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HOUSTON – Yuli Gurriel did something profoundly stupid during Game 3 of the World Series on Friday night. After hitting a home run off Los Angeles Dodgers starter Yu Darvish, who is from Japan, Gurriel returned to the dugout, held his index fingers to the outer corners of his eyes and pulled to narrow them, mimicking Darvish.
Major League Baseball will meet with Gurriel before Game 4 on Saturday, and if the league intends to stay consistent with its message of inclusion and follow past precedent, it will suspend Gurriel for the action.
Ignorance is no defense. Even if Gurriel arrived in the United States from Cuba just a year ago – even if his grasp on American mores does not match someone who has witnessed the cultural evolution that made something acceptable in 1990 verboten today – that does not mean he should be held to a lower standard. Gurriel is 33 years old. He is paid millions of dollars to play a game in the public eye. Part of any athlete’s responsibility is conducting himself in a fashion worthy of that position. Educating oneself isn’t optional, it’s imperative. This goes especially for baseball, a sport that employs a vice president for social responsibility and inclusion.
Gurriel apologized after the game, which the Astros won, 5-3, to take a two-games-to-one lead in the series. He said he intended no disrespect and, “I did not mean it to be offensive at any point,” with either the gesture or his use of the word “chinito,” which, in Cuba, refers to people of Asian descent and generally is not considered a slur. His explanation of the gesture, on the other hand, made little sense. Gurriel, who has played in Japan, said through a translator he changed the shape of his eyes because he had little success against Japanese pitchers this year in the major leagues and had just homered for the first time off one.
Those who know Gurriel well believe the sincerity of his apology and that there was no malice. Gurriel, they said, is not a bad person. He did a bad thing.
While Darvish said what Gurriel did was “disrespectful,” he later tweeted that “no one is perfect” and urged good to come of the incident.
Good, in this situation, is best achieved by the league eschewing a slap-on-the-wrist fine and getting together with the Astros and the MLB Players Association to convince both that a one-game suspension of Gurriel is essential now and should not be delayed by appeal. Neither the Astros nor the MLBPA is likely to agree with this, particularly during the World Series, and yet both should heed Darvish’s words and view this as an opportunity for the league, on its biggest stage, to prove its commitment to inclusion goes beyond job titles.
Certainly MLB at times struggles with this. For years, the game severely underpaid Latin American amateurs, and even today, the talent-procurement system is rife with corruption and mistreatment. The drastic league-wide reduction in African-American players – the Astros have two on their World Series roster, the Dodgers none – comes from decades of baseball slowly suburbanizing and failing to recruit kids from both inner cities and lower socioeconomic classes. Front offices and managing jobs not only sorely lack representation from people of color but suffer from a paucity of candidates when jobs come open, too.
Still, baseball’s tack with individual incidents that go against its stated mission is clear. Twice this season players were suspended for using a homophobic slur. The Toronto Blue Jays sat outfielder Kevin Pillar for two games, and MLB did the same with Oakland A’s outfielder Matt Joyce. Similarly, after an incident in which a fan in Boston allegedly used a racial slur against Baltimore outfielder Adam Jones, the Red Sox condemned the behavior immediately and commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement: “The behavior of these few ignorant individuals does not reflect the millions of great baseball fans who attend our games.”
Gurriel’s actions offer Manfred an opportunity to speak to those millions of fans and say: All of baseball – the league, the teams, the players – holds the value of inclusion dear and believes that even if the intent was not malevolent, such behavior has warranted suspension in the past and consistency calls for the same here.
Remember, MLB is expecting its biggest story this offseason to be the arrival of Shohei Ohtani, the 23-year-old two-way star who throws 100 mph-plus and regularly hits tape-measure home runs. If a player can mock Asians during the World Series and nobody finds it bothersome enough to warrant a suspension, what does it say about baseball’s commitment to truly being the world’s game?
What Gurriel did was hurtful, and it was disrespectful, and even if one wants to lament that society has gone to a place where sensitivity rules, the truth is that it does, and mega-corporations like MLB cannot be seen as petri dishes for behavior that offends. Yuli Gurriel did something profoundly stupid and got caught doing so on camera. Major League Baseball knows what it must do. Soon enough, it will tell the world just how much it truly does value inclusion.