Mike Schmidt: Odubel Herrera can't lead Phillies because he doesn't speak English
People, we've been over this before. When you feel the urge to ask an old baseball player what they think about the sport nowadays, just walk away and do something—anything—else, because all you're going to get is some warmed-over and casually racist nonsense about Playing The Game The Right Way.
Unfortunately for all of us, the folks at Philadelphia sports radio station 94WIP didn't take that advice, instead bringing on the fossilized Mike Schmidt—the greatest player in Phillies history and a first-ballot Hall of Fame third baseman who now works as a color analyst for Phillies games on Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia—to talk about Odubel Herrera, Philadelphia centerfielder and all-around lightning rod for his flashy style of play. Unsurprisingly, Schmidt revealed that he's not exactly a fan of Herrera's ways, saying that his approach to the game was "almost exact[ly the] opposite" before offering his thoughts on whether the 25-year-old All-Star is the kind of player the Phillies can build around.
“My honest answer to that would be no because of a couple of things. First of all, it’s a language barrier. Because of that, I think he can’t be a guy that would sort of sit in a circle with four, five American players and talk about the game. Or try and learn about the game or discuss the inner workings of the game. Or come over to a guy and say, ‘Man, you gotta run that ball out.’ Just can’t be—because of the language barrier—that kind of a player.”
There's a lot going on here, none of it good. Let's start with Schmidt's belief that Herrera, who is Venezuelan, can't communicate with his American teammates to talk about the game. While Herrera isn't a native English speaker, you don't need to be fluent to discuss baseball with other baseball players. There's also the fact that, should Herrera not want to talk with his teammates in his second language, he has plenty of Spanish-speaking players on the Phillies' roster he can approach to chat about baseball—nine of them, by my count. With Herrera included, 40% of Philadelphia's players are Latino, or slightly above the 31.9% figure in the league as of Opening Day, according to MLB's 2017 Race and Gender Report Card.
Beyond that, why exactly does Herrera need to talk to his American players about "the inner workings of the game?" He's been playing baseball since he was a child, just like all his Latino teammates; he's forgotten more about the sport in that time than 99% of the country could ever possibly know. And while there's still plenty he can learn, that can be said of anyone in baseball, and it's not as if the American players are the keepers of some mysterious and arcane knowledge about the sport that Latinos and other international players couldn't possibly grasp or learn on their own. Nor does it make sense that just because Herrera can't be a red-ass in English means that he can't be a leader or a strong clubhouse presence. Carlos Beltran is revered around baseball for his veteran leadership, and he was barely able to speak English when he first arrived to the majors.
(Let's also quickly note that no one ever questions English players for not being able to speak Spanish with their Latino teammates—or Japanese or Korean, for that matter, with their Japanese and Korean teammates—despite the fact that the league is increasingly diverse. No one ever questions the leadership abilities of the guys who effectively can't talk to a third of the locker room, or wonders why all the impetus and pressure is put on the minority to learn a new language instead of the other way around, or decides that a player who speaks only English wouldn't make for a good franchise centerpiece.)
So here is Schmidt deciding that the Phillies couldn't possibly make Herrera—who hit .286/.361/.420 with 15 home runs, 25 steals, a team-high 4.3 Wins Above Replacement and Gold Glove-caliber defense in centerfield in 2016—the centerpiece of their rebuilding efforts because he doesn't speak English well and thus can't bask in the wisdom of his American teammates, all of whom are far more developed and intelligent than their Latino counterparts, or tell them to run out ground balls. And that makes sense, because no team has successfully built around a Spanish-speaking or international player—certainly not the Red Sox with Pedro Martinez or David Ortiz, or the Tigers with Miguel Cabrera, or the Cardinals with Albert Pujols, or the Pirates with Roberto Clemente, or the Mariners with Ichiro Suzuki, or a hundred other teams with a hundred other players. After all, without being able to speak English at the level of the high-school educated Americans who populate the game, how could a player possibly learn what he needs to learn to be a Leader of Men?
Odubel Herrera is many things: Talented, frustrating, inconsistent, productive. He's taken a step backward from his All-Star 2016 season this year, hitting a meager .243/.283/.403 as the Phillies' rebuild has hit a snag, so it's easy and fair to wonder whether or not he's the right player to be the future of the team. But to base that decision on a so-called "language barrier"—to decide that his being a Latino makes him a bad candidate to be the face of the franchise—is the kind of lazy and stupid racism that you should expect when you ask baseball's crustier old men to bloviate about a sport they haven't played in decades.
This is no surprise coming from the likes of Schmidt, who once called a throw to home plate "girlish" and clearly isn't the most advanced thinker when it comes to anything beyond pitch recognition or playing defense at third base. But it's sad to watch these old white men, facing down a game that's increasingly international and multi-cultural, desperate to keep their place atop it in which they lead and the players of color simply have to follow, thrashing around like dinosaurs sinking into a tar pit.
The truth is that the game of baseball and its future belong to players like Herrera. It belongs to players from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela and Puerto Rico and Mexico and Japan and South Korea and a dozen other countries developing talent. Their style of play, their exuberance, their excitement will carry the sport into its next age. All the likes of Schmidt can do is sit and watch—and, hopefully someday soon, we'll stop asking them what they think about that.