How the latest in bigotry reminds us that baseball is indeed a white man's game
When Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones famously said two years ago that “baseball is a white man’s sport,” he was castigated in some corners, lauded in others, the bifurcated reaction a pretty reasonable foretelling of America today. Jones was right, of course. Major League Baseball is a white man’s sport. Its teams are owned, disproportionately, by white men. They are run, disproportionately, by white men. The league’s top executives are, disproportionately, white men. The power structure neither represents the labor pool nor the fan base – the latter of which is, in most places, overwhelmingly white, if not entirely male.
The consequences of this are subtle and damning, and they’re how someone like Atlanta Braves announcer Joe Simpson starts a sentence about the Washington Nationals’ precocious outfielder Juan Soto with: “If he’s 19 … ”
This is not just about the dog-whistling of a 66-year-old white man who found it perfectly appropriate to imply on a live broadcast that this kid from the Dominican Republic might be lying about his age. Because, you see, other Dominican players have lied about their age, so obviously Soto, who’s really good, and who, Simpson would go on to say, has “man growth,” must be doing it, too.
No, this is about a sport that gives someone like Joe Simpson a platform to say this. A sport that teems with players whose old tweets are filled with racist and bigoted thoughts and language. A sport that day after day, revelation after revelation, exposes itself as a place that subtly and not-so-subtly lets people of color know exactly what the ruling class of the game thinks of them.
Simpson, who through the Braves declined to comment, was rebuked more for his ill-advised but ultimately harmless yelling at clouds about the Los Angeles Dodgers showing disrespect via their batting-practice attire. He apologized for that. Simpson offered no such thing after Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo rightly berated him about Soto, instead saying: “He’s a bona fide 19. And he is a full-grown man. He is strong. And he is one heck of a player. You might as well just write his name in on the Rookie of the Year award right now.”
Simpson said this as though complimenting Soto’s game – which anyone with a functioning pair of eyes could do – negates the fact that he himself is expressly part of the problem.
“Announcers, specifically former major league players, are brought in to teach the fan,” said Scott Boras, Soto’s agent. “To bring credibility to the game and its players. After all the years of fighting for player equality and protection of their rights, here we go again. Without any form of diligent review, a great young Dominican player is damned. The historic injustice continues. And who is doing it? An American former player.”
The injustice to which Boras refers is the treatment of Latin American players by the league. For decades, it has been despicable: the underpayment of poor and uneducated kids; the ugly culture in which trainers take usurious cuts of signing bonuses; the doping of pre-teen boys; and even the preying on players to take under-market contracts when they do make the major leagues. Taking advantage of Latin players is part of the MLB business model. It’s not a bug. It’s a feature.
Part of that, too, is the culture of the game, which preaches silence, which discourages discord, which wants players to stay in line. The voice of the Dominican player, of the black player, of those who love the game but aren’t adequately represented, is silenced. A few, like Jones, speak out. The rest wonder privately: Why does the game not love me like I love it?
And it’s easy to say that so long as the game is paying players millions of dollars, what more do they want? A voice, for one, to address the imbalance at the game’s highest levels and how it filters down to those who are the game: the players. It’s not just a seat at the table, either. It’s the desire for those who have one to better understand those who don’t.
Chances are, Joe Simpson didn’t know that the United States government verified Juan Soto’s birth date when he was 9 years old. Or that MLB’s rigorous age-and-identity test at 15 did the same. Or that he was given a five-year worker’s visa at 16. Those are facts, according to a letter written by Ulises Cabrera, the co-founder of the Dominican Prospect League, which counts Soto among its graduates.
Our official response to Braves broadcaster Joe Simpson for remarks directed at DPL alumnus Juan Soto of @Nationals pic.twitter.com/mNFdoVKIJZ
— DPL (@DPLBaseball) August 9, 2018
In the letter, Cabrera, a D.R. native who graduated from Vanderbilt, asks Simpson: “What makes Juan Soto so different?” He urges the Braves or the league to discipline Simpson because, he writes, “If this goes unpunished, then it is acceptable to question the age of every Dominican player with exceptional ability.”
He’s right. Allowing this to fester only reinforces that baseball accepts bigotry, that players from the Dominican Republic coming into the game will be side-eyed and that there’s nothing the sport can do, short of sending out its ambassador for inclusion to talk with those whose ignorance goes from lips to microphone or fingertips to Twitter. Rather than promote an environment in which the sport looks more like those who play it, MLB codifies the behavior of its worst and in doing so puts its most vulnerable back in their uncomfortable places.
A good first step would be to stop the propagandizing in which the league’s website trumpets disingenuous bilge that “MLB rosters feature unprecedented diversity” and instead celebrate the game’s lesser-heard voices so people like Joe Simpson and young players who might think it’s OK to tweet something stupid not only think twice but are educated enough to not even think of doing so.
Because Soto, it turns out, is a bright kid, smart enough to learn fluent English at 19 years old, hopeful enough to believe that his voice might matter. He could’ve had a great conversation with Joe Simpson about the Dominican Republic, in fact, and …
1. Juan Soto also could have told him what it’s like to be a ridiculously good baseball player. Barring an injury, he’ll be only the 15th player in the last century to log 400-plus plate appearances in a season as a teenager. And right now, he’s got an on-base percentage better than any of them, a slugging percentage better than any of them and a strikeout-to-walk ratio that only the most elite hitters today can match.
That he finished Sunday night’s game hitting under .300 for the first time since May 25, when he was fewer than 20 plate appearances into his career, is no big deal. Soto’s plate discipline is so advanced that he’s still got a .418 on-base percentage anyway. And his power – thanks to the “man growth” Simpson referenced – goes to the pull side, the opposite field and dead center. If he’s slugging .535 and driving balls oppo like it’s nothing at 19, it’s frightening to imagine what he’ll be doing when he can drink legally – or rent a car without a fee.
At that point, he’ll be staring at free agency, the youngest player in the game to hit it since Alex Rodriguez in 2000. Yes, he could sign a contract extension, which is an odd thing to say about a 19-year-old, and even odder to say about a Boras client, but then maybe one of these years he’s coming off a …
2. Mookie Betts-type season. As great as Soto has been, Betts has been otherworldly, jumping to the forefront of the American League MVP conversation – and not simply because the Boston Red Sox are chasing history.
A quick aside on the Red Sox before Betts gets his full recognition. At 85-35, they are a lock to win 100 games. If they coast at .500 for the rest of the season, they would win 106 games, the most in franchise history. Play those final 42 games at a .600 clip, and they’re a 110-win team. Continue their current winning percentage, and they’re 114-48. If they want to beat the Seattle Mariners’ single-season record of 116 victories, the Red Sox would need to go 32-10. Over their last 42 games, they’re 34-8 – and they’ve ripped off at least 32 of 42 six other times this season.
In other words, the Red Sox are the personification of Betts, who is threatening to join an elite group: Players who have finished a season with at least a .350 batting average, a .425 on-base percentage and a .650 slugging percentage. The last to do it was Albert Pujols and before that Barry Bonds. Others include Babe Ruth (eight times), Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, George Brett, Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio and, of course, Larry Walker twice.
It’s the sort of season that would make a player wonder whether it might make sense to consider talking about a contract extension. The Boston Sports Journal reported last year that Betts turned down a five-year deal in the $100 million range, because of course he would. Any deal to lock up Betts now would cost well over twice as much, and perhaps three times that. Betts turns 26 in October and hits free agency after the 2020 season, and with his arbitration salaries reasonably in the range of $18 million and $25 million for the next two years, he could easily wait and hunt for a mega jackpot at 28 years old.
The Red Sox have plenty of cash to keep Betts in their uniform for a decade, though, and tacking on eight years at around $35 million a year to those projected arbitration salaries would bring Betts awfully close to beating Giancarlo Stanton’s record $325 million deal. Considering the salaries Bryce Harper and Manny Machado could get this winter, it could behoove Boston to be aggressive in trying to persuade Betts to forgo free agency.
If they can’t strike a deal, Betts will join …
3. Matt Carpenter in the Class of 2020 – and both could have MVP trophies to their names. Carpenter has padded his National League home run lead with six in August, and since bottoming out at .140/.286/.272 on May 15, he has been on a three-month-long tear that has made Betts look merely good.
Over the next 77 games, Carpenter hit .331/.431/.720 with 29 home runs. The Cardinals’ 40-37 record over that stretch doesn’t exactly scream MVP in the traditional sense, but then nobody in the NL has distinguished himself well enough to discount the 32-year-old Carpenter, whose highest finish in the voting came five years ago, when the candidates were clumped together in a similar fashion as to this year.
Maybe it’s Max Scherzer (who twirled another beaut Sunday night before Ryan Madson coughed up a walk-off grand slam) or Jacob deGrom. Could be Carpenter or Nolan Arenado or Javier Baez or Freddie Freeman or Lorenzo Cain or Christian Yelich or Paul Goldschmidt. Or perhaps someone has a Carpenterian final six weeks and stuns everyone like …
4. Ramon Laureano did Eric Young Jr. on Saturday. Young has logged 10 seasons in the major leagues explicitly because he can run, and for him to get done as dirty as he did by Laureano – doubled up on a 321-foot throw that heretofore deserves an exclamation point – only compounds the wonder of it.
That it overshadowed young Alfred Delia’s mission statement for all – “I hit dingers” – as the viral moment of the weekend likeliest to last beyond 48 hours shows just how special it was. Yes, that it came after a great catch, too, made it that much better, but really the throw by itself was such a magnificent display of arm strength that it alone was plenty.
The instinct is to compare it to other great throws, and upon examination, it belongs in the same breath as the modern greats: Ichiro Suzuki nailing Terrence Long, Yoenis Cespedes nabbing Howie Kendrick, Jose Guillen sniping Neifi Perez, Vladimir Guerrero getting Todd Hundley, Bo Jackson stunning Harold Reynolds, Dave Parker unleashing fury in the 1979 All-Star Game.
Yes, Laureano’s may have had more arc than some of the others’. Whatever. The distance, the accuracy, the calmness of first baseman Mark Canha as he barely moved a muscle to catch it: weave those elements together and it’s an all-timer. Baseball provides so many incredible moments. Few are as satisfying as a perfect throw. A return of …
5. David Wright to the major leagues someday might actually qualify in that “few” category. Wright hasn’t taken a big league at-bat since May 27, 2016. The last time he played even 40 games in a season was 2014. He’s 35 now, and shoulder and back injuries have made his return less and less likely.
And yet there he was Sunday, playing third base and hitting third for the Class-A St. Lucie Mets. Wright went 0 for 3. He struck out twice. And it was a massive victory, because he was playing again.
During a season in which the Mets are struggling to avoid the worst record in the NL, any positive sign regarding Wright is welcome. During a week in which a New York Post report said the Mets plan on going outside the team for a general manager but aren’t focusing on one well-versed in analytics because ownership believes the front office has focused too much on them, Wright served as a welcome, if short-term, distraction from the reality that buffoonery is an organizational tenet.
The Mets are the butt of jokes around the game, something that must eat at chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon, whose antics to avoid bad PR are legendary among those who have worked in his vicinity. The Mets’ issues make the …
6. Zach Eflin kerfuffle in Philadelphia look like a first-world problem, and it is, particularly because there’s a simple solution to it. The 24-year-old right-hander has been perhaps the most pleasant surprise for the first-place Phillies this season, which made the team optioning him to Triple-A when it activated newly acquired Justin Bour that much more curious.
The thinking made sense. The Phillies can recall him as the 26th man to start Thursday in a doubleheader against the Mets. Then it can bring him back for good when he has spent the mandatory 10 days in the minor leagues – and he will remain on rotation. The loser is Eflin, who misses out on nine days of service time and upward of $20,000.
Here’s the thing: So long as the Phillies don’t do this again, the missed service time is unlikely to hurt Eflin’s clock. He’ll finish this season with two-plus seasons. And if the Phillies want to do right by him and thank him for allowing the team to carry an extra infielder, it can renew him next spring at $20,000 higher than it planned on. Eflin gets his money. The Phillies show they’re a player-friendly team and not just one out to manipulate rosters. Everyone wins. Which is what every team wants, even the Seattle Mariners as they make …
7. Felix Hernandez the most expensive relief pitcher in baseball history. More than four months of bad starts prompted Seattle to take Hernandez out of the rotation, a move that was rewarded, at least for now, by five scoreless innings from Erasmo Ramirez on Sunday as the Mariners finished off a four-game sweep of the first-place Astros and moved to within four games of the AL West lead and 1½ of the second wild card.
Hernandez’s fall wasn’t exactly precipitous. It started in 2015, when his strikeout rate fell and his walk and home run rates climbed. He turned 30 the next year and posted the worst ERA since he was a 21-year-old wunderkind in his third season. Last year, he toggled between injured and ineffective. And this season was a mess, his 5.73 ERA representative of an average fastball that had dipped below 90 mph and corresponding declines in sharpness among his three other pitches.
Some pitchers adjust to lesser stuff. Hernandez never has, and while no catastrophic arm injury felled him, certainly the wear and tear of more than 2,500 innings has done its part. He is not entirely a lost cause. He’s still just 32 years old, and many a rebirth has accompanied a commitment to craftiness. This is a superhero losing his powers and needing to find new ones, and it can be done. Granted, with …
8. Barry Bonds it entailed rubbing a cream containing those powers on his body, but then again the juiced-up Bonds did the sorts of things that make Carpenter’s run and Betts’ season look like child’s play. He was Thanos, giant head and all, and to say it wasn’t magnificent to watch would be a lie.
Bonds re-emerged over the weekend as the San Francisco Giants retired his jersey. For years, the organization and Giants fans huddled around Bonds, providing a protective cocoon as fans on the road, media and executives at the top of the sport besmirched him. He cheated, blatantly, and if he wasn’t going to be punished, at very least he would be stigmatized. None of that has changed.
A sold-out AT&T Park feted Bonds, as did Giants luminaries, and it rekindled talk of his Hall of Fame candidacy, which enters its seventh season with Bonds having climbed from 36.2 percent in his first season to 56.4 percent last year. While the voting bloc has changed, the 75 percent threshold may still be too high a bar for Bonds to reach, even if he does so clearly warrant entry.
Because while he admitted to using steroids, Bonds is no different than many of his contemporaries – some of whom, presumably, are in the Hall already. And even if, for the sake of argument, they aren’t, Bonds is indisputably one of the best players in the game’s history. The National Baseball Hall of Fame feels emptier without him.
Even as the Giants struggle to stay afloat, between Bonds’ No. 25 being retired and the Dodgers blowing two games with …
9. Kenley Jansen on the disabled list, it was a good weekend for San Francisco. Los Angeles, on the other hand, suffered back-to-back walk-off losses to Colorado in which a panoply of relievers looking to stake late-inning claims faltered and left the Dodgers staring up at the Arizona Diamondbacks in the standings.
An irregular heartbeat will keep Jansen sidelined until at least Aug. 20, and in the meantime, the Dodgers are trying to cobble together some sort of plan to close out games. Starters Kenta Maeda and Ross Stripling were moved to the bullpen, which may portend the Dodgers’ plans should they make it to October. For now, they’ve settle on a rotation of Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill, rookie Walker Buehler and the returning Alex Wood and Hyun-Jin Ryu, and if they can keep all five healthy, the prospect of Maeda and Stripling as multi-inning bullpen weapons is indeed exciting.
Should that fail, the criticism levied on the Dodgers – that they didn’t do enough at the trade deadline to acquire an impact relief pitcher to complement Jansen – will only grow. Even if the Astros proved last October that a team needn’t a dominant bullpen to win a World Series, navigating the postseason without one makes a manager’s job that much more difficult. After all, players like …
10. Juan Soto tend to fill playoff lineups – though with losses like the absolute gut punch the Nationals suffered Sunday night, the likelihood of Soto himself doing so this season lessens by the day. The Nationals now find themselves 5½ games back of the Phillies and Braves and seven behind Atlanta in the loss column. It’s not impossible. It’s not easy, either.
And what a waste it would be, because Soto is doing what nobody – not Mel Ott, not Bryce Harper, not Mickey Mantle or Ty Cobb or Ken Griffey Jr. or Al Kaline – did as a 19-year-old. The closest thing to Soto, actually, might be a 21-year-old.
Albert Pujols played 24 games above Class A before arriving in the major leagues. Soto spent 23 games there this year when the Nationals called him up. Pujols was a bastion of plate discipline and power upon his arrival. Ibid Soto. And, interesting enough, questions about Pujols’ age have dogged him for years, even as there’s no proof he’s older than 38.
It’s just part and parcel of being a Dominican in the major leagues, and it’s a lesson Juan Soto learned early. He handled it with grace, with class, with what others have come to expect from him in his short time in the big leagues, and it’s why inside the organization, the only “if” they ask themselves about Soto is a hypothetical that may come to pass.
If Harper does leave this winter, is Soto ready to replace him? The answer is as clear as the one to whether he’s 19.
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