As most Cardinals fans can attest, Tony La Russa had us scratching our heads countless times during his 16 year run in St. Louis. But by the time he retired after managing the Cards to their second World Series title since he took over in 1996, he was generally given a free pass by fans and the media alike, and deservedly so. You don’t become the winningest manager in the history of a franchise that dates back to the 1800s by making bone-headed decisions all the time, after all. We should not, however, give TLR the benefit of the doubt with regard to some of his most recent public comments.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past month, you’ve no doubt seen pictures and videos of athletes–beginning with San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick and spreading to other football teams, from youth leagues up to the NFL–protesting police brutality against blacks by sitting, kneeling, or raising a single fist in the air while the national anthem is played prior to the game.

It’s no secret that white Americans have trouble grasping the magnitude of the race issue in this country. It’s partially because we’re in the majority and have long overlooked the concerns facing minority groups. It’s partially because, as history is written and re-written, we often scrub some of the unpleasant memories–like how the Civil War was really about states’ rights and not slavery. It’s also because, even fifty years after the Supreme Court struck down Jim Crow laws, we still live our lives largely segregated from people of color. Unfortunately, all this becomes second nature, not to mention irresponsible attitudes and beliefs we acquire from family and friends as we grow up–even something that some might find harmless, like joking about “CPT” or donning blackface–and so our knee-jerk reaction to seeing black people protest is to suggest that they’re insincere, not patriotic, don’t really have it that bad, or, among the most reprehensible, “if (they) don’t love America, (they) can get out.” As though their ancestors weren’t forcibly dragged and kept here for hundreds of years, while many of ours migrated in the 150 years since the war to *end* slavery…

In an interview with USA Today, in which Baltimore Orioles CF Adam Jones was asked why any baseball players had yet to participate in a similar fashion, he said, “We already have two strikes against us… so you might as well not kick yourself out of the game. In football, you can’t kick them out. You need those players. In baseball, they don’t need us… Baseball is a white man’s sport.”

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Within two days, La Russa appeared on ESPN Radio and, when asked about Jones’ remarks, gave the following rebuttal:

When he says it’s a white, like elitist, kind of sport, I mean how much wronger can he be? We have tried so hard, the MLB, to expand the black athletes’ opportunity. We want the black athletes to pick not basketball or football, but want them to play baseball; they should play baseball. And we’re working to make that happen in the inner cities. We have a lot of Latin players. We have players from the Pacific Rim.

 

He also said the following regarding Kaepernick and his protest:

I was there in the Bay Area when he first was a star, a real star. I never once saw him do anything but promote himself. And all of a sudden now he’s a second-stringer and he’s got this mission … and I just don’t trust his sincerity. And even if he was sincere, there’s ways to express your belief in some of the issues that face blacks around this country without disrespecting the country you live in or the flag that it represents.

 

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To the points made in the latter comment:

  1. Perhaps, in light of the fact that he knew he would rankle at least a few of the men who pay the salaries, Kaepernick waited until he got his guaranteed contract, fearful that he could be blackballed from the league without much to show for his (admittedly brief) successes. Perhaps his girlfriend turned him on to the plight that many blacks in this country face. Who knows? One thing’s for sure: I doubt TLR is close enough with Kaep to question his sincerity.
  2. It seems (and even going back to Martin Luther King, Jr. and his public protests, as evidenced in his “Letter from a Birmingham jail“) that many white people don’t understand the need for such a public display. It’s not as though Kaepernick and others woke up one morning and decided they weren’t happy and somebody should do something. Rather, it’s because people have been speaking out for a long time on the matter, but nothing is getting done. Innocent blacks (and, for that matter, legitimate suspects who would rather face trial for their misdemeanors rather than be killed) are still dying at the hands of law enforcement. Terence Crutcher, for example.

And as to the former:

  1. As the USA Today article notes, 8% of MLB players are black; at their highest percentage, they comprised between 17 and 19% of all players during the mid-’70s and ’80s. It should be noted that, at the time of the 1980 census, approximately 11.7% of all Americans identified as black; in 2010, that figure was 12.6%, with an additional 2.9% identifying as two or more unspecified races. So while 8% today doesn’t seem that far off from the general population, considering that blacks comprise more than two-thirds of all players in the NFL, and nearly three-quarters of those in the NBA, that’s one indicator that Jones is on the right track by noting it’s far easier to conspire against blacks in baseball than in football.
  2. The notion regarding an increase in Latino and Asian players (approximately 27 & 2%, respectively) is a red herring. At the start of this season, Dusty Baker and Dave Roberts were the only black manager in baseball (one other minority). Only two black general managers at the same point in time–Dave Stewart in Arizona and Michael Hill in Miami–along with two other minorities. And guess what: no black owners (and only one minority, Arte Moreno of the Angels, to boot).
  3. TLR appears to be oversimplifying the problem with attracting inner-city kids. It’s not as simple as “find a cool black guy to be the face of baseball,” the way the NBA has LeBron James or Steph Curry, or “make the game more fast-paced and action-packed.” Generally, those who have the greatest potential in baseball as kids move on to elite travel teams, basically playing ball year-round in warm weather states. That requires a significant time and money commitment from parents that may already be strapped with the normal demands such as rent, food, utilities, and the like.

To this last point, MLB would be wise to discourage year-round participation in baseball for multiple reasons. For one, many kids suffer overuse injuries from which they’re unable to recover. Having 14 year old pitchers trying to hit 80 on the radar gun isn’t doing them any favors in the long run. By seeking to restrict play to within a team’s own metropolitan area for, say, four to six months of the year, that could help to grow the sport in urban areas. And perhaps big league teams could even pitch in a little extra cash from the ridiculous cable contracts they’re signing in recent years.

One final La Russa quote I’d like to comment on:

I would tell [a player that wanted to sit out the anthem to] sit inside the clubhouse. You’re not going to be out there representing our team and our organization by disrespecting the flag. No, sir, I would not allow it. … If you want to make your statement, you make it in the clubhouse, but not out there. You’re not going to show it that way publicly and disrespectfully.

Tony La Russa

I’m not so sure he thought that all the way through. If he chooses to boycott, it’s pretty easy for the player to explain why he missed the anthem, then it basically becomes the same issue as what we have now. So even though the statement is technically being made in the clubhouse, it’s also apparent on the field. I will give TLR some credit because he didn’t go full-Tortorella, but rather noted he would not bench anyone who opted to boycott the performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

In short, the vibe I get from La Russa’s comments is, “we’re not elitist because we’re trying.” But that doesn’t change the fact that Adam Jones made a valid point regarding the relative lack of clout black players possess in MLB, particularly with respect to their counterparts in the NFL and NBA. Ultimately, even if you despise Colin Kaepernick’s form of protest, or refuse to acknowledge the facts that he and others are highlighting, please at least recognize that he is exercising his first amendment right. Please stop throwing around meaningless platitudes about “support(ing) our troops” and “all lives matter.” And, most definitely, stop suggesting anyone whose protests and beliefs run counter to your own need to leave. In fact, perhaps you should. I hear North Korea is quite the haven for intolerance.

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