bluerum29

never even considered him anything other than white, because that is what his skin tone suggests. I’m white because well, thats what my skin tone is. Nothing more to it than skin tone.

London Yank
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London Yank

The US has historically followed the “one drop rule” where anyone with a single black ancestor is considered socially and legally black.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One-drop_rule