So as Sunday comes and goes, and baseball celebrates one of its greatest players, it's natural that the talk has turned into a discussion of the state of African-Americans in the game.
But leaving the discussion at black, and how they stand with regard to white, does a disservice to the game.
Over the past week, it seems that baseball's writers have tuned up for the celebration by pointing out the declining African-American presence in the game, renewing the calls for African-American managers in the game, and asking where their presence is in front office and ownership groups. Those are all good questions, but they draw the line far too shallow.
In 60 years, baseball has become more than just a game of black and white. In fact, baseball has become the most diverse of America's major sports leagues. This isn't a talk about how many players are or aren't white, it's about how many different types of players there are. Hispanic players obviously make up a large percentage of baseball, but now Asian players are a growing group in the game, and are certainly among the game's headlining stars. Can you say that about basketball? Or football?
Yet, the talk seems to be only about African-American players, and all of it seems to be negative.
The worst part is that all this talk does nothing to help the cause. Do we even remember the cause? I always thought it was integration and freedom, but sometimes I doubt.
At this point, I'll just lay this out here, even if it shouldn't matter: I'm white. So no, I don't know how it feels to be black, or grow up black.
But I know how it feels when, in one off-season, I heard the same critics deride the Oakland Raiders for choosing a coach without an exhaustive search that included African-American candidates, and then deride the San Francisco 49ers for doing an exhaustive search, and supposedly not giving any African-American candidates a chance. I know how it feels whenever the lack of something, whatever that something is, is strongly implied to be the fault of the rest of us. And I can't help it, I feel resentful.
Whenever I hear people like Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson say pretty much anything, I roll my eyes. So do most of the people I know, including the most liberal of liberal people living here in the Bay Area. How does that help?
What bothers me the most about it is what I don't hear in sports. I don't hear calls for Hispanic quarterbacks. Have there been any since Jim Plunkett led the Oakland Raiders to a Super Bowl? How about Hispanic football coaches? Or Hispanic baseball managers? Or how about Asian baseball managers? Do those minorities not matter? If it's not the responsibility of those who make the calls for African-Americans, whose is it?
This isn't to say I don't understand the reasons and the motives behind the people who call for these things, but the way it's called for make it feel like there's still a majority holding African-Americans back. But in baseball, and particularly for players, it's not about anyone consciously holding anyone down, but yet it still feels like that. The calls go out for baseball to market the game more to African-American youths, and the implication is that African-Americans need to see African-Americans playing a sport to be interested in watching or playing the sport.
That just doesn't ring true to me. When I was a kid, I'll admit that it was Dan Marino who was my favorite sports star, but it was Jerry Rice whose poster was on my wall. The iconic image of him, with the words "Just Did It" and a subtle list of stats was something I looked at every day through junior high and high school as inspiration. And it never registered that there was anything that I shouldn't or couldn't appreciate just because he was black. When I started in little league, I wanted to play left field because of Kevin Mitchell. To this day, the baseball player I cheer the loudest (Yes, Barry Bonds) is African-American. I don't understand what stops that from going the other way around.
I do understand that sometimes symbols are needed, and the people who become those symbols can be misunderstood or misrepresented. Everyone remembers what Rosa Parks accomplished for equal rights in the 1960s, but no one remembers that it was San Francisco's Mary Ellen Pleasant who sued for, and won, that same right way back in the 1860s. There just wasn't the same need for a cause then.
There are legitimate questions to be asked, particularly about why the sport isn't appealing to our youth. But why stop at African-Americans? Hispanic players make up the second largest group of players in baseball, but how many of them are American-born or raised players? Very few. By the same token, baseball is the only major team sport in America to have a significant percentage of Asian-heritage players, but the number of them that have been American-born and raised since Masanori Murakami became the first Asian player in the majors in 1964 can seemingly be counted on maybe two hands. I have yet to hear a single person ask those questions. The game absolutely needs to be made more accessible, but it shouldn't be just for one group.
Like I said, I always thought the goal was integration, but the more I hear in this vein feels like the argument is an "us against them" fight, and I'm a part of "them" whether I like it or not. That is not a solution to any problem. All it does is hurt the cause that I thought we were fighting for. The more the separations between us are highlighted, the more the separations will be focused on by the people rather than bridging those gaps.
As this Sunday rolls by, I will celebrate Jackie Robinson in my own way. I absolutely respect him and what he went through. I will even give him a good-natured boo as a San Francisco fan for retiring rather than get traded to the Giants, because that's what rivals do.
But I cannot hide my disgust for those who would use the celebration of his life, his achievements, and his breakthrough to be limited to just one group of people, and to be undone by critics who want more in the name of one group. There are many things baseball needs to improve upon, but any improvements should be made in the name of all players, not one less. And no matter how loud the critics get, pandering to anyone, whether it be an individual or an ethnic group or Congress, will gain no respect from anyone's eyes.And if what I've been told about Jackie's life and cause is true, then that's not what today should be about.
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