It’s shocking until it isn’t.
After the Orioles’ 5–2 win over the Red Sox on Monday night, Baltimore centerfielder Adam Jones reported that he was taunted with racial slurs and had a bag of peanuts thrown at him by a fan. The Red Sox confirmed that the fan who threw the peanuts was ejected from the park. It was the latest despicable reminder of the torrents of abuse spewed by fans; a five-time All-Star and starting centerfielder for Team USA was subject to America’s most common and insidious racial slur because he was playing for the visiting team.
Some may attribute the bigoted remarks to the worst sect of notoriously abusive Boston fans—black hockey players P.K. Subban and Joel Ward have been the target of similar invective within the last five years—but the incident unveils a nastier underlying problem for baseball, a sport failing to attract enough African-American players or representatives at the managerial or front office level. While baseball has attracted some of the finest athletic talent from Central and South America by building development programs throughout Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic among other nations, the game’s African-American participation sat at just 7.1% in 2016 and hasn’t eclipsed 10% since 2004. In Ken Rosenthal’s meticulous report about the game’s tiny talent pool, he quotes one agent who claims his team has just one African-American pitcher in its entire farm system. There are only two current African-American managers in the game (the Dodgers’ Dave Roberts and the Nationals’ Dusty Baker).
Every Major League team celebrated Jackie Robinson Day just two weeks ago on the 70th anniversary of Robinson breaking the team’s color barrier, and now the league has to manage a crisis that echoed the abuse that Robinson faced in the 1947 season. Jones suggested a lifetime ban for those taunting him and a severe financial penalty if the fans are identified, a deterrent that’s likely effective even if the common baseball fan isn’t going to hurl racial epithets at an opposing player.
But the problem isn’t one of “a few bad apples”. The issue is that Jones’s experience will snatch headlines in a sport that gasps for them in competition with sports far more friendly to the African-American community. Football and basketball have overwhelmed baseball in that arena for at least a generation, and both the NBA and NFL have better marketing and television presence than the MLB does. The widely circulated list of America’s most popular athletes featured no active baseball players until Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo checked in at No. 51.
Jones made headlines last September when he defended Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem and called baseball “a white man’s game.” His argument dealt less with Kaepernick’s direct motives than the reality that African-American participation was simply too small in baseball for players to be comfortable echoing the quarterback’s sentiments. Even if Jones knelt, he likely wouldn’t be punished by the Orioles because he’s one of the team’s best players, but he was predictably scolded—most notably by former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa—for being divisive.
By the numbers, it’s hard to dispute Jones—baseball was 63.7% white in 2016 and has never fallen below the 60% threshold. The problem isn’t the number of white players—it’s that their accessibility to showcases, elite travel teams, playable fields and college scholarships is far higher than to the average young African-American player deciding what sport to play. Add in the sport’s historic resentment of bat flips, exuberance and flair, and the kids might wonder why they should play if the players on TV don’t look like they’re having much fun in the first place. Now, for the next couple of days at least, those potential players will watch a segment or read a story about a black player being subject to racial abuse from fans.
The league is trying to reverse the trend through the expansion of its RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program and has made some progress. Many are pointing to 17-year-old Hunter Greene, a two-way standout at Notre Dame (Calif.) High School, and Corey Ray, the fifth pick in the 2016 draft and an RBI veteran, as an example of how the game is growing in the inner city. The programs are improving, and there’s a chance baseball siphons some young athletes who may avoid football, but that battle must be waged over a generation in contention with the rapid growth of soccer and the permanence of basketball.
Consider all that baseball has working against it in the African-American community, and then account for the galling facts that accompany Monday night’s events: Jones won the team’s Roberto Clemente Award, given to the player who “best represents the game of baseball through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, both on and off the field,” for the third time in 2016. The year before, he won the Marvin Miller Award, given to the player “whose on-field performance and contributions to his community inspire others to higher levels of achievement.” While baseball struggles to find a star that is widely recognized throughout the country (much less internationally), here sits Adam Jones, five-time All-Star and five-tool centerfielder, a player instrumental for racial progress in baseball, being berated with racial epithets while seated in the dugout. Would the same fan have shouted those slurs at an NBA or NFL game? It’s hard to imagine that when the majority of the bench is black.
On a day when the president lamented the motivating factors of the Civil War, one could point to the genesis of baseball, a burgeoning game embraced by northern states in the 1850s as an egalitarian, rule-bound contest that stood in stark contrast to the south’s preference toward hierarchical sports—horse racing, hunting and other bloodsport. The sport is inclusive and fair by design, but while boys in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic play vitilla with broomsticks and bottle caps, the game has suffered in the U.S. without properly allocated resources. In an isolated instance on Monday, we couldn’t even treat our starting centerfielder—one who provided this moment for his country—with any respect.
Perhaps this story dies after the Red Sox formally apologize to Jones and the long season moves forward. Yes, it’s an isolated incident by a racist fan. But an intractable problem resurfaced on Monday night, bringing ugly realities back to the forefront, and baseball will further suffer as a result.