You Can’t Separate Sports, Race, and Politics

The Cardinals signed Dexter Fowler, a pretty good center fielder, to a five-year deal at the end of the Winter Meetings, for the like half dozen of you who’re reading a Cardinals-centric site but somehow missed this crucial detail.

It’s a good deal, as free agency goes. The Cardinals had a clear hole (largely of their own making thanks to the odd handling of Matt Holliday) in the outfield. Now they don’t. Randal Grichuk can go do his Pedro Cerrano impression in left field while Fowler puts up a superlative on-base percentage in center and Stephen Piscotty shouts random obscenities in the direction of on-field mics in right. All in all, a pretty ok outfield.

It won’t help the Cardinals catch the Cubs, of course. The Cubs are so much better than the Cardinals that really nothing was going to make that happen in 2017. The Cardinals entered the offseason as strong contenders for a wildcard and extreme long-shots for the division title. They’ll exit the offseason as stronger contenders for a wildcard and extreme long-shots for the division title. On an absolute basis, they’re better. Relative to the Cubs…this move doesn’t matter so much.

But you can get “was signing Fowler a smart baseball move” analysis largely anywhere. (Though I’d strongly recommend starting with this piece by Viva El Birdos’ managing editor Craig Edwards.) I’m not going to bring much to the table that hasn’t been said about Fowler, his contract, his defense, how on-base skills change with age, and so on, that hasn’t been said already.

So let’s look at something else. Fowler, in addition to being a pretty good center fielder with elite on-base skills, is a black man. Which prompted Mark Saxon of ESPN to tweet this out on Friday.

…and, predictably, people got Real Mad Online for daring to suggest that race might’ve been a factor (not even the factor, just a factor) in evaluating Fowler’s fit on the Cardinals. Immediately Saxon was accused of “injecting race into something that had nothing to do with it,” and trying to turn Fowler into a token.

Saxon was doing neither—he was making a completely correct observation. If both the Cardinals front office and Fowler didn’t consider his race, they’d either be space aliens or they’d be committing malpractice. That doesn’t make the Cardinals’ front office, or Saxon, good or bad—it just makes them cognizant that baseball players are humans, not a collection of numbers on a spreadsheet. Like it or not, you cannot separate sports, race, and politics.

Truly I must be getting old if I’m making the “you can’t just look at numbers on a spreadsheet; these are human beings” argument. Someone please check on Murray Chass and make sure he’s not using me as a horcrux or something. Yet it happens to be a damned good argument in this instance. Consider the following:

• A significant portion of St. Louis is black, and a significant portion of MLB is not. There’s no controversy here; it’s fact. Even premier Cardinals blog Viva El Birdos toed the line of its “no politics” rule when John J. Fleming wrote an excellent post on Fowler this weekend. He pulls out the gory details: only 8% of MLBers last season were black, down from 19% thirty years ago. It’s not a problem unique to the Cardinals, though they’re certainly part of the problem. Outside of Jason Heyward in 2015, the club hasn’t had a prominent black player since…Edwin Jackson for half a season in 2011! When you can count a club’s black players in Mike Matheny’s tenure on one hand, and two of those fingers include luminaries like Adron Chambers and Jerome Williams, it’s not exactly a stretch to say the Cardinals are lagging even by MLB standards.

Meanwhile, as Fleming points out, the plurality of St. Louisans are black, and there’s half a million African-Americans in the larger metropolitan area. It’s a portion of the fanbase that’s underserved when it comes to this particular aspect of the roster.

Which isn’t to say that black fans can only root for black players, and so on! I daresay that anyone who grew up rooting for the Cardinals in the 80s as I did counts some combination of Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee, and Vince Coleman among their favorites. Somewhere in my parents’ closet, I suspect my beat-up Ray Lankford shirsey is hanging up. A huge number of my favorites growing up were black, and I look like the dude from the movie Powder. Last season, I watched a young African-American kid in a Bryce Harper shirsey two rows ahead of me absolutely lose his mind when his hero came off the bench to deliver a game-tying home run in the ninth.

But I strongly suspect that “who I can root for on my hometown team” matters less to me because damn near everyone in positions of power looks like me. I’ve never seen a player who looks like me have his name anglicized against his wishes in an effort to make him more palatable to white fans. Most players in Ken Burns’ various chapter-innings of Baseball look like me. All but one American President looks like me. If given the opportunity, I’d never need to touch the hair of the President because I couldn’t believe my own eyes that he might actually look like me. In other words, it’s entirely possible that this is yet another blind spot for white fans borne out of privilege, and we shouldn’t substitute our own experiences for those of the literal plurality of the town our beloved team plays in.

That alone should be enough to render Saxon’s tweet relevant, but we might as well unpack the whole thing while we’re at it if it helps even one fan take pause and consider the implications of racism in baseball and beyond.

• The Cardinals—and St. Louis—don’t exactly have a great history when it comes to race relations. To be sure, the Cardinals aren’t uniquely bad when it comes to this, but “not being shitty when it comes to race” shouldn’t be referenced against other MLB teams or cities, but rather in absolute terms. It’s not enough to be “less racist than another fanbase”; you should just try and not be a shitty person for its own sake. It’s why I get so annoyed when fans of other teams throw “racist” at the Cardinals fanbase like it’s just another form of trash talk. Trying to prove whose fanbase is most racist is a great way to score cheap points and downplay a legitimate and serious issue that quite literally worsens and shortens the lives of millions of Americans.

It’s why I’m 100% on board with Deadspin wanting to shame racists that happen to be Cardinals fans, but upset at the framing that one can flog a single fanbase for a societal plague and not acknowledge that there are tons of assholes of all allegiances who need shaming. But hey, I’m sure it draws page views.

There’s a reason the debunked “Heyward got called the n-word on a hot mic” story went viral—it felt plausible. When the greater St. Louis area makes national news after the death of Michael Brown, and when some Cardinals fans think it a swell idea to turn their David Freese jerseys into impromptu Darren Wilson ones, one can hardly blame people for taking a logical leap. The Heyward slur story had that perfect amount of Colbert-esque truthiness to it to get picked up without anyone bothering to fact check. Hell, maybe it was the first #fakenews article of 2016. Good job, random guy online.

It’s not as if this is a recent phenomenon when it comes to the Cardinals, either. MLB’s history with race (and labor abuse) includes former Cardinal Curt Flood as a significant chapter.

Or if you prefer something a bit more recent: let’s think back to 1996, when the current ownership group took over, importing Tony La Russa and company. La Russa and Ozzie Smith feuded. Ron Gant all but called La Russa a racist, citing the manager’s treatment of several black players (including Smith and his replacement, Royce Clayton!), on his way out of St. Louis. I have no idea whether Tony La Russa is a racist or not, but when prominent players are suggesting it, you can be damned sure the question is on the mind of other players. It came up again just last season when La Russa addressed Adam Jones’ comments on race. Fairly or not, it’s a perception that needs to be addressed.

Which brings us to the current Cardinals manager, Mike Matheny. Matheny has something of a checkered history when it comes to young players, especially players of color. His treatment of Oscar Taveras, Carlos Martinez, and Kolten Wong over the last several years has been…puzzling, to put it charitably. When you’re busy trotting out the husks of Allen Craig and Mark Ellis instead of better players, it’s worth questioning just why you’re making such poor decisions. For my own part, I think Matheny’s actions as manager aren’t racist, but rather the textbook definition of Hanlon’s Razor: “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” But one could hardly blame a player of color for having second thoughts before coming to play for Matheny, as Fowler allegedly did.

Given all of that, it’d be rather hard to claim that the Cardinals and Fowler weren’t cognizant of his race when negotiating and eventually signing a deal.

Yet that’s only the St. Louis-specific portion of this. Race and the Cardinals is a thing, but it’s just a microcosm of the fact that race and sports is a thing.

• Let’s go back to the aforementioned Adam Jones and his comments. Jones called baseball a “white man’s sport,” correctly pointing out that there are relatively few black players. The comments came in response to a question on why Colin Kaepernick-esque protests weren’t happening in MLB. Jones’ response was reasonable. It was correct. And despite not joining Kaepernick in his protest as other athletes in other sports did, people still got mad at Jones.

It’s not a stretch to suggest that black athletes have a different experience than their white counterparts. Kaepernick’s protest was explicitly in response to police brutality which disproportionately targets men of color, with no repercussions even when all the evidence is damning. Yet somehow Kaepernick’s protest got characterized as being about “the troops,” that sacred sports idol that has nothing to do with real issues like the woefully inadequate medical treatment of veterans and everything to do with commercializing the military, integrating it into our Sunday football alongside endless Papa John’s advertisements. Even support for Kaepernick was measured in commercial terms, as Kaepernick jerseys sailed to the top of the charts. Given this, it’s probable that Fowler—by all accounts a smart dude—had at least some of this rattling around when deciding where he wants to spend the next five years of his career.

• Further, the very language the Cardinals used all offseason when describing their ideal outfielder was racially coded. The word that came up most when describing the Cardinals’ outfield need was “athletic.” Which can mean any number of things, surely! Mike Trout is athletic! Ichiro Suzuki is athletic! Why, this could mean anything! And, perhaps, when Mozeliak and Matheny cited their ideal “athletic” outfielder, it did mean anything.

But as it turns out, there are certain adjectives used when describing athletes that are highly influenced by that player’s race. When Al Hrabosky (or anyone) talks about a player’s hustle or “baseball intelligence,” those terms tend to get used more or less often based on the player’s race, wholly independent of that player’s skills, contributions in the game, and so on. “Gritty” players tend to be white. “Emotional” players tend not to be. And “athletic” players tend to be non-white as well.

There’s a term for this phenomenon, broadly: implicit bias—and it’s one that has more to do with how we’re wired as human beings than it does any intentional racial animus. In this case, as with Matheny, none of this suggests that announcers are malicious—if this bias exists, it’s surely subconscious. But it’s real, nevertheless: when the Cardinals said they wanted an “athletic” player, there’s a pretty good chance they were picturing someone non-white.

Given this, I was half-expecting the Cardinals to trade for Rockies center fielder Charlie Blackmon, only to experience buyer’s remorse when this dude showed up. Want a conscious example of this bias rearing its head? Here’s current Nationals manager Dusty Baker—a black man—talking about how the Nats need more non-white players in order to increase team speed.

Speaking of Baker, he had some other comments at that press conference—about domestic violence and Aroldis Chapman. He all but apologized for Chapman’s actions, even blaming the victim a little while he was at it. I know several Yankees fans who were disgusted when the Yankees traded for Chapman, unable to separate the player’s ridiculous fastball and K/9 from the fact that he’s also a domestic abuser. They’re even further disgusted after the Yankees’ hypocrisy bringing him back after pretending to care about domestic violence issues.

There’s nothing in Chapman’s Baseball-Reference page that makes him anything less than a great acquisition for the Yankees, yet nobody would bat an eyelash at saying that fans should think about more than just his baseball stats. Similarly, I see Adam Wainwright celebrated for his Christian faith, something that has nothing to do with his sick curveball when it’s working. Why are these cases OK to consider when taking into account a player’s identity or actions, but not when it comes to race?

Look, I get it. Race is a shitty and touchy issue. Talking about it makes people uncomfortable at best and angry at worst. But ignoring it is how you end up not making progress. Much as we wish otherwise, racial prejudice is as American as baseball, and we’re not going to make the problem go away by ignoring it, or by allowing our own experiences to supercede those of players or journalists of color. When a Kaepernick says something, fans need to listen, even if they don’t agree. When a Bomani Jones writes something, fans need to consider it, even if they don’t agree. And when Saxon mentions that Fowler’s race had merely a non-zero factor in his signing, we need to accept it even as we acknowledge it’s Fowler’s baseball stats that brought him the big bucks.

For my own part I’m far more excited about Fowler’s sky-high career on-base percentage and the suggestion that changing his depth in center field has turned him into an above-average defender. I can’t wait to see him at the top of the order instead of the brutal OBPs of Kolten Wong and Randal Grichuk, and I’m so glad I won’t ever have to see “Stephen Piscotty: center fielder” again. Somewhere like 89th on the list of reasons I’m glad Fowler is a Cardinal is because he might help some kid I’ll never meet fall in love with the Cardinals.

But that’s the point: my experience as a white American, as a Cardinals fan, as a human being, isn’t the same experience everyone has. And to suggest that because it doesn’t matter to me that it shouldn’t matter to anyone is an incredibly foolish thing to say. We cannot disassociate race from sports just because it’s more convenient.

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