By Clinton Yates. July 20, 2018
Last Friday, a group of the 2018 MLB Futures Game participants were visiting the National Museum of African-American History, with curator Damion Thomas as their tour guide. On Saturday, teams from all of the league’s Urban Youth Academies, institutions designed to help foster the game of baseball through community work and instruction for kids of color, were playing in tournaments across Washington, D.C., as part of All-Star Weekend. On Sunday, Claire Smith — the first woman to ever cover a team in the bigs as a beat writer, and a J. G. Taylor Spink Award winner — was speaking at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum about the importance of the game in black communities and her time as a trailblazer in journalism. The weekend was going swimmingly. But by Tuesday night, as the All-Star Game unfolded at Nationals Park, Major League Baseball had a full-blown crisis on its hands because the youthful tweets of a pitcher in the game were uncovered, and they were racist, homophobic and ugly all around.
The Milwaukee Brewers’ Josh Hader’s teenage tweets created a ripple effect across the game and the internet, leading to a scenario in which an otherwise great ballgame featuring 10 homers was suddenly a referendum on whether or not MLB’s diversity efforts were really nothing but window dressing for a far more endemic problem that’s led to the decline of black players at the highest level of the game for the better part of three decades.
If one of the most celebrated players in the game had a past that teams could have been aware of, what good is the league celebrating its diversity at all? Hader was drafted in 2012 and traded twice to get to the Brewers (Baltimore to Houston, then Houston to Milwaukee). At least three teams could have known, or should have known, about his vulgar outbursts, some of which he tweeted within six months of the draft.
“I’m just trying to understand the situation,” Lorenzo Cain, a black man and a teammate of Hader’s, said after the game. “You know, he’s young, we all say crazy stuff when we’re young. That’s one of the reasons I don’t have social media, things like this. You always get in trouble for things you said when you were young.”
Hader — who is from Anne Arundel County, Maryland, not far from the center of the baseball universe for the weekend, the capital of the United States of America — apologized in front of reporters. His family, who was in town for the festivities, apparently removed their jerseys bearing their family name for fear of public backlash as news of the incident spread across the park. On the FOX broadcast, players could be seen in the dugout looking at their phones, presumably reading the tweets of their teammate who’d just come out of the game.
It was one of the rare situations in which what we know as an institutional problem, bigotry, reared its ugly head in a very specific and real-time way right in front of our eyes. There was no blaming a larger societal problem that we assume will take years to unravel. And there was no way to pass it off as something that was an isolated incident through secondhand reporting that everyone had already gotten over. It was right there for America to see, staining the Midsummer Classic, leaving a sour taste in the mouths of everyone who’d ever experienced such hateful speech directed their way, on or off the diamond.
It’s one thing to say that baseball is tangentially racist because America is racist. It’s quite another to turn on your television after looking at your phone and say: There’s a guy with documented racist comments on the mound right now.
“During last night’s game we became aware of Mr. Hader’s unacceptable social media comments in years past and have since been in communication with the Brewers regarding our shared concerns,” the league said in a statement. “After the game, Mr. Hader took the necessary step of expressing remorse for his highly offensive and hurtful language, which fails to represent the values of our game and our expectations for all those who are a part of it. The Office of the Commissioner will require sensitivity training for Mr. Hader and participation in MLB’s diversity and inclusion initiatives.”
In a word: Yikes.
So the solution here is to say, “Nothing to see here, beyond what you already did,” and “We’ll make him hang out with some black people he’s never seen before.” No fine. No suspension. Say what you want about him being a so-called kid at the time; Hader isn’t necessarily even the point here. It’s about sending the message that your past doesn’t matter, as long as you make it to the top.
The trickle-down effect on the game is obvious. If kids who are openly bigoted are coming up through the ranks of baseball with zero consequence as to whether it affects their futures, then why would it ever change? I’ll never forget that the first time someone called me a n—– was at a travel baseball camp. And if you don’t think the culture around the youth game is enough to turn kids off from playing, you’re lying to yourself.
When Smith spoke Sunday, she talked about the fraternity among black players in the league. How they protected each other and how when you were in certain cities in America, you checked in with whomever was the resident man-in-town, just to make sure you were taken care of. There were enough of us around then for that to be a real network, not just a smattering of guys with similar skill sets. Earlier this month, one former player told me that when he played in Atlanta in the ’90s, their split-squad spring training games would be white vs. black, all in decent fun but very real competition.
Those days feel so distant and so far behind us that for baseball fans of a certain generation, it’s painful, especially when you hear stories about guys like Tommy Pham of the St. Louis Cardinals who think the best years of their careers were wasted in the minors through discrimination, but a kid like Hader is an All-Star at 24 years old. We are scraping to survive what is effectively generational trauma, while white dudes are embarrassing our game on the largest stage possible and getting slaps on the wrist.
To cap it all off, at the ballpark on Tuesday the Nationals handed out commemorative pins. A colleague told me that I should hang on to it because it represented history. The back of the box read: “Created from the original marble steps of the United States Capitol removed in a 1995 renovation. A portion of the removed marble was crushed to a fine powder and combined with resin, to create this unique memento.”
A unique memento reminding many of us that the building in which the laws that govern our nation are made was built by slaves. History, in some cases, is not pretty. For baseball, it’s no different. If they want their future to be better, there’s no time like the present to address the issues that clearly walk among them.