It’s been a busy month being an old, cranky, former ballplayer. After the recent incident involving Adam Jones, where fans at Fenway Park shouted racial slurs, former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling defiantly declared that Jones made the whole thing up. Two nights ago, during the Yankees-Red Sox NESN broadcast, former player Jerry Remy said that Masahiro Tanaka shouldn’t have a translator because he should just understand “baseball language”.
Most significantly, however, Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt stated the following on SportRadio 94WIP on Tuesday morning:
"My honest answer to that [whether the Phillies can build a team around Odubel Herrera] would be no because of a couple of things," Schmidt told SportsRadio 94WIP. "First of all, it's a language barrier. Because of that, I think he can't be a guy that would sort of sit in a circle with four, five American players and talk about the game. Or try and learn about the game or discuss the inner workings of the game. Or come over to a guy and say, 'Man, you gotta run that ball out.'
"[He] just can't be -- because of the language barrier -- that kind of a player."
Herrera knows how to speak English, for the record. Schmidt issued an “apology” that looks very similar to a lot of these faux-apologies, that he doesn’t necessarily apologize for the opinion stated, but that people got offended.
It’s pretty easy to look at all of this and think this is just a Boston problem, or an old player problem, or whatever helps you maintain a cognitive dissonance that, sure, people can be racist, but not my team, not my favorite player. It’s that kind of thinking that puts you in the corner of having to defend these actions, and people often do for those seemingly benign motives. They defend the honor of a player that represents something you enjoy. That’s racism in its complicity.
The Yankees have a history with race as well, and it isn’t much more forgiving. The organization was one that pushed back against integration. Farm director George Weiss said that “I will never allow a black man to wear a Yankee uniform. Box-holders from Westchester don't want that sort of crowd.” Even after they capitulated, this kind of institutionalized bias has been on display, until the present day.
During the days of the Bronx Zoo, Reggie Jackson said that manager Billy Martin was infamous for his consistent use of “anti-Seminitic, racist slurs.” Then there was Dave Winfield, who, despite being the best player on otherwise disappointing teams, was publicly shamed and slandered by George Steinbrenner, who hired a gambler to find dirt on his star. He spent the late 1980’s waging a war in the press against his own player. It’s pretty important to note that from 1981 to 1988 with the Yankees, Winfield hit .291/.357/.497 (135 OPS+), was an All-Star each year, and amassed 27.4 WAR.
That’s textbook racism, a double standard where black players have to work twice as hard for half the recognition; he was a Hall of Fame player, one of the best players of the decade, and you would think he was a scrub. There’s a more modern example, however, one that’s within our recent consciousness. It gives us a clue as to how racism operates in the modern league, and what we should have our ears attuned to in the future. It’s the case of Robinson Cano.
By any metric you want to use, Cano was the greatest second baseman in the history of the Yankees. He didn’t last his whole career in New York, but suffice it to say the Yankees’ second base leaderboard is impressive, and Cano tops it in wRC+, slugging percentage, and he’s third in hits and second in runs batted in. He will go into Cooperstown with a Yankees hat. Yet, the media and the organization did not like him, and they wanted the world to know it.
There was the 2014 incident where Kevin Long issued a Yankees port-mortem, arguing that “...when you jog down the line, even if it doesn’t come into play 98% of the time, it creates a perception… The reasons aren’t going to make sense. He might say his legs didn’t feel good, or he was playing every day and needed to save his energy. To me there was no acceptable answer.”
Note that he doesn’t argue that he isn’t a good player, but his actions create the “perceptions” of a bad player. That’s the perception of those like Schmidt, or someone like New York Post writer Phil Mushnick, who said that Cano’s lack of hustle was “an assault on all the good common senses and a crime against The Game.”
This was also a pet peeve of Michael Kay throughout Cano’s career. Never mind that even though these people whined for years on end, it likely had the impact of “four singles a season” according to Ben Lindbergh. That’s pretty inconsequential given the fact that he has averaged 159 games a year for a decade.
That leads us to the present. We may not have the ridiculous, bombastic George Steinbrenner in charge, but it’s not like his family is that different in outlook. They’re tone deaf on domestic violence, insane on fan outreach, and they’ve already shown a prickliness to their stars. The latter was put on display following Dellin Betances’ arbitration case, when Randy Levine went on to say that “Dylan” didn’t deserve the money he wanted.
We live in an environment that feels upside down, in that what is usually supposed to be quiet, is said aloud. You can come up for why that is. The comments from Schmidt, or Remy, or Schilling, are not abnormal in baseball, past or present. They may not go as far as what Weiss said, but they’ll do as much as they can to make it a reality without the words being spoken. We’re currently at a time when African-American participation in baseball, all the way up to the big leagues, is at an all-time low.
This matters as the Yankees promote their Baby Bomber phase. We already heard the media and the organization gush over Aaron Judge, and rightfully so. That same “Jeterian” wave, however, didn’t wash over people when they saw Winfield or Cano. It’s a double standard, and it matters that we point it out. Sure, Schmidt might not come along and say that Gary Sanchez, or Luis Severino, or Jorge Mateo, or Betances, is not fit to lead a team because of their ethnicity, but the media or ownership will say it’s merely something else. They just think that Dylan is lazy, is all.