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Beyond the pale: Baseball’s so-called black issues caused by its white problem

Tim Anderson was ejected by a white umpire and suspended one game by white MLB execs for using the N-word after a white pitcher hit him with a pitch. "Absolutely hilarious," said another player.

I’m the problem.

If not the problem, then at least the issue.

Me, those who look like me, sound like me, view the world through a light-colored, male prism that sets agendas, makes rules and decides what’s mainstream or “normal” in American culture – or its subcultures, such as baseball.

“Middle-aged white men,” said Diamondbacks outfielder Adam Jones.

Don’t take my word, or Jones’ word.

Just look at the average baseball press box during a game, the average baseball front office, the average executive walking around Major League Baseball’s headquarters in New York.

And then when you hear about the racist messages and taunts players such as the Cubs’ Carl Edwards Jr. must endure – or the absurd thinking that went into suspending Tim Anderson of the White Sox for his use of a certain word – it should start to become self evident to those who would continue to traffic in tired white-splaining of non-white experiences, in this game and in this society:

The so-called black issues in baseball – whether it’s the causes behind the extreme under-representation of African-Americans or the continual incidence of racist jeers and treatment – are white problems.

And if the first step in solving a problem is to admit it exists, maybe it’s time that the next conversation on this issue begins there.

“It sucks, but you’ve got middle-aged white men telling everybody else what to do in the world,” Jones said. “I didn’t make that part up. That’s just what you see on TV. That’s what you see in real life. It’s history.”

It’s certainly baseball.

Jones, who called the suspension of a black man (Anderson) for using the N-word after a white pitcher hit him with a pitch “absolutely hilarious,” has become a sort of unofficial ambassador and spokesman representing issues such as these in baseball – if for no other reason than he thinks deeply about their causes, effects and potential solutions, and that he’s willing to speak up.

“That’s what my parents taught me: You don’t like something, talk about it, have a conversation about it,” he said. “You don’t have to rush to judgment. In this country right now we rush to judgment. It’s either right or wrong. There’s nothing in the middle.”

Jones made headlines in 2016 when he explained that the reason you don’t see the kind of social-justice protests in MLB that Colin Kaepernick inspired in the NFL is because “baseball is a white man’s sport” and that there are so few black players in the majors (7.7 percent) that “you might as well not kick yourself out of the game” by speaking up.

<em>Me: part of the problem?</em>
Me: part of the problem?

Talking in the visitors clubhouse last weekend at Wrigley Field about Edwards – and the countless examples of racist abuse black players have endured for generations – he spoke of the social-media and technology generation that has escalated, through keystrokes, the more vicious nature of fan reaction to players’ struggles on the field.

“Everybody on social media is going to get the backlash of social media,” he said of the constant barrage of “you suck” or “hope you get injured” comments from angry fans.

“It’s regular, but it’s a tad bit different for the black athletes. It just is,” he said. “And obviously most people who speak on black issues aren’t black, which is even more frustrating. Super frustrating for us.”

That’s what made Anderson’s one-game suspension for using the N-word in anger after getting hit by a pitch so absurd on its face.

So it’s a word deemed so historically hurtful and abusive in its racist context that the mostly white middle-aged men running MLB – with best intentions – enforce a zero-tolerance policy regarding its use on the field?

And then after more than a generation of the word getting reclaimed by those who would be targeted and turned into common slang – as a direct result of its ugly history – a black player uses it in that context? And gets punished?

The deep irony and hypocrisy is not only “hilarious,” as Jones said.

It’s ignorant.

“But being in this game you understand things,” Jones said. “There’s 7 percent of us.”

Despite gains in hiring diversity in recent years, according to an annual study, MLB’s top eight ranking decision makers are all white men, including the commissioner, its two deputy commissioners, and chief baseball officer Joe Torre – the league’s discipline head.

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As Micah Johnson, the former White Sox infielder, tweeted in response to the suspension:

“Dear white people offended by Tim Anderson using the N-Word,

“It’s not your job to police how black people use it. …

“In a game where failure is king and frustration is abundant, suspending people for inappropriate language will leave you with empty benches. Suspending one of your few black players for language after getting hit … will leave you with white benches.”

Jones tries to see it from both sides. He grew up in the city and now lives in the suburbs. “It’s just different,” he said.

When he mentions the umpire (Joe West), who ejected Anderson and filed an incident report, which was used to inform the suspension, Jones said: “To his credit, it probably made him uncomfortable, which I completely understand.

“But not one player cared about it,” he said. “Not one player. Not one teammate said anything about it.”

Baseball already knows it has a demographics problem when it comes to getting young people to watch its increasingly slow-paced game and what that might mean for the future.

<em>Jones: “There’s 7% of us.”</em>
Jones: “There’s 7% of us.”

What’s said less often is that its middle-aged-white-guy skew continues to prove problematic when it comes to growing the game relative to other American team sports.

Black players for decades have talked about a game they sometimes play during slow moments between innings.

“I play the same game. I know the game you’re talking about,” Edwards said. “Count the black fans.”

It usually doesn’t take long.

“I love everybody,” Edwards added. “But at the end of the day, that’s just what we’re surrounded by.”

The demographics gap not only is about fan bases and the executive structure, but it also impacts the game’s ability to attract non-white American players and often how it’s portrayed by the media.

A recent AP Sports Editors study found that 85 percent of sports editors, 76 percent of assistant sports editors, 80 percent of columnists, 80 percent of reporters and 78 percent of copy editors and designers were white, and the vast majority of them male.

“It’s not the problem in my eyes,” Jones said. “It’s just the field, it’s the job field. But it’s the narrative. And the narrative of the editors is always going to be their narrative. That’s just media. That’s just how the media has been and always will be.”

Regardless, the entire landscape has created a cultural problem for baseball in this country that goes far beyond pitch clocks and limiting mound visits.

Maybe MLB could start by taking a proactive approach to social media monitoring of its players’ feeds and go after abusers without the onus falling on the player to report it.

Maybe somebody like Jones should have a voice and authority in the commissioner’s office.

And maybe MLB could at least stop wrapping itself so tightly in its version of Jackie Robinson’s history that it ignores some of the deeper truths of the unequal opportunity that followed and the legacy that still seems to scream: “shut up and play.”

As Edwards said about much of the white perception that persists 72 years after Robinson’s debut:

“It’s like it’s a new world, like `Oh, yeah, Martin Luther King marched. Congratulations It’s over with.’ This s— ain’t over with.”