Sports

After a Long Lull, Protesting Is Taking Hold Across Baseball

Carlos Delgado, the former Toronto Blue Jays and Mets slugger, was playing basketball with his 13-year-old son at their home in Puerto Rico on Wednesday evening when he noticed a news alert on his phone: The Milwaukee Bucks players were sitting out of their N.B.A. playoff game to protest systemic racism and police brutality following the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by police in Kenosha, Wis.

It was not entirely surprising to Delgado, who has seen how N.B.A. players have become some of the most vocal athletes in North America about social issues. But when Delgado received another news alert, saying that the Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds had opted not to play their regular-season game the same night, he was amazed.

Then came more postponements in M.L.B. — 10 games in all, between Wednesday and Thursday — as players from several teams opted to cede the floor to the larger social unrest gripping the country.

“Those are things that surprise you positively because baseball typically has been conservative,” Delgado said in Spanish during a phone interview Thursday night. “But this is a just and important cause.

“That abuse, segregation, racism and lack of equality has been happening for a long time in the U.S. and in the world. That the players agreed and used their voice in protest, it’s spectacular.”

Delgado, 48, knows full well how difficult it can be to take a stand in professional baseball. In 2004, Delgado quietly refused to stand when “God Bless America” was played during the seventh-inning stretch at some M.L.B. games, a protest against the U.S. military’s presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

ImageCarlos Delgado at Yankee Stadium in 2004. He was booed by fans there that season for declining to stand for the playing of “God Bless America.”
Credit…Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

Although Delgado’s demonstration went largely unnoticed early that season, it eventually became a source of tension, and he was booed by fans at Yankee Stadium that summer.

“When you’re the only one, it’s hard,” said Delgado, who noted that Latinos had also faced discrimination inside and outside the sport. “You’re on an island. But I think there are causes more important than the game and there are causes more important than the person. Just because you’re a baseball player, doesn’t mean you can’t respectfully show your disagreement with something.”

Taking a stand, or a knee, or refusing to play because of racial injustice in M.L.B. — a sport saturated with tradition and unwritten rules of conduct where the majority of players, coaches, executives and owners are white — is different than doing so in the N.B.A., W.N.B.A. or N.F.L., leagues where most of the players are Black. Over the decades, the number of Black players in M.L.B. has dwindled to about 8 percent.

And while baseball was once known for leading the way with activism with figures such as Roberto Clemente and Jackie Robinson — whose annual day of celebration across M.L.B. was Friday — only one major league player, Bruce Maxwell, knelt during the pregame national anthem after Colin Kaepernick helped start a movement of such demonstrations in 2016. Maxwell later said he didn’t feel supported at the time.

“How lucky are N.B.A. players to have other Black players in the locker room to make that decision?” C.C. Sabathia, the former Yankees star pitcher, said this week on his R2C2 podcast about the walkouts. “No offense, but if I’m sitting in a baseball clubhouse right now, what are the chances my teammates are going to make that decision and have my back? There’s a 20 percent chance my teammates make that decision. It’s got to feel good to be in a league where people at least feel your pain.”

Even if baseball again found itself following other leagues — Brewers players said they drew their inspiration from the Bucks — the events of this week showed that the sport’s culture was evolving.

Credit…Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Some of the walkouts in M.L.B. this week were pulled off last minute (the Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles called off their Thursday game around the time of first pitch), contentious (the Arizona Diamondbacks released a statement on Thursday that they wanted to play despite two of their own players joining their opponents, the Colorado Rockies, in saying they did not want to take the field) or inconsistent (Rockies outfielder Matt Kemp, like some others, sat out alone, but he was joined by his apologetic teammates the next day).

“You’d love for it to be a unified thing,” St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty told reporters. He, along with outfielder Dexter Fowler, decided just before their game on Wednesday to sit out while their teammates carried on.

But in several cases this week, there was evidence that the sport’s white leaders and players were listening more. When the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Mookie Betts, the most prominent African-American player in M.L.B. and the only active one on his team, told his teammates that he didn’t want to play on Wednesday, the star Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, who is white, said the team discussed how they could support Betts. They ultimately decided to join him.

“We’ve been wearing these shirts throughout the year but there comes a time where you have to live it, you have to step up,” Brewers star outfielder Christian Yelich, who is white, told reporters on Wednesday while wearing a T-shirt that said “JUSTICE EQUALITY NOW.”

Such solidarity from white players is “1,000 percent” necessary to enact changes, said Edwin Jackson, a Black pitcher who played for 14 major-league teams over 17 years. In a phone interview, he commended the teams whose players had demonstrated together, regardless of ethnicity. “That speaks volumes instead of one person here or there doing it,” he said.

Jackson, 36, is on the board of directors of the Players Alliance, a nonprofit formed earlier this year made up of more than 100 former and current Black players. Before now, he said, Black players did not have a way of coordinating their initiatives across the league. On Thursday morning, he said players from the nonprofit met in a Zoom video call to formalize their plans to donate their game checks from Thursday and Friday to efforts that combat racial inequality and aid Black communities.

“We haven’t been able to talk in baseball in forever,” said Jackson, who last pitched for the Detroit Tigers last season. “This might be the first year where players can express how they feel. And you still have in the back of your mind that maybe there’s some backlash, but we are speaking. This is the most that I’ve ever seen anyone speak, especially Blacks and African-Americans, in baseball.”

When the M.L.B. season began in July, some players feared it would take attention away from the larger social justice movements exploding across the country. And when another Black person was shot by police this week, some players found it harder to focus on their job as entertainers.

Credit…Scott Kane/Getty Images

Simply because players are highly paid, Jackson said, it doesn’t mean they or their families are immune from racism.

“People say, ‘Sports is supposed to be a distraction. We want a distraction from the situation,’” Flaherty told reporters on Thursday. “And that’s part of the problem. People don’t want to face reality of the situation that’s going on. And by the N.B.A. not playing yesterday you had to listen. You had to listen to, ‘Well, why?’”

Jackson credited the N.B.A. with leading the way. “Obviously it’s a lot easier for those guys to do because they’re the majority in their sport,” he said of Black players. “But everyone has to give somebody the courage and strength to want to follow. As long as we follow in a positive direction, I hope everybody follows somebody.”

When he entered professional baseball in the 1960s, the Hall of Fame outfielder Reggie Jackson said in a phone interview Thursday, Black players feared for their jobs “if you went against things.” He added: “Being a second-class citizen and not getting opportunities, that’s the way it was.”

But now, Jackson said players “absolutely” have more of a voice and more people understand the problems facing society, partly because of social media.

While Jackson, 74, was sad that not enough had changed in the country since he played and that the sport had not become more diverse, he applauded today’s players for using their platform to force the topic of social inequities into the news.

“What they’re doing, the inconsistencies of playing, does bring attention to it,” Jackson said of baseball players. “It’s important to do something and say something to keep it top of mind because things need to change.”

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