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Race strikes out

By Jackson Murphy
web posted July 7, 2003

In recent weeks reporters have picked up on a new trend in baseball. There have been plenty of rumblings about a revolution in baseball where statistics are king. Now there is a new story, that baseball is becoming less culturally diverse. The two are related and the revolution in baseball strategy has the consequence of an utter contempt for racial politics. The new breed of baseball management is far more concerned with actual numbers than they are with skin color. And wasn't this the color blindness we always wanted?

But in an article printed in the Toronto Star reporter Geoff Baker detailed how the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team has become the whitest team in the major leagues. He "found that this year's edition of the Blue Jays had the fewest number of visible minorities on the opening-day roster of any of the 30 major-league teams. A Toronto club that boasted of its diversity in recent radio ads actually had the visible-minority players on its 25-man roster drop from 11 on opening day a year ago to only six this season."

In response Carlos Delgado, the Jay's first baseman said, "It was probably the stupidest thing I've ever seen. If this city is so multicultural, if this city is so open-minded, why do we have to come up with an article that talks about racism? It doesn't make any sense."

What is surprising is that according to a more balanced Sports Illustrated article by Tom Verducci on the future of the vanishing African-American player, "the number of white players in the major leagues has held between 58 per cent and 62 per cent every year from 1995 and 2002-down from 70 per cent in 1990." So the league is actually spreading diversity. But that diversity is centered on the growing Latino players and increasingly the players from Asia.

But the Star's own defense of the now controversial article, penned by Richard Griffin, is the most stunning part of all. "Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi along with Oakland's Billy Beane and other new-wavers believe in building offence through patience at the plate and taking no chances on the bases. That's a pre-WWII style of play. Under those criteria, Jackie Robinson could not have played in the majors."

" The story is stating that it is the profile of a player's cheaper contract, perceived bat skills and educational opportunities, not the profile of his race that is the primary reason for the whitening of the Jays and other similar-thinking teams," continues Griffin.

Both of these quotes demonstrate that Griffin and quite frankly the main article's author Baker understand neither the new baseball model presented by the Jamesian Billy Beane or race in 2003. There is nothing perceived about the recognition of bat skills. Throwing out the mere mention of color-barrier-breaker Jackie Robinson is supposed to cast the new managers in the camp of those old baseball owners who kept baseball segregated for all those years.

In fact, as Eric McErlain notes on his website (www.ericmcerlain.com), Robinson who batted .311 lifetime and had a much desired .409 on base percentage, "demonstrated all of the characteristics front office types like Ricciardi and Beane are looking for -- what's doubtful is whether or not financially-strapped teams like the ones they work for would actually be able to afford a player of Robinson's caliber. Even if they developed a player with Robinson's incredible gifts, it wouldn't be long in today's game before he would reach free agency, and be able to command a salary far in excess of what Toronto or Oakland could afford."

One irony is that Oakland and Toronto are signing cheap white labor rather than high priced racially diverse talent. The fact of the matter is that the Toronto Blue Jays racial make up has nothing to do with race itself and everything to do with the fact that they found a bunch of players underrated in their numbers, all in their late 20's and early 30's, who are not free agents, and are averaging a bargain basement $642,000 a year in salary. But it is not surprising that with an actual revolution sweeping America's pastime that has been successful in placing the livelihood of scouts, and other old school, and other old thinking members of the sport all in jeopardy that charges of racism rear their ugly head.

There are also bigger more fundamental reasons too. With Beane and company stressing the importance of walking (basically getting on base) as a key offensive weapon that other traits like defense, speed, and stealing amongst others fall by the wayside. A recent profile of Yankees slugger Alfonso Soriano who is from the Dominican Republic and does not walk very much (he has walked only 24 times in 2003, batting .296 with a lame .351 on base percentage) summed up a related problem this way. "Patience is not a common trait for players from the Dominican Republic. That oft-quoted adage is: 'You don't walk your way off the island.'" And if you can't walk in the major leagues you are increasingly going to be riding the bench in Triple A.

But how long will it be before islands like the Dominican Republic begin to fulfill the demands of teams like Toronto and Oakland. If there is a true market for baseball skills the demand for the player that fits what today's team wants will be supplied.

This weekend the Star continued to wage this war of words by suggesting that, "the transformation of the Blue Jays from expensive flops to successful scrappers, while bucking the baseball trend, warranted closer scrutiny. After all, the Jays' wave could be the tide of the future." Apparently that future is that baseball's new success stories are going to be even less diverse because these teams are picking college players and we all know that more white kids play baseball in college. But only Sports Illustrated reports that Major League Baseball is trying to build more parks and have more services in more neighborhoods that are predominantly black.

What Baker and the now endless reporters at The Star fail to report is that what fans want, and always want, are winners. Sure they acknowledge that the Jays are winning, but they suggest that winning could also mean catering to the racial make up of the city in which you live. This smacks of an idealism that is derived from affirmative action and politically correctness gone horribly mad. Beane will pick them if you get them into college and get the statistics to prove their worth-if you build them they will come. The problem isn't with baseball.

Jackson Murphy is a commentator from Vancouver, Canada. He a senior writer at Enter Stage Right and the editor of "Dispatches" a website that serves up political commentary 24-7. You can contact him at jacksonmurphy@telus.net.

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