Thursday, March 11, 2010

Torii Hunter Plays the Race Card


If you don't know him very well, let me clue you in on Torii Hunter. He is the centerfielder for the Los Angeles Angels in Major League Baseball. He is one of the most outgoing, engaging, personable players that I have ever seen interviewed in the game. Oh, and he is African-American.

That last part normally wouldn't matter a hill of beans to me. By the time that I was growing up in the 1970's, the civil rights battles fought over the previous few decades had left me a sporting landscape to accept as normal and to view and enjoy as a young fan that included players of every race, ethnic background, and nationality.

But in an interview conducted a few weeks ago and released by USA Today on Wednesday as part of a series on the state of baseball today, Hunter revealed a lack of his own understanding on racial issues that is surprising considering his obvious intelligence and his usually keen insight.

In Part III of what is a 5-part ongoing series of articles this week titled "Efforts to develop black talent in USA insufficient", Hunter opines that the public looks out at black faces playing in the game and incorrectly assumes that they are African-American when in fact they are Latino players. In his words "They're not us, they're imposters."

Hunter then goes on to attempt to make his point by referencing a particular star player. Speaking of his former star teammate Vlad Guerrero, Hunter states "Is he a black player? I say "Come on, he's Dominican. He's not black."

Folks, on this particular issue, Torii Hunter is simply wrong in his thinking and view point. Have you ever seen Vlad Guerrero? The man's skin color is as dark as the night sky. There is nothing at all wrong with that, of course. But let's not trivialize this discussion by pointing out who is and is not 'black' when the issue is obvious.

Would Torii Hunter then accept an argument, following along with his line of thinking, that I am not 'white', but that I am Irish because the majority of my familial heritage is from that country? You mean to tell me that Dominicans can't also be black? Does Hunter even know what 'race' is?

But it's not just that Hunter makes one slight off-the-cuff remark that might be blown out of proportion. He goes on to explain in detail that he, and in his words the majority of African-American players, believe that baseball intentionally tries to use Latino players as an "imitator and pass them off as us."

"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." In making comments such as this, and in actually thinking like this, Torii Hunter and any other player or fan who cares about the game who buys into this line of thinking is only doing the genuine issue a disservice.

The genuine issue is an apparent dearth of African-American players at the Major League level in today's game. It has been noted by everyone involved in the game, from baseball writers to fans to team management to the Commissioner's office that the percentage of African-American players has been in steady decline since the 1970's.

When I was growing up, I was able to enjoy a large number of outstanding African-American players. Joe Morgan, Willie Stargell, Vida Blue, Fergie Jenkins, Lee Smith, Bill Madlock, Billy Williams, Dusty Baker, Gary Matthews, Dick Allen, George Foster, Dave Parker and many more. Heck, I was even lucky enough to get to watch Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, and Willie McCovey play, albeit at the tail end of their lengthy careers.

But to look around today, you almost need a microscope to find an African-American player on your home team active roster in most towns. Here in Philadelphia, we have been blessed with a rarity in having two starting, star-caliber African-American players in the lineup for the past few seasons in Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins.

When the Major Leagues first overcame the 'color barrier' with the arrival of Jackie Robinson, a wave of ex-Negro Leaguers and emerging African-American talent swelled their representative ranks to the point where, by 1983, a little more than 1 in every 4 Major Leaguers was African-American. By 2006, that number had slipped from more than 25% to just 8.4% of players at the highest level.

Now that is certainly a number that, on it's face, would seem to indicate that something alarming has taken place. But has it really? Is Torii Hunter correct in his belief that baseball has a prejudice against African-American players? Hardly, and any fair examination of the issue would reveal that the problem is not as bad as it seems.

First of all, let's see where those jobs have gone. A small percentage have gone to Asian players. The fact is that there was almost no Asian presence in Major League Baseball 2-3 decades ago and earlier. Today with the opening and expanding of international competition, approximately 2.5% of players are of Asian racial origins.

The actual percentage of 'white' players has stayed pretty much the same, even gone down slightly. The majority of the jobs lost to African-American players have gone to ethnically Latino players. But while Hunter's accusation is that Major League Baseball has gone for the Latino players from other nations "because you can get them cheaper", the fact is that is simply not the case.

In South American nations such as those he highlights in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic as well as in other Caribbean nations such as Cuba and Puerto Rico, baseball is king and it is played year round. Kids are born and raised on baseball diamonds of the genuine and makeshift variety. They talk, eat, and dream baseball. And again, they play it all year long thanks to the continuous warm weather.

Here in America it is a fact that among the vast majority of African-American youth, baseball is a distant third to basketball and football in popularity. In his commentary, Hunter states "Why should I get this kid from the South Side of Chicago and have (agent) Scott Boras represent him, and pay him $5 million when you can get a Dominican guy for a bag of chips?"

Well, Torii, for one thing, you can't find that kid from the South Side of Chicago playing baseball. Not for the most part. He is running the basketball courts indoors for the 9 months out of the year that Chicago is experiencing it's non-baseball friendly cold weather. The rare player that is talented enough and is interested enough in the game to be good enough to attract pro baseball attention does attract that attention.

Black Americans make up approximately 13% of the population in our country today. If you want everything to be exactly proportional to race, then you need to increase the Major League Baseball talent level of their numbers by just a few percentage points. That is hardly alarming when one considers that white players of any ethnic background make up just about 30% of NBA players and an even lower percentage of NFL players.

There is no rule, and it should not be expected, that every single sport is going to have an exact proportional number of players to the overall population. There are tons of factors, from the better weather in the Caribbean to cultural traditions here in America to expanded scouting in those places and in places such as Japan and Korea that the African-American population in MLB has dropped.

Baseball has not ignored this drop in numbers, however. In fact, it has specifically targeted the African-American community with it's founding of the RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner-cities) program, a program that it markets aggressively in it's television advertising.

Just last year, The Institute For Diversity And Ethics In Sport released a report titled "The 2009 Racial and Gender Report Card: Major League Baseball" in which it gave MLB a grade of 'A' for 'Race' and 'B' for 'Gender' as categories. The report noted that in 2009 the African-American player percentage increased for the first time since 1995.

The IDES report also stated that MLB began the 2009 season with 10 'managers of color' at the helm of their on-field operations. The report stated that, led by Commissioner Bud Selig's efforts, "MLB continues to have an outstanding record for Diversity Initiatives which include the third annual Civil Rights Game, Jackie Robinson Day and Roberto Clemente Day.”

The statistics do not lie. The percentage of African-American players in MLB is admittedly down over the past few decades. But people like Torii Hunter who resort to typical race-baiting comments whenever there is any appearance that black Americans might be getting slighted in some way do nothing but harm.

In fact, Torii Hunter and every single major African-American today who wants to see their racial population increase in the game would be better served in not pointing fingers elsewhere, but instead in getting out there on a regular basis in their community, directly inspiring with their presence and investing in that effort with a portion of the tens of millions of dollars that they are earning.

Major League Baseball and every other professional sport have one responsibility. That is to put the best, most entertaining product on the field, court, pitch, rink, or diamond that it possibly can. To suggest that any of them would ignore a source of potential talent is ludicrous. But then it has always been easier to point ones finger at others than to roll up your own sleeves and get to work, or to write your own check.

Sorry, Torii Hunter. You're a good guy, and you're usually a great ambassador for the sport of baseball. But this time you're simply wrong. Leave the race-baiting comments to the Al Sharpton's of the country, and get yourself and your fellow African-American players more directly involved in an organized, aggressive way within your communities if you want to have a real, positive impact.

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