July 5, 2007

So That’s Why the Ball is White!

Play Ball
A little over a year ago I wrote a piece on another blog with a similar title to this one, in which I commented on an Associated Press story dealing with the ongoing decline of black participation in professional baseball. Over the last 12 months, even more debate and discussion (both of which are very good things, I might add) have developed in regard to the issue, but as with anything else that pertains to issues of ethnicity, so too did this.

Just before the start of the 2007 regular Major League Baseball season began, a season which marked the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut in the league, the St. Louis Cardinals and Cleveland Indians squared off in the Civil Rights Game.* The topic of present-day black participation in the game was front and center and the question on everyone’s lips was: “What would Jackie think of it?”

Near the same time, Richard Lapchick, director of the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, gained notoriety after releasing his study on diversity in professional baseball, in which he gave a “solid B+” for ethnic diversity and a “C+” for gender. The gender grade appears to stem from the following statistics, as taken from the official report entitled The 2006 Racial and Gender Report Card: Major League Baseball: 43 percent of MLB’s Central Office were women; 26 percent of the senior administration level were women; 33 percent at the director and managerial level were women; and 15 percent of team vice-presidents were women.*

As for the ethnic demographics in Major League Baseball, the number of black players has obviously dropped over the last 30 years: in 1975, approximately 27 percent of MLB rosters were black; in 1995, approximately 19 percent of MLB rosters were black; in 2006, the percentage was approximately 8.4 percent.* (I use the word “approximately” due to player transactions that weren’t mentioned in any of the stories about the study. Similar to NHL rosters, players are signed, released, promoted, and demoted throughout the year, meaning that one set number can’t possibly be 100 percent accurate to describe the rosters in September that we might have had in April. Even so, I’m confident that Lapchick’s numbers are valid.)

In April, San Diego Union-Tribune staff writer Chris Jenkins decried the lack of ethnic diversity on the 2007 Padres roster in his column entitled “Padres: The Face of San Diego?” In it, he mentioned that only two players on the team were Latino and two were black, whereas a year ago the Padres were a “more multishaded bunch” with Mike Cameron, Dave Roberts, Josh Barfield, Chan Ho Park, Adrian Gonzalez, and Vinny Castilla.*

A few weeks ago the issue came into the spotlight again when Tigers designated hitter Gary Sheffield made the following quote in GQ magazine as to why there are so many Latino players in the game and so few blacks:

I called it years ago. What I called is that you’re going to see more black faces, but there ain’t no English going to be coming out.


[It’s about] being able to tell [Latin players] what to do—being able to control them.

Where I’m from, you can’t control us. You might get a guy to do it that way for a while because he wants to benefit, but in the end, he is going to go back to being who he is. And that’s a person that you’re going to talk to with respect, you’re going to talk to like a man.

These are the things my race demands. So, if you’re equally good as this Latin player, guess who’s going to get sent home? I know a lot of players that are home now can outplay a lot of these guys.

Sheffield’s comments didn’t go unnoticed. Former teammate Eddie Perez remarked that Sheffield’s statement would “hurt a lot of people.” Lisa Navarrete of the Latino organization La Raza said that Sheffield “resorts to the stereotyping that he himself is trying to fight.” Jemele Hill points out that Sheffield appears to be doing what he’s told to do given that he’s on Detroit’s payroll, possibly defeating his own argument.*

In Sheffield’s defense it can be argued that if Latino players are “controllable” that it might be economic more than anything else. The New York Daily News reported that White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said: “I guarantee that Latin American people play more baseball than any people, because that’s all we have. You have people playing baseball in Venezuela or the Dominican than anywhere, so there are going to be more players from there.”*

Whether we talk about drafts, signing bonuses, or the prospect of having to return to a poverty-stricken environment if they don’t play well, Latino players need money more but can be paid less. It’s easier—and cheaper—to travel to third-world nations and pick from a pool of players who have an abundance of talent and don’t ask for much in return. Guillen stated:

Maybe we’re hungrier. We’re trying to survive. Those guys sign for $500,000 or $1 million and they’re made. We have a couple of dollars. You can sign one African-American player for the price of 30 Latin players.*

Keeping with this argument, though, we could easily say that foreign-born Latinos should be the only ethnicity in Major League Baseball. That is, of course, unless there’s a bigger conspiracy present—one in which owners have decided to offer a few good white, black, Latino, and Asian players to draw crowds, and then dozens more “filler” Latinos who are there to simply keep the rosters full and costs down. I’m not ready to buy into a conspiracy of that magnitude.

More recently, Dennis Hayes, the interim president of the NAACP, aired his displeasure with Major League Baseball and KPMG over their efforts to increase the number of black players in the game. KPMG, a global group of firms in the financial sector which has a multi-year agreement with MLB to encourage youth participation in baseball and softball, made a $1 million donation to Major League Baseball, which was called a “small step” by Hayes. He went on to say:

I hope that MLB will start listening to current and former African-American baseball players about their disappointment in the dwindling number of young blacks who are being coached and trained to enter the game that they love. They believe, just like the NAACP believes, that if we don’t do something now, African-American players will become extinct when it comes to Major League Baseball.

Hayes also said that he “watched with amazement at how funding for baseball programs has found its way to the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and other countries.”*

Questioning the Answers
This topic has me asking a few questions which could be posed both independently or as a group:

(1) What is the “right” number for each ethnicity in Major League Baseball and who is in charge of determining this number?

(2) Are all major professional sports intended to follow these demographic percentages, or only select ones?

(3) Are professional sports teams supposed to be determined by the best available players or are they supposed to be a collection of players who represent the national demographics in an effort to make a social statement?

(4) Considering that only approximately nine percent of college baseball players are black, should teams be forced to pick every black player who is available in the draft—even if a particular player might not be as good as another available player who might be white, Asian, or an American-born Latino?

(5) If the argument is made that professional sports teams should mirror the ethnic demographics of its home country, how many people would actually attend the events, whereby keeping the league afloat via ticket sales, clothing sales, television contracts, etc.?

Question (1) is assuming that there exists some pre-determined percentage for each ethnicity in Major League Baseball. If one would be implemented, who would determine it? Would it be determined by Major League Baseball? Would it be determined by the NAACP? Would it be determined by a Latino organization? Would it be determined by an Asian organization? Would it be determined by some kind of panel comprised of all of these? Would it be fair or unfair if the panel excluded representatives for white players? Would players be allowed to pick their ethnic affiliations if they happen to be of a multi-ethnic background, or would the powers-that-be make the final decision? Finally, how would this number be determined? Is it supposed to be a mirror of U.S. Census data or something else?

Question (2) pertains to the NHL, NFL, and NBA. Richard Lapchick’s The 2006-07 Season Racial and Gender Report Card: National Basketball Association reports that in the NBA, “almost 79 percent of the players were people of color.”* The African-American Registry reports that “67 percent of all players in the NFL are black.”* Lapchick’s report on the NHL is said to be in the works, but most National Hockey League players are white, predominantly coming from European countries and Canada (a country which has a black population of roughly two percent). The current United States contribution to the NHL is said to be roughly 15 percent.*

Given these percentages, what are we to do? If we decide that each league should mirror the national percentages of ethnicity, do we force some of the black players to leave the NBA and NFL and replace them with whites? Do we mandate some kind of “mass trade” in which we force some black players to join the NHL and whites into the NFL and NBA in an effort to achieve a representation of the nation?

Questions (3), (4), and (5) deal with the entire concept of sports in general, and they’re intended to be more “real-world” in nature than the first two questions.

Sports, whether they’re on a scholastic, amateur, or professional level, are based on one thing: competition. Athletics draw players and fans because people like to win. This is unsettling to some people, but it remains true.

The columnists who lament the lack of ethnic diversity in professional baseball seem to preach a common theme: they always focus on the social message that might be conveyed if the teams mirror the ethnic demographics of the country and avoid the issue of competition altogether.

Take the aforementioned column by Chris Jenkins, for example. He mentions that guys like Eric Young, Vinny Castilla, Ben Johnson, and Chan Ho Park helped to make San Diego’s 2006 team “a more multishaded bunch” and doesn’t seem to be too happy with their departures, but he doesn’t mention anything about the players’ ability—or their status. He didn’t mention that both Young and Castilla retired after last season or that Johnson and Park are both currently in the minor leagues. Park was released by the Mets after posting an ERA of 15.75 and is playing for Houston’s triple-A team; Johnson was batting .185 for the Mets and is currently at triple-A New Orleans.

I’m only speaking for myself, but when I watch a game—whether it’s baseball, hockey, or any other sport—I do so because I want to watch the competition aspect of it. If I’m watching a Cardinals game, I’m doing so because I want to see the Cardinals win (which hasn’t been as often as I’d like this season, but that’s a post unto itself). I don’t watch games because I want to see which team is making a stronger social statement with the diversity of their roster. I’m willing to bet that other sports fans view it in a similar manner.

How many people do you know who have tailored their fantasy teams around ethnic diversity? How many times have you been to a tailgating party where the fans were more concerned with the social statement that their team would be making that day instead of how many touchdowns would be scored?

I ask these questions because they seem to be ignored by those who are consumed with the ethnic-percentage angle of sports. They fail to realize that these leagues exist because fans are willing to spend money on things like tickets and clothing, in addition to television networks being willing to sign contracts to televise them. These consumers are following the sports to witness the competitive aspect of the games. I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that if we were to make a demographically-representative league, one which would cast aside competition and replace it with political correctness, that it would fail miserably.

I can imagine that there are some radical factions of our nation that might view the opinions expressed here as being racist, simply because even questioning ethnic demographics is a hot-button issue. The best way for me to defend my position is to say it honestly: I don’t give a damn what a player’s ethnic background is as long as he can contribute to the team’s victory. If a team is predominantly Latino, so be it. If a team is predominantly white, so be it. If a team is predominantly black, so be it. If a team is predominantly Asian, so be it.

In addition, when it comes to a particular sport, I would encourage everyone to become a fan. Moreover, if a young person shows a desire to play a particular sport, encourage them to get involved; it doesn’t matter if a person is white, black, yellow, red, purple, blue, or orange.