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MINNEAPOLIS – As Major League Baseball prepares for its annual Jackie Robinson Day on Thursday, one prominent African-American player questioned teams' commitment to employing black players past their prime years.
"You see guys like Jermaine Dye(notes) without a job," Minnesota Twins second baseman Orlando Hudson(notes) said Monday. "Guy with [27 home runs and 81 RBIs] and can't get a job. Pretty much sums it up right there, no? You've got some guys who miss a year who can come back and get $5, $6 million, and a guy like Jermaine Dye can't get a job. A guy like Gary Sheffield(notes), a first-ballot Hall of Famer, can't get a job. …
"We both know what it is. You'll get it right. You'll figure it out. I'm not gonna say it because then I'll be in [trouble]."
What Hudson wants to say: He believes there is a racist element to the free-agent market in baseball, and that it's paralyzing the 36-year-old Dye's ability to earn what non-blacks with commensurate numbers received in the offseason.
"Call it what you want to," Hudson said. "I ain't fit to say it. After I retire I'll say it. I've got a whole bunch of stuff to say after I retire."
Hudson's comments came on the heels of Dye turning down a one-year contract offer from the Washington Nationals for less than a quarter of his $11.5 million salary with the Chicago White Sox last season. After a first half in which he slugged .567 and hit 20 home runs, Dye spent the second half of 2009 in a deep slump from which he never emerged, batting .179 and slugging .297 while playing subpar defense in right field.
Hudson believed Dye's credentials – 164 home runs in the last five years and an OPS 21 percent better than the league average – would buy him the benefit of the doubt. Dye hoped to play for a contender, and while he understood he would take a pay cut, he expected a deal in the $4 million-plus range. Hudson said he and Dye spoke on the phone this offseason about his status, though they never broached specifics about why the market never materialized above $3.5 million, a number approached or exceeded by a number of players with inferior credentials.
"We don't even get into it," Hudson said. "We both know what it is."
The Baltimore Orioles guaranteed $4.5 million to first baseman Garrett Atkins(notes), 30, after he hit .226 and slugged .342 in 354 at-bats last season. Thirty-three-year-old Aubrey Huff's(notes) on-base percentage was 30 points lower than Dye's and his slugging percentage 69 points lower, yet the San Francisco Giants gave him $3 million. The Chicago Cubs paid 31-year-old Xavier Nady(notes) $3.3 million after an elbow injury limited him to 28 at-bats last season.
Whether teams with first base openings didn't trust Dye's ability to convert or others with outfield slots preferred different players, his presence on the open market in mid-April is particularly puzzling when coupled with the fates of other black players.
Second baseman Ray Durham(notes), coming off a 2008 in which he got on base at a .380 clip and slugged .432, couldn't get anything more than a backup sniff as a 37-year-old. Durham's case, one source said, is among those being looked at by the MLB players' association in its potential collusion case against MLB.
Outfielder Kenny Lofton(notes) put up an above-average OPS as a 40-year-old in 2007 and hasn't been seen since. And Sheffield, 41, remains a free agent after slugging .451 with spacious Citi Field as his home stadium.
There are other factors, of course. The free-agent market has shifted drastically against older players. The game places a greater emphasis on defense. And in the individual cases, Lofton came with a difficult-to-handle reputation, as did Sheffield, who once alluded to possible racism from his manager with the New York Yankees, Joe Torre – an accusation backed up by Lofton.
Never has Dye been lumped among the malcontents, and his case lends credence to a belief among some black baseball players that should frighten MLB: They're treated differently. True or not, it doesn't matter. The specter of racism in a game still haunted by its history – and trying to rejuvenate itself among black youth – is a disturbing reality.
"There are some things that go on in the game that shouldn't be going on," Hudson said. "But it's part of baseball. It's part of life. Deal with it."
Perhaps Hudson's stake is personal. Two years ago, he entered free agency seeking a multiyear deal. He ended up taking an incentive-loaded $3.4 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. This season, the 32-year-old hoped for multiple years again. He signed with Minnesota for $5 million over one year.
Hudson's words spoke enough that Dye and his agent, Bob Bry, declined to comment Monday night. Hudson going public was unique, too, as other players worry it will have a negative effect on the issue. While some will accuse Hudson of race baiting and paranoia, the reality is quite the opposite: He is taking public a concern that promotes discussion and forces MLB to be honest with itself about the precipitous drop in African-American players over the last two decades.
Between the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program and Urban Youth Academies, baseball has tried to resolve that chasm between the sport and black children. The issue: Compared to the football juggernaut and the stranglehold of basketball, baseball finishes a distant third. While the tremendous influx of black talent in the major leagues in recent years – from Ryan Howard(notes) and Carl Crawford(notes) to Justin Upton(notes) and Jason Heyward(notes) – is a positive sign, it doesn't eliminate the feeling that others have been and continue to be mistreated.
So as players receive their special jerseys this week with the No. 42 on the back and the sport celebrates Robinson breaking the color line, baseball will examine itself again and wonder how it can change a perception that is now six decades old and seems to be going nowhere.