March 10, 2010
Along with his ability to hit a baseball and play center field, Torii Hunter(notes) made a big name for himself by being a likable guy and dropping a few jokes and laughs around the ballpark he plays in.
But after Hunter's recent comments on race in baseball, his presence may be greeted with a few less smiles.
While participating in USA Today's roundtable on the state of baseball, Hunter floated a theory that baseball uses dark-skinned players from countries like the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela to give an appearance that it has more African-Americans playing the game than it really does.
But, Hunter says in a controversial money quote, "they're not us, they're impostors."
"As African-American players, we have a theory that baseball can go get an imitator and pass them off as us," Hunter says. "It's like they had to get some kind of dark faces, so they go to the Dominican or Venezuela because you can get them cheaper. It's like, 'Why should I get this kid from the South Side of Chicago and have Scott Boras represent him and pay him $5 million when you can get a Dominican guy for a bag of chips?' ... I'm telling you, it's sad."
Hunter has long been a very vocal advocate of increased African-American participation in baseball and his voice is a valuable one. Normally it is very respected.
But as Hardball Talk's Craig Calcaterra astutely points out, this was a terrible and illogical way to advance the fight. Baseball fans, on the whole, want to see the best talent on the field as possible and it doesn't matter to us what color is under the cap. The talent always rises to the top and gets paid accordingly as top African-American players like CC Sabathia(notes), Ryan Howard(notes) and even Hunter himself can attest.
And it's that talent that earns big paychecks doled out in the only color that really matters in baseball — green. Twelve of the 25 highest salaries in 2009 were paid to Latino players born in other countries, which debunks Hunter's assertion those players will work for cut-rate pay.
Scapegoating Dominicans and Venezuelans and hinting at some larger conspiracy isn't the way to go, not when there are larger societal issues to address in why African-Americans — and all Americans, really — aren't playing the game as much as before.
To be fair, Hunter and his other panel members discussed these oft-repeated factors and suggested a few solutions of their own. I think Hunter's biggest bone of contention would come in major league teams spending millions of dollars on training facilities in foreign lands while spending a fraction of the money on their smaller RBI program in urban America.
I respect Hunter's wish that others who come from a poor background (like he did) are shown that baseball is a very possible and profitable path. It's a complicated situation that baseball should devote more resources to figuring out.
But the direction that Hunter took his argument just resulted in a colossal misstep. How is he going to play in the same Angels outfield this season with two guys — Juan Rivera(notes) and Bobby Abreu(notes) — that he just labeled impostors? A further explanation or apology is in order.
UPDATE: Hunter spoke with the Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times this morning and said his comments were "distorted and taken out of context."