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MLB again balks at its commitment to diversity

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Major League Baseball had two opportunities this past week to prove its dedication to diversity, and it struck out both times.

World Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Houston Astros - Game Four Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

During this year’s World Series, Major League Baseball and the Houston Astros sent the message to their fans that baseball is not inclusive. After watching Yuli Gurriel continue to play in the Fall Classic and George H.W. Bush take part in the first pitch prior to Game 5, Asian and non-male fans are left wondering where they fit into the equation and are continually frustrated by the fact that the sport they love so clearly does not love them back.

During Game 3 of the World Series, Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel made a racist gesture and remark to Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish. In response, Major League Baseball suspended Gurriel for five games without pay at the beginning of the 2018 season, citing Gurriel’s apology, Darvish’s desire to move forward from the incident, and the differing nature of World Series games to those during the regular season. Manfred declared that he decided on the timing for four reasons:

“I felt it was important that the suspension carried with it the penalty of lost salary. Secondly, I felt it was unfair to punish the other 24 players on the Astros’ roster. I wanted the burden of this discipline to fall primarily on the wrongdoer. Thirdly, I was impressed in my conversation with Yu Darvish by his desire to move forward, and I felt that moving this suspension to the beginning of the season would help in that regard. Last, when I originally began thinking about the discipline, I thought that delaying the suspension would allow the player the opportunity to exercise his rights under the grievance procedure.”

The problem with this statement and the lax suspension is that the burden falls onto other Asian players and fans. Though racism perpetuated by people of color is more complex and nuanced than the systemic racism built by white people, racism does not disappear unless it is confronted and dealt with swiftly and firmly. Because MLB has tried to bury this issue until next season, rather than using its largest stage to clearly denounce it, the issue has compounded, drawing in many who otherwise may not have been accomplice or victim.

During games 4 and 5, Astros fans gave Gurriel a standing ovation, and several of them made the same gesture in the stands that Gurriel made. Each World Series game was broadcast in several Asian countries, including Japan, South Korea, and China. Gurriel’s gesture and MLB’s response are both more far-reaching than the league has indicated with its flippant punishment.

In terms of immediate impact, Barbara Moon, an Asian-American Astros fan who typically holds up a Gurriel head during games, stopped doing so, saying her “heart kind of broke a little bit” due to Gurriel’s racist action. She was not alone in this sentiment, though the diversity within the Asian community offered a plurality of opinions on the matter. Fellow Beyond the Box Score writer and Japan native Kazuto Yamazaki tweeted about the nuances of issue, stating that he was unaware of the fact that Gurriel’s gesture was offensive and arguing many people were using the gesture as an excuse to be racist toward Gurriel, who is Cuban.

San Diego Padres beat writer Dennis Lin spoke to me on the matter, asserting that his opinion had wavered over the past several days, and though he appreciated Manfred calling the World Series a “different stage” and was “pleased there was discipline on the league’s part,” the nature of the discipline was somewhat disappointing. Other Asian-Americans spoke about how the issue evoked years of racist taunts and gestures directed toward them and played into the same tropes that have always existed for POC in America.

It is important to take seriously each of these diverse viewpoints — and that’s something Major League Baseball has neglected to do. MLB is hoping to hide away the issue rather than admit its own culpability in creating a less-than-welcome arena to discuss the nuances of racism and its relation to the diversity MLB repeatedly says it wants to foster.

The Astros compounded this assault on diversity when, prior to Game 5 of the World Series, they had both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush participate in the first pitch ceremony. This honor came three days after Bush Sr. admitted to groping multiple women. In response to the allegations, Bush Sr.’s spokesperson released the following asinine statement:

"At age 93, President Bush has been confined to a wheelchair for roughly five years, so his arm falls on the lower waist of people with whom he takes pictures. To try to put people at ease, the president routinely tells the same joke — and on occasion, he has patted women's rears in what he intended to be a good-natured manner. Some have seen it as innocent; others clearly view it as inappropriate. To anyone he has offended, President Bush apologizes most sincerely."

Explaining away sexual assault is never the correct course of action, and for the Astros to embrace this man following the news and this poor excuse for an apology sends a very clear message to their non-male fans.

The older and younger Bushes spent their political careers passing legislation designed to impede women’s rights, among other damaging policies. Honoring them in this way attempts to humanize them; it argues that the pair are more than their political record, that their repeated attacks on people who aren’t men ultimately don’t matter. While it is true that every human being is a complex configuration of both good and bad qualities, there are some that supersede others, that are wholly unacceptable to endorse while verbally supporting their opposites — especially when those people were once president of one of the most powerful countries on earth.

For years, MLB has tried to walk this nonexistent tightrope in regard to its non-male fans. It holds special Mother’s Day ceremonies, draws in women with “Fields of Fashion” days, has women-centric panel events. During almost every commercial break this postseason, we see an MLB commercial supposedly celebrating the diversity of non-male fans. And yet we are reminded almost daily that these occasions lack sincerity.

It’s the nature of capitalism for businesses to feed on a faceless group of people, but Major League Baseball is even failing at that. Women repeatedly clamor for MLB Shop to sell more women’s gear, frequently offering ways Major League Baseball can acquire their money, and are almost always rebuked — a reminder that there will be no space voluntarily created for women in baseball.

Houston could have chosen from any of the thousands of local heroes spurred into action by Hurricane Harvey, but instead the team chose Bush Sr. and Jr. There was probably little thought put into the decision; the pair are native Texans and have always displayed an affinity for baseball. It’s easy, natural to fit two white men into baseball without batting an eye.

The Washington Nationals did the same thing when they invited Steve Scalise to throw out the first pitch prior to Game 1 of the NLDS. Earlier that day, news broke that Scalise would attend an anti-LGBTQ conference the following week, but the Nationals did not revoke his invitation. They likely envisioned a feel-good moment having Scalise throw out the pitch months after he was shot at a Congressional baseball practice — and in the process, reinforced the dominance of the white male politician.

It is assumed that white male politicians possess an aura about them that allows them to transcend their political roles and become unifying public figures. They are touted as being more than their politics, even when their willful actions destroy lives; their legislative bigotry adopts a 9-5 persona, outside of which they are “normal guys.” We are expected to cheer these men simply because they are white men and any other action would be ‘impolite’ and converse to the spirit of American and Major League Baseball.

Non-males and people of color are not afforded this same luxury. Their involvement in baseball is seen as inherently political, as disruptive. They have their every involvement in the sport questioned and ridiculed; they cannot afford to be so ‘thoughtless’ in their support of the game. Though it is these white men who direct politics, who force people who aren’t white men into more ‘radical’ political roles, this debris does not stick to them. They can exist in the world and in baseball without their existence being politicized, and their invitations to the World Series demonstrate that Major League Baseball views white men as unifying and all others as divisive.

Major League Baseball had two perfect opportunities on the biggest stage to demonstrate its commitment to diversity, and it fumbled each one as only a professional could. Both moves left large groups of fans wondering whether their continued support of MLB is worth it, and further nonchalance on behalf of Major League Baseball will surely drive away portions of these people, many of whom have used baseball as a way to find a small sense of community.

To be clear, MLB does not owe it to these people to become more diverse because it makes sense in business terms. Major League Baseball has frequently labeled itself a representation of America, and it is morally imperative for it to actually embrace the diversity that exists in this country and the diversity it has cultivated internationally.


Mary Craig is a baseball history enthusiast who writes about the sport’s relation to America’s political history. You can follow her on Twitter at @marymcraig.