This entry is not as much about baseball as about culture and how baseball mirrors problems within the culture. I once had a friend who played in the Major Leagues for five seasons tell me that baseball, with its various social and personal problems, is no better and no worse than culture in general. It tends to present a large stage upon which we can see a reflection of our popular culture in general. I agree with this analysis.
A famous and talented baseball player named Gary Sheffield, who plays for the Detroit Tigers, recently did an interview for GQ Magazine. Gary has a long history of making outrageous statements and attracting lots of attention. He seems, off and on, to simmer with anger below the surface. A few years ago Gary openly declared himself to be a Christian, along with his wife who is a gospel singer. He has played for four or five teams over his career, including the Atlanta Braves. When Sheff was a young player he admits to fielding a ball at third base and throwing it into the stands on purpose. He did this in order to show up his own team and manager. Many of us have never forgotten that amazing act which helps to destroy the value of the game itself. It reveals a lot about a young and troubled man and sometimes one wonders how much Sheffield has grown up since then.
In the GQ interview Sheffield noted that MLB finds it easier to handle Latino baseball players than African-American players because it is easier to "control them." He now says that he doesn’t understand why this statement was seen as derogatory. Baseball once had a large number of African-American players but the percentage has now dropped to only 8.4%, while 29.4% of MLB’s players are Latino.
In Sheffield’s comments post GQ he adds, "I said this a long time ago, this is a baseball issue. If they want to change it, they can change it. When you see a black face on TV and they start talking, English comes out. That’s what I said. I ain’t taking a shot at them or nothing. I’m just telling it like it is." In the GQ interview Sheffield said this is about being able "to tell Latin players what to do, about being able to control them." He added, "Where I come from you can’t control us." In the interview he gave this week he also added, "They have more to lose than we do. You can send them back across the island. You can’t send us back. We’re already here." Sheffield chastised MLB for doing more to recruit playes from outside the United States than to get African-American kids from the inner city.
What is involved here is the ongoing tension that exists in this culture about race. Sadly, many African-American leaders feed the perceptions thats like millionaire Gary Sheffield portray. For them the real blame lies with MLB in the grand scheme of things. The facts, however, are otherwise. African-American kids are not playing baseball like they once did. There are several reasons for this but basketball and football are the way out of poverty for many, at least as they see it in their role-models. But baseball is the "king" of sports in some Latin cultures, except where soccer rules in South America since it is the world’s number one game. In the islands Latino kids play baseball from sun-up to sun-down. Further, baseball has become a huge international sport now. There are many Asians who play the game as well, now more than ever.
Sheffield’s comments are not overtly racist. They are just the standard line you often here from some in the African-American community who still believe the solution to the problems we face are found in blaming structures like baseball. But organized baseball long ago proved it would and could break the color barrier. I grew up a white kid in the South and Hank Aaron was my hero!
There is a long history of racism in early baseball, as there is in our culture itself, but Sheffield needs to look in the mirror twice when he refers to African-American players as not being willing to be "controlled." I think it is far more likely that the breakdown of values in the black inner city sets up kids to fail when it comes to learning to listen to people of different races give them instructions. You cannot play a team sport well unless you are willing to listen and learn from all kinds of people. Because baseball takes years to perfect this means learning and listening and making a lot of mistakes before you finally make it to the big show. This takes both perseverance and the willingness to learn. This is not a race issue, it is a socio-economic values issue. Latino kids are much poorer but they do have major role models to follow. They also have stronger family structures in their background. Further, they are not influenced in the same way by historical racism. It is a shame really that Gary Sheffield doesn’t take his money and opinions to the inner city and teach kids the values they need to really succeed. Since he says he is a Christian I am surprised he didn’t say more about these solutions than play "the race card" in such a shameful way. I blame those who have influenced him and wish that he would be more creative in offering real solutions. Giving out standard line opinions does not help change the situation at all.