The question isn’t whether Orioles outfielder Adam Jones was right or wrong when he said it’s harder for black players in his sport to speak their minds or protest social injustices because “baseball is a white man’s sport.”
“Of course he’s right,” said Jake Arrieta, the Cubs’ right-hander and a former Orioles teammate of Jones.
Look no further for proof than this week’s report that Joe Ricketts, patriarch of the Cubs’ family ownership group, has pledged at least $1 million to support Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump – a candidate who on Wednesday proposed a nationwide stop-and-frisk policy in “the black community” to combat violence.
The bigger questions raised by Jones last week involve how the sport of Jackie Robinson went from a paragon of social change in America to an institution in which its culture has effectively silenced social dissent.
Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers quarterback, sparked a national discussion about racial injustice, including continued police shootings of unarmed black Americans, by sitting, and later taking a knee, during the national anthem – setting off a wave of similar peaceful protests by NFL players during the anthems.
In baseball, Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia called it “awkward” for any of the sport’s relatively few black players to do anything like that.
In July during the ESPYS awards show, Bulls star and Chicago native Dwyane Wade stood alongside three other NBA greats and spoke out against racial divides and violence in the country.
In baseball, Chicago-area native and Mets outfielder Curtis Granderson was among those in his clubhouse who declined to discuss Jones’ comments with media.
“Is it tougher?” Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward said. “There are less of us. There are less black people in baseball. So there’s naturally going to be fear in that. There’s naturally going to be a fear in minorities when everybody has a different route to get there.”
Perhaps the most difficult of the four major American professional sports to reach the top, baseball has become an even tougher career path for African-American athletes. The raw numbers alone tell that story: The percentage of black Americans playing in the majors has hovered around 8 percent for much of the last decade – the lowest since full integration in the late 1950s.
The number has dropped from a high of 28 percent in the late 1970s.
“I know what A.J. said. A.J. speaks his mind,” Heyward said of the comments Jones made to USA Today. “If anybody’s going to speak their mind it’s Adam Jones or somebody with a contract, and they’re All-Stars and have Gold Gloves. Or it’s going to be Kaepernick, who’s been to a Super Bowl.”
Heyward, in fact, might be in the strongest position of any African American player in the game to take a stand on anything he chooses, given his tenure, his contract, the national stage his team provides and the proximity in Chicago to some of the core issues Kaepernick and others raise.
“Understood,” said the most pursued hitter on last year’s free agent market, whose eight-year, nine-figure contract runs through 2023. Only Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton (2027) is signed longer.
“But I’m a different person,” Heyward added. “I have a different personality. I may have a different approach to things.
“Just with what A.J.’s saying, that’s what I think it is: you don’t want to give anybody any extra reason to take something away from you that you worked hard for, and that’s why so many people are not going to protest in this sport, or [certain] other jobs.”
Heyward, who supports the peaceful efforts of Kaepernick and others to raise the dialogue on important issues, is no stranger to the effort. He has been part of town-hall style forums during his career, and he and teammate Dexter Fowler are active in education efforts in their community back home in the Atlanta area.
“There’s a lot of moving parts to it, like every issue or problem,” Heyward said. “To Adam’s point, you have to be careful in your position. This is about how we were raised. You have to understand that there’s not that many people like yourself in this position.
“And will you be judged fairly or not? You just can’t leave it to question. You can’t give people an extra reason. That’s the reality of the culture and how your culture’s been treated for a long time. You just need to be careful.”
Heyward spoke at length Tuesday, the day after Terrence Crutcher, a 40-year-old unarmed man whose car had broken down, was fatally shot by police in Tulsa, Okla., as he held his hands up.
Even as Heyward spoke, another police shooting Tuesday in Charlotte, N.C., sparked protests and violence in that city that continued into Wednesday night.
But as long as the faces and voices of black America remain disproportionately low in baseball, the platform for baseball as a major-league force for debate likely will remain muted.
“As athletes, we’re people, just like everyone [else],” Heyward said. “You’re not going to see people speak up on everything, because they don’t want to go into that. They’re afraid of what could come of it, even if they’re right.
“It’s not by any means to say you ignore it, but you just choose other tactics. You’ve just got to play the game the right way, whether it’s sport or life.”
Not spelled out is the different reality of being black in America as much as the reality of the dominant white culture within baseball.
Heyward grew up in the suburbs. Both his parents are Dartmouth graduates. He was a good student, and he and his brother Jacob (a draft pick of the Giants this year) were exceptional, prominent baseball players in their community.
And yet it still seems ludicrous to even ask: Has he ever been hassled by a cop or profiled?
“I’m from Georgia, and I’m black,” he said. “Yeah.”
Is the platform of big-league sports the best place to stage discussions on such issues? Is there such a thing as a wrong place to do it?
Regardless, the fact remains MLB was a leader in American social discourse during the last century. But it lags far behind its rival sports in this one.
“Adam Jones is from everything I know about him very well respected and very thoughtful,” Cubs team president Theo Epstein said. “Sometimes it takes words like that to get everyone’s attention and get them to really focus on some of the inequities in the world and certainly within an industry as well.”
Epstein embraces that kind of freedom of expression in his organization.
“We want our players to be heard,” he said. “We want them to live and speak truthfully based on their own experiences and their own perspectives, and it’s only going to make us better as a whole.”
Players throughout the clubhouse seem to be on the same page.
“It’s one of those deals where as professional athletes we have a platform,” Arrieta said. “But at the same time, if we speak our mind we get criticized in a negative way for it [from the outside].
“Don’t we want honesty? Isn’t that admirable, when a guy with a platform like Adam has, speaks his mind and talks genuinely about the way he feels?”
Said Heyward: “In history, some of the greatest people, whatever their ethnicity, they’re the ones that weren’t afraid to speak up. They’re the ones that weren’t afraid to be wrong. A.J. wasn’t afraid to be wrong.”