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About that MLB racial hiring practices report

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Earlier today we posted the AP story regarding the diversity hiring report card which is issued by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida each year. Every year we’ve posted it it results in a bit of a controversy, so I wanted to say a few things about it.

The report itself is based on sheer numbers. They put a grade on it, but that’s subjective. The numbers, however, are the numbers. Major League Baseball only has three managers who are either black or Latino. That’s a fact, not a judgment. The front offices are overwhelmingly white and male, and that’s a fact, not a judgment. You can feel about that however you want to feel, but you can’t argue with the fact that baseball is run, primarily, by white men.

What I’m interested in is the why of all of that. My view of it is that it’s a good example of the difference between institutional racism and what people tend to think racism looks like.

A lot of people assume racism in business/sports/whatever does not exist unless it’s guys wearing hoods or flying Confederate flags. That’s what most people think of anyway, I suspect, when they think of racism. Jim Crow. De jure segregation. Drinking fountains and the like.

Obviously, Major League Baseball does not do that. It once did, decades ago, but not anymore. If you talk to or know decision makers, you know that they are mostly good and decent people who, when asked, will tell you that they believe in equality and opportunity for all. And I believe that they believe that when they say that.

But values and practices are different things. People in positions of authority do what most people do. They hire based on familiarity, relationships and innate, sometimes unconscious preferences and comforts. Guys who went to the same colleges they went to. Who have the same backgrounds they have. Who are able to take low-paying internships like they did because they came from wealthy or privileged backgrounds like they did.

When asked, decision makers will talk about it as hiring people with whom they have a good connection or with whom they communicate well, but it’s, without question, a self-selected group based on some vague notion of comfort and familiarity, consisting of factors that select for a certain sort of people whether it’s obvious or not.

It’s mostly a matter of people relying on networks which are themselves filled with bias, some overt, some harder to discern. “I knew John from Princeton’s statistics program, and he’s a good egg, so I’ll hire him!” But how did both you and John get into that program in the first place? And what selected you two for it? And who was selected out? And, having known John over the years in baseball, who did he know and who else did you know in order to form your network? And how much of that is about merit as opposed to old boyism?

Again, this is not conscious racism in the way we often think of it, but the net effect of all of this is small biases becoming, exponentially, big rifts. A lot of decisions that are individually defensible, but which in the aggregate select for a certain group of people who share a certain group of traits. Men. White men, primarily. And that trickles down to the lower level front office hires and the managerial hires.

So this report comes out each year and it slams MLB. And it results in a discourse in which some people accuse Major League Baseball of being racist and some people deny that vehemently. Both sides are right in a lot of ways.

There are no hood-wearing, Confederate flag-flying racists or a men-only sexists in MLB anymore. Those guys are long dead and gone. But, at the same time, there are biases in place that, however benign they seem, result in a pretty homogenous MLB front office and managerial culture. A lot of white Ivy League dudes with analytical backgrounds who are comfortable with a lot of white former players who get along well with white Ivy League dudes to take the reins of a team in the dugout.

Whatever the case, it’s racism. Institutional racism. Mostly unconscious racism. With racism being a concept which is may more expansive and pernicious than how it’s popularly portrayed and thought of.

Major League Baseball has done a great job of getting rid of the overt racists and sexists over the years. But it still has to grapple with the systems and unconscious biases in place that lead it, still, in 2017, to having homogenous front offices and dugouts. That, rather than the accusations and the defensiveness which often ensue, is the proper takeaway from this annual report.

Crowd honors Jose Bautista in his last Blue Jays home game

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Jose Bautista ran onto the field on Sunday afternoon, alone, in what was likely his last hurrah as a Blue Jays player. The 36-year-old outfielder signed a one-year, $18 million contract with the club prior to the 2017 season and is not expected to get his $17 million option picked up for 2018. During Sunday’s series finale, he got a fond farewell befitting a decade-long career as one of Toronto’s most prolific hitters, drawing standing ovations every time he stepped up to the plate.

The Blue Jays came out swinging against the Yankees, building an eight-run lead on Teoscar Hernandez’s first-inning home run and a smattering of hits and productive outs from Darwin Barney, Russell Martin, Josh Donaldson and Kendrys Morales. Bautista supplemented the drive with his own RBI single in the fourth inning, plating Hernandez on an 0-2 fastball from reliever Bryan Mitchell.

Later in the inning, he nearly scored a second run on a Kendrys Morales two-RBI single, but was caught at the plate on the relay by Starlin Castro.

It’s an encouraging end to what has overwhelmingly been a disappointing season for the Toronto slugger. Entering Sunday’s finale, he slashed .201/.309/.365 with a franchise single-season record 161 strikeouts in 658 plate appearances, numbers that somewhat obscure the six straight All-Star nominations, four MVP bids and 54-homer campaign he once enjoyed with the team. Even a bounce-back performance in 2018 likely wouldn’t command a $17 million salary, but there’s no denying his impact on the Blue Jays’ last 10 years, from his signature bat flip to his tie-breaking home run in the 2015 ALDS.

The Blue Jays currently lead the Yankees 9-2 in the top of the sixth inning. Expect a few more standing O’s before the end of the game.

Why more baseball players don’t kneel

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Bruce Maxwell was the first baseball player to kneel for the National Anthem. There may be others who do so, but I don’t suspect many will. Indeed, I’m pretty confident that the protests we’re seeing in the NFL today, and will see more of once basketball season begins, will not become a major thing in baseball.

Some will say it’s because baseball or baseball players are more patriotic or something, but I don’t think that’s it. Yes, baseball is a lot whiter and has a lot of conservative players who would never think to protest during the National Anthem or, for that matter, protest anything at all, but I suspect there are many who saw what Colin Kaepernick and other football players have done — or who have listened to what Steph Curry and LeBron James have said — and agreed with it. Yet I do not think many, if any of them will themselves protest.

Why? I think it mostly comes down to baseball’s culture of conformity.

Almost everyone in baseball comes through a hierarchy. Even the big names. Even if you are the consensus number one pick, you do your time in the minors. Once there, conformity and humility is drilled into you. This happens both affirmatively, in the form of coaches telling you to act in a certain way and passively, by virtue of all players being in similar, humbling circumstances. Bus rides, cheap hotels, etc. In that world, even if you are ten times better and ten times richer than your teammates, you fall in with the crowd because doing otherwise would be socially disruptive.

The very socialization of a baseball player is dependent upon them learning to talk, walk and carry themselves like all those who came before. No one is given special treatment. In the rare cases they are, it’s head-turning. Bryce Harper was a more or less normal minor leaguer, but since he got their earlier by bypassing his final years of high school, he was thrown at and challenged in ways no other minor league stars are. It does not take much for a guy to be singled out for punishment or mockery and even the superstars like Harper are not on solid professional ground as long as they’re still in the minors. Indeed, between a player’s education, as it were, in the minors and their pre-free agency residency in the majors, it can be a decade or more before a unique personality or a true showman is able to shine through, and by then few are willing. They’ve been conditioned by that point.

Even budding superstars can be roundly criticized for the tiniest of perceived transgressions or the most modest displays of individuality. Think about all of the “controversies” we have about the proper way to celebrate a home run or run the bases. If that’s a cause for singling out and, potentially, benching or being traded or being given a shorter leash, imagine the guts a baseball player has to have in order to do something like take a knee during the National Anthem. A guy with multiple MVP Awards would likely be in an uncomfortable spotlight over such a thing, so imagine how brave someone like Bruce Maxwell, who has barely 100 games under his belt, has to be to have done it.

CC Sabathia, a 17-year veteran, spoke out yesterday, but I suspect he won’t kneel for the National Anthem when he lines up with his teammates before the Wild Card game next week. Other ballplayers will likely wade into the fray in the coming days. But I suspect baseball’s very nature — it’s very culture — will keep ballplayers from following in the footsteps of the many NFL players who took a knee today.