April 15 is a special day on the MLB calendar. The anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier is celebrated around the game, most prominently by every player sporting Jackie’s now-retired no. 42. Teams and the league office are quick to issue statements praising Robinson’s courage, class and playing ability, and committing to supporting justice in his name and his legacy.
Roberto Clemente enjoys a similar appreciation from the annals of baseball history, with an annual award in his honor, recognizing and celebrating his role as the first Latin player in the majors, and his tireless service to his community, country and the world.
Billy Bean publicly came out in 1999, and was named MLB’s Ambassador for Inclusion in 2014. He took a brave stance to express who he was during a time far less open and friendly to the idea, and suffered professionally and personally for it.
These three pioneers have received due commendation from the league and broader culture, but only after the fact. MLB is proud to trumpet the move to integrate baseball, but is afraid to address the decades of mandated, structural segregation that preceded it. Bean was, in so many implicit and subrosa ways, pushed out of the game he loved, while one of his most publicized tormentors, Tommy Lasorda, is held in esteem as an elder statesman of the game.
All of this is to say that MLB is proud of the progressive moments in its history...but only retroactively. The league is careful to avoid taking true moral stances in times of upheaval and controversy, even when doing so exposes them to ridicule, not-unfair accusations of cowardice, and perhaps worse, moral stagnation.
By now I’m sure you’ve heard or seen Elie Wiesel’s famous words about neutrality helping the oppressor. If you prefer the classics, Dante wrote that the the darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis. Most recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in Between the World and Me that the destroyers will rarely be held accountable.
There are two damages that come from the sins of hate and exclusion. The first is the direct kind - the black man killed by a police officer while three others stand and watch, the redlining, the forced sterilization of peoples designated as the “other”. The second damage, as we see above, is the damage of neutrality, the laissez-faire, “somebody else’s problem”, both sides-ism that perpetuates structural violence, allows it to fester and spread like an infection.
MLB, and the New York Yankees, have shown just how committed they are to that second damage by refusing to comment, condemn, or even acknowledge violence, specifically police violence, against people of color in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police, and the killing of Breonna Taylor by police, the killing of Ahmaud Arbery by racists trying to be on a cop show, and the protest and demonstrations we’ve seen in the past week, catalyzed by these examples of violence and all the ones that proceed it.
The league has been mum on the subject. The New York Yankees, at time of writing, haven’t even posted a tweet, on anything, since Friday. This silence is a choice. They are choosing to maintain their neutrality, inflicting that second damage on a population desperate for its institutions to provide guidance, unity and direction. MLB is an institution - they’re quick to claim their role as the national pastime, to trumpet their actions in times of national healing, and their essential status as Guardians of What it Means to be American.
The Yankees are the most prominent, celebrated, and influential organization under the MLB banner. Yankees Exceptionalism has been on the decline for the better part of this century, but this goes beyond on-field performance or front office decisions. They have the biggest platform in the game, the most widespread fanbase in the country, and frame themselves as representatives of one of the most diverse cities in the world.
Yet radio silence, as the very same people the Yankees, and MLB, target and celebrate as some of their most desired fans, cry for help from our cultural institutions and fellow citizens, pining for recognition and support in their ongoing struggle against the structural barriers we’re all responsible for building and maintaining.
And before you say “this is a business” or some similar, repeated counterargument, other sports leagues don’t feel the need to keep quiet on issues of fundamental injustice:
Because I wanted to make a joke to a friend of mine who’s a baseball guy, I looked up his team and didn’t see anything.— Joel D. Anderson (@byjoelanderson) June 1, 2020
Which is pretty much the trend in MLB: 24 of the 30 teams ain’t said shit on twitter, with exceptions of the Bay Area teams, MIN, MIA, DC, & TOR. https://t.co/GNoASxVuD2
Even if being silent is a “business decision”, when your business model is predicated on ignoring racism and violence against the same people you try to court as fans, by the people you so often honor in pregame and seventh inning ceremonies, it’s not a sustainable one.
Players deserve credit for using their platforms to speak out. Giancarlo Stanton was the first Yankee to do so, and James Paxton followed suit yesterday afternoon, and PSA has set up a running tracker of all statements made by players. Aaron Judge, DJ LeMahieu, and Gerrit Cole, those guys we hold up often as leaders on the team and examples to follow, nothing. Players like this enjoy a privilege even among the already-privileged professional athlete. Is Brian Cashman going to trade Gerrit Cole because he said cops need to stop killing people of color? I rather doubt it. The Yankee roster, the most concrete, tangible representation of the metaphysical Yankee Exceptionalism, has been quieter than other rosters around the league, and other leaders.
So, here's my message to my white brothers and sisters out there....please reach out to your friends who have a different skin color than you. Encourage them. Tell them you love them. Tell them they're awesome. It's important. Our voices and actions matter to help us recover— Adam Wainwright (@UncleCharlie50) May 31, 2020
This is exactly what the leaders of the Yankees, and the club, and the league itself, need to be doing. It’s exactly what every single person who doesn’t know what it’s like to be targeted by police, or followed in a store, or see a stranger clutch their purse, needs to be doing. I’m one of those people.
You don’t need to be out in the street. You need to use your eyes, your ears, your brain and your wallet to recognize the tangible violence against people of color, and the more insidious obstacles built to keep them down. You need to center the voices of people of color, see and listen to them when they tell you what’s needed for a more just society. It’s not enough to “condemn racism in all its forms” or blindly quote Dr. King without understanding his words.
I’m going to follow my own directive. Read the words these people write. Understand their voices and their perspectives, even if its just within the game of baseball:
That’s a start. You can’t stop there, and I can’t be the only one to point you to voices you need to hear.
We can’t afford to be neutral. We don’t get to be progressive retroactively. You don’t get to say that you would have supported Jackie in 1947, or marched with King in 1963, if you’re not doing what you can to listen, to elevate, to support and to understand the voices of the people most hurt by what’s going on in our culture today.
And it’s not an American issue alone.
Baseball, its most recognizable apparatus MLB, and the game’s most famous icon, the New York Yankees, cannot afford neutrality. They cannot roll out boilerplate statements, and they cannot leave their players hanging loose when they take a stand. The game cannot continue to inflict the second damage, and we all need to demand more from it. Black lives matter.