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Understanding Torii Hunter

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Flipping through the newspaper on the train out of Washington this morning, I read this story in USA Today’s sports pages: "Efforts to develop black talent in USA insufficient" by Bob Nightengale. The story opens with some surprising quotes from Angels center fielder Torii Hunter:

"People see dark faces out there, and the perception is that they're African-American," Los Angeles Angels center fielder Torii Hunter says. "They're not us. They're impostors.

"Even people I know come up and say, 'Hey, what color is Vladimir Guerrero? Is he a black player?' I say, 'Come on, he's Dominican. He's not black.'"

I read that a few times just to make sure I had gotten it right and then turned to my traveling companion, Baseball Prospectus writer Jay Jaffe. "Read this," I said, handing him the newspaper. "Do you suppose anyone will be coming back at Torii Hunter for saying this?"

Jay read the article and let out a long whistle. "Hey, Torii," he said, "Forty-five years ago, Vlad Guerrero wouldn’t have been any more likely to be served in a restaurant in the South than you."

That seems like the crux of the problem with Hunter’s comment: it creates a distinction that is false in American history and culture. If you want to draw a distinction between domestic and foreign-born players, regardless of skin color, that’s a fair thing to do, and it seems that that is what Hunter was attempting to do with his comments. Rather than denying the Latin ballplayer’s their status as men of color in contemporary America, he was referring to the differences inherent in having a different place of origin.

As I said, that distinction is not unfair to make. We don’t live in a post-national world; we still chant "USA! USA!" for the American side. Baseball is the American national game, we all like to root for the hometown team, be it in baseball or the Olympics, so participation on the part of our youth has to be of concern to everyone who wants to see baseball retain its place in the culture. This can be considered apart from questions of race. Indeed, that’s what Chicago Cubs special assistant Gary Hughes did later in the article:

[Hughes] says it's heartbreaking watching America's athletes shun baseball. It's rare, Hughes says, when he sees more than one African American playing in a college game. "A lot of people don't understand," Hunter says, "that the percentage of white players in the game is down, too."

Thus the issue goes beyond declining African-American participation to something that has a broader effect on all of our prospective athletes. Race may play a part in that; it is likely that different groups have different reasons for participating or not participating, but either way, something larger than race, something part generational, part structural is at work.

Meanwhile, Hunter has created a distinction between African-American and foreign born players that seems to be grossly insensitive and may have no bearing on their daily existence in the United States. As Jaffe noted, nationality has never earned anyone a pass on their skin color in this country. Certainly the racists who created and maintained baseball’s color line made no distinction between dark-skinned Americans and dark-skinned Latins. The only Spanish-speaking players who played in the days before Jackie Robinson were those of baseball’s only acceptable complexion.

Nor, for that matter, have immigrants of any color, race, or religion been immune from the periodic nativist fevers that sweep this country from time to time. This country of immigrants has ironically made it very hard on newcomers from time to time. Chinese were despised in California and banned by federal law from coming to this country beginning in 1882, and denied citizenship to those that were already here. Later, Japanese were both excluded and barred from naturalization, and of course in World War II they were tossed in detention camps, their property confiscated and not returned. Irish Americans of the 19th century were familiar with "No Irish Need Apply" help wanted signs. While we consider ourselves a more enlightened society today, with our first African American president now in office, there are still parts of this country where it is still difficult to be (1) black or (2) an immigrant, particularly a Spanish-speaking one. To be black AND a Spanish-speaking immigrant, well, let’s just say that might be difficult at times. Certainly the subject of immigration from the southern hemisphere, legal and illegal, has been a favorite political football in recent years.

Later, Hunter would write on his own blog that he was "hurt how the comments attributed to me went off the track and misrepresented how I feel. My whole identity has been about bringing people together… The point I was trying to make was that there is a difference between black players coming from American neighborhoods and players from Latin America. In the clubhouse, there is no difference at all. We're all the same… What troubles me most was the word ‘impostors’ appearing in reference to Latin American players not being black players. It was the wrong word choice, and it definitely doesn't accurately reflect how I feel and who I am. What I meant was they're not black players; they're Latin American players. There is a difference culturally."

Hunter might want to try for an explanation of his explanation, because he still hasn’t quite gotten where he needs to go, which is to stop using a word that has traditionally referred to skin color to connote nationality or origin. This is at best a problem of semantics, at worst a kind of racism that robs Latin American players of their own status and story in the American drama, denying them credit for their own experiences, which often include a difficult process of acculturation. Hunter is frequently cited as a good guy, one of the game’s ambassadors. He’s trying to say the right things now about all players being equal in the clubhouse, but his words reveal an internal conflict about groups and status.

Once, Casey Stengel had a wild young prospect named Roy "Tarzan" Parmelee pitching for him at Toledo. He was trying to sell him to the Giants, whose manager, John McGraw, was in attendance. Parmelee walked the ballpark, gave up a bunch of runs, and had to be pulled from the game. "Make out like you’re hurt," Casey said when he got to the mound. "I’m trying to get you out of here gracefully."

Whenever a pitcher gets creamed, exhibition or not, and the manager says "No, no… You think he saw him get creamed. He was merely working on some things," I think of Casey’s words to Parmelee. You can’t always know when a manager is just trying to avoid a more troubling story, in this case, weeks of "Gee, Joba can’t pitch, can he?" I guess we’ll find out next time through the rotation.

Meanwhile: have we seen enough of Andrew Brackman now?

I have given in to the pressure from friends, colleagues, and employers alike and have joined the Twitter-verse. You can follow me @PB_Steve. I’ll post links to this here Pinstriped Bible, Wholesome Reading, and Baseball Prospectus entries as they become available, information on appearances, and all the best recipes for Cincinnati chili. Well, some of that, not all of it. If you prefer Facebook, I’m there too (I’ve been there for awhile, actually, without publicizing it) under my own name, Steven Goldman, and you can get the same info there as well. Or you can just ignore me, and I guess I won’t have a date for the prom.

• I suggest that the biggest moment of Nomar Garciaparra’s career actually belonged to someone else.

Wholesome Reading has been updated with new stuff since last we danced this dance of ours. Warning: Politics!