MLB’s racial justice efforts from Opening Night were . . . interesting

MLB's racial justice efforts
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Until pretty recently, MLB’s racial justice efforts were, to put it kindly, modest.

They promoted the living heck out of Jackie Robinson, but many critics — including this one — have found those efforts to be a bit too self-congratulatory over the years. In some cases those efforts served to whitewash Robinson’s legacy and MLB’s role in keeping the game segregated for so long. The efforts, however well-intentioned, have resulted in less-than-stellar history lessons and have been almost completely toothless in terms of affecting social change or even starting conversations about it.

Baseball has also, in recent years, made numerous efforts to promote the game in urban areas, reaching out to Black kids who once played the game in great numbers but do so no longer. These efforts, however, like MLB’s efforts to recruit minorities for jobs within the game, have proved mostly fruitless. The number of U.S.-born Black players in the game remains at historic lows in the integrated era and the game still seems to have no idea how to make its very white, very male front offices look more like America.

The aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, however, and Major League Baseball being the first professional sport to debut after pandemic delays, has put the spotlight on MLB’s racial justice efforts in a new way. The league, its teams, and its players are now making efforts to take a more active role in supporting racial justice. Those efforts have been interesting to see.

Recently several Dodgers players, including NL MVP Cody Bellinger and three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw, spoke out about racial injustice in a video message. It was well-received. We also talked a good deal recently about San Francisco Giants manager Gabe Kapler and several players kneeling during the national anthem before an exhibition game. The Red Sox, meanwhile, placed a giant “Black Lives Matter” sign on the outside of Fenway Park. I was curious to see how all of that’d be followed up once the actual season began and, last night, we got our first look.

First, in Washington, where the Yankees took on the Nationals. You may have seen photos of everyone on both the Yankees and Nationals kneeling before last night’s game. Photos like these:

MLB's racial justice efforts
(Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
MLB's racial justice efforts
(Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

They weren’t kneeling during the National Anthem, though. They kneeled as a video clip featuring a speech by Morgan Freeman about racial inequality played. As soon as the Anthem started, they all stood. Which, not surprisingly, has led to a worst-of-both-worlds response from fans and commentators.

I won’t reproduce the comments here because most of them are pretty vile — a quick search will allow you to find them — but tons and tons of people who saw these photos or videos of the players kneeling have taken to social media in outrage, vowing to never support the Yankees, the Nationals, or MLB again because how dare the players kneel?! Most of them don’t seem to realize, however, that the players didn’t actually kneel for the anthem. At the same time, there is a pretty healthy contingent of people criticizing the Yankees and Nationals for failing to show the guts to actually kneel, Kaepernick-style, during the Anthem itself.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the same Morgan Freeman video played and the Dodgers and the Giants likewise kneeled as it played. Once the Anthem began, seven or eight Giants — including Kapler — remained kneeling. For the Dodgers, though, only one guy remained on the ground: Mookie Betts. Third in from the right:

MLB's racial justice efforts
(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

His teammates, Max Muncy and Cody Bellinger, put their hands on his shoulders:

(Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

That too has been criticized from multiple directions, with some saying that Bellinger and Muncy were themselves disrespectful for supporting Betts and others saying that they did not go far enough. That their gesture was opportunistic, even, done only because they knew the cameras were on them. Again, damned if they did, damned if they didn’t.

For my part, I’m not going to get into the business of judging anyone’s efforts when it comes to all of this. Indeed, one can quickly tie oneself in knots when claiming that this symbolic gesture is enough or that symbolic gesture was not enough. You do that and, pretty quickly, you turn such gestures into litmus tests that are detached from their very purpose. The idea isn’t to keep a scorecard of who is kneeling and who isn’t. In this case it’s about racial justice and the commitment of people and of institutions to fight for it. If, say, Cody Bellinger or Aaron Judge or Stephen Strasburg or anyone else thinks that’s something they can speak to and does so intelligently and compassionately, I kind of don’t care if they kneel or not. Indeed, given the highly conformist culture of MLB, demanding that everyone kneel would probably be counterproductive eventually, in that guys would simply be treating it as an excuse not to have to think about the underlying issues. Just as we don’t want Major League Baseball treating its history with Jackie Robinson as a “get out of being accused of being racist free” card, I don’t think we want players treating kneeling during the anthem as a free pass either. We want them to fight racism, not to insulate themselves from being accused of perpetuating racism.

Still, I’m not going to give MLB’s racial justice efforts from last night particularly high marks. It was well-intentioned and, on its own terms, the Morgan Freeman video was well done, but it strikes me as if the league, looking to insulate itself from criticism over players kneeling, attempted to create something of a safe space in which, they hoped, they would get the good optic of having players take a knee while not catching hell for them kneeling during the Anthem. As we noted, however, that sort of backfired. They’re getting the worst of both worlds from that this morning. It’s the sort of thing one should expect when one engages in half-measures. I dunno. I presume they’ll figure out how to deal with that eventually.

Of course, it’s possible to simply do things plainly and clearly and not worry at all about potential blowback and how to game it. That’s the tack the Tampa Bay Rays’ social media folks took this morning:

MLB: the racists and haters and knuckle-draggers are going to slam even the slightest nod you offer toward racial justice, even if you try to make it as anodyne as possible. In light of that, why not say things clearly and plainly? It’s way easier to do that. And it’s pretty damn clarifying.

Swanson, Olson go deep vs Scherzer, Braves take NL East lead

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ATLANTA — Dansby Swanson and Matt Olson homered off Max Scherzer, lifting the Atlanta Braves to a crucial 4-2 victory Saturday night over the New York Mets and a one-game lead in the NL East.

The defending World Series champions beat aces Jacob deGrom and Scherzer on consecutive nights to take their biggest lead of the season in the division. New York, which held a 10 1/2-game cushion on June 1, faces its biggest deficit of the year with four games remaining.

Atlanta will try for a three-game sweep Sunday night, with the winner earning the season-series tiebreaker between the teams. Even though both teams are headed to the postseason, that’s important because the NL East champion gets a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Swanson’s 24th homer, a go-ahead, two-run shot in the fifth inning, touched off a frenzy among the sold-out crowd at Truist Park, the ball sailing a few rows up into the seats in left-center to make it 3-2. Olson hit his 32nd homer in the sixth, a solo shot into Chop House seats in right to put Atlanta up 4-2.

Austin Riley led off the fourth with a double and scored on Olson’s single to make it 1-all.

Kyle Wright (21-5) gave up two runs and seven hits with one walk and three strikeouts in five innings as he won his eighth straight decision. The Braves have won 16 of his last 17 starts.

New York went up 2-1 in the fifth when Pete Alonso, Francisco Lindor and Jeff McNeil hit consecutive two-out singles.

The Mets led 1-0 in the first when Brandon Nimmo singled, advanced on a walk and a single and scored on Eduardo Escobar‘s groundout. Wright, who threw 30 pitches in the first, stranded two runners in scoring position to prevent further damage.

Scherzer (11-5) allowed a first-inning single to Riley and a third-inning infield single to Ronald Acuna Jr., who advanced to third on a fielding error by Lindor at shortstop but was stranded when Michael Harris II lined out to center. Scherzer patted his glove and pumped his fist as he walked off the mound.

Scherzer was charged with nine hits and four runs with no walks and four strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings as the Mets were knocked out of first place for only the third day all season.

The Braves have won five of the last six against New York to tie the season series 9-all, outscoring the Mets 37-16 over that stretch.

Atlanta’s bullpen, which posted a 1.70 ERA in September, got a perfect inning from Dylan Lee in the sixth. Jesse Chavez faced four batters in the seventh, Raisel Iglesias faced the minimum in the eighth and closer Kenley Jansen pitched a perfect ninth for his NL-leading 39th save in 46 chances.

Since the Braves were a season low-tying four games under .500 at 23-27 after play on May 31, they have gone 76-32, tying the Los Angeles Dodgers for the best record in the majors over that span. They were a season-worst 10 1/2 games behind the first-place Mets on June 1.

Wright, the only 20-game winner in baseball this season, hasn’t officially become the first Braves pitcher to lead the league in wins outright since Russ Ortiz had 21 in 2003, but the Dodgers’ Julio Urias has 17 and can’t reach 20 before the regular season ends.

Wright will become the first Braves pitcher since Hall of Famer Tom Glavine in 2000 to lead the majors in wins. Houston ace Justin Verlander also has 17.

Wright began the game 1-4 with a 6.75 ERA in six career starts and one relief appearance against the Mets.

The Braves, who got homers from Riley, Olson and Swanson off deGrom on Friday, lead the NL with 240 homers.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Mets: All-Star RF Starling Marte (right middle finger fracture) has yet to begin swinging or throwing. Manager Buck Showalter said Marte is experiencing less pain but not enough to take the next step in his recovery. Marte has been sidelined since Sept. 7.

Braves: RHP Spencer Strider still has not thrown as he gets treatment on a sore left oblique. Manager Brian Snitker said there is no timetable for the rookie’s return. Strider has been sidelined since Sept. 21.

NICE GLOVE

Harris ran back and jumped to catch Nimmo’s fly against the wall in center field for the first out of the third.

UP NEXT

Mets RHP Chris Bassitt (15-8, 3.27 ERA) will face RHP Charlie Morton (9-6, 4.29) as the teams conclude a three-game series.