“Worrying What the Flash Means”: How We Talk About Race in Baseball

Shortly after the seventh episode of Ken Burns’ Baseball introduces the legendary Willie Mays, the author George Will—who, in case you don’t know him from his day job, is a far cry from a bleeding-heart left-winger—says this:

You remember when he came up, people would say: what an instinctive player he is, what a natural ballplayer he is, what childlike enthusiasm. … We can hear, with our better trained ears, the racism in that. He was wonderfully gifted, yes… But no one got to the major leagues…on natural gifts, without an awful lot of refining work. Sure, he was a great instinctive ballplayer, but he was also a tremendously smart baseball player. … Hardest-working ballplayer you ever saw.

For a long time now, people—George Will!—have understood that racial bias doesn’t only do its work through the crude words and actions of John Rocker or Al Campanis (or Cap Anson or Luke Scott or Enos Slaughter or Colin Cowherd or Lenny Dykstra or Marge Schott or Ben Chapman or Larry Krueger or Calvin Griffith or Tony Bruno or…) but through language and assumptions that may be prejudiced in ways that aren’t always explicit, and often aren’t malicious or even conscious.

The extent to which you accept this is, I would think, highly predictive of how you’ll react to this piece. I’m resigned to the fact that I’ve already lost some people, here, and that others already have their guards up, waiting to read the sentence that will let them close this tab and move on to something less uncomfortable. I could swear a blood oath that I’m not about to label anyone a racist, that I’m not on a PC witch hunt, that I’m not calling for a truth-and-reconciliation commission to litigate every stray impolitic remark ever uttered about a Cardinals player, and for some, it still wouldn’t matter. There are those whose entire worldviews depend on denying the existence of all but the most brazen and incontrovertible forms of prejudice. There are those who prize sports fandom as pure escapism and resist the intrusion of the ugly business of the real world onto it if at all possible.

For these reasons and plenty of others, writing about issues of race, culture, personality, cognitive bias, and how all of these things interact within the game of baseball is difficult. (Talking about them 140 characters at a time on Twitter, as I’ve occasionally tried to do, is goddamned impossible.) That’s not a bad thing, necessarily; these are serious, complex issues that should be addressed thoughtfully and with plenty of room for nuance. But they’re also important, and I think this difficulty can prevent people from tackling them as often and as directly as they should. So here’s me trying.

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Major League Baseball has undergone a dramatic demographic transformation in the last 30 years. The number of white players has fallen (from 70 percent of the league in 1986 to 60 percent today), the number of African-American players has plummeted (from nearly 20 percent to eight percent), and the number of Latino players has soared (from 11 percent to just under 30 percent). This shift has been not just a matter of race but of nationality, too, with the percentage of players born outside the U.S. rising to around 28 percent from 17 percent as recently as 1995. For more than a decade now, players from the Dominican Republic alone have made up over ten percent of the league, and a wave of defections has resulted in a recent spike in the number of Cuban players as well, with a record 23 Cubans on opening-day rosters in 2016.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that this influx of mostly foreign-born Latino players, with its associated language barrier and clashing cultural norms, has led to some friction. Former MLB pitcher Dirk Hayhurst has written about the racial fault lines and resentment that can take root in modern clubhouses:

[W]e’d all been in major league locker rooms, seen how the Latino players occupied one side while the whites took the other. We’d seen how that chasm got wider when teams floundered. Seen how rarely the language barrier was broken save for a few choice swear words, and how annoyed the nations got when one challenged the other’s right to precious resources, like the locker room stereo. …

And for many freshly drafted whites, selfish and worried about who deserves to go forward, the thinking is that these new Latin teammates—the ones that can’t speak the language, write a check or read a physical evaluation form, but can effortlessly showboat on the ball field—don’t deserve it.

You can hear echoes of that attitude in comments made last year by Bud Norris, who in a seven-year MLB career has counted the likes of Jose Altuve, Carlos Lee, and Nelson Cruz as his teammates. “This is an American game,” he told USA Today’s Jorge L. Ortiz. “If you’re going to come into our country and make our American dollars, you need to respect a game that has been here for over a hundred years.” While the rise in the number of international players is something he professes to “appreciate,” that appreciation has its limits: “There are some players that have antics, that have done things over the years that we don’t necessarily agree with.”

Much of what goes on in major-league clubhouses is shrouded from public view. We’re left to rely on rare peeks behind the curtains like Hayhurst’s, scrutinize remarks like Norris’, and try to make sense of the few instances in which culture clashes manifest as visible on-field behavior.

It’s important to note, though, that while differences may exist between American and Latin American baseball cultures, the idea that Latino players are chiefly responsible for the “antics” Norris is talking about—bat flips, exuberant home run celebrations, etc.—is at best an oversimplification and probably just plain wrong. Tom Lawless was flipping bats before baseball’s modern demographic shifts had even really begun, and the face of the current moment’s informal campaign to “Make Baseball Fun Again” is Bryce Harper. When Bud Norris, of all people, gave up a walk-off homer last month, the player who executed a world-historically dope bat flip while shouting “Fuck yeah!” at his teammates in the dugout was Matt Adams.

It would certainly seem, then, that what is mostly a generational divide over behavioral norms is being repurposed, whether consciously or not, into a flashpoint in an ethno-nationalist backlash that’s not really about bat flips at all. And there’s some evidence to support that: the above quote from Norris, for example, comes from a USA Today analysis of five years’ worth of benches-clearing incidents, which found that “the main antagonists hailed from different ethnic backgrounds in 87% of the cases”—including all 16 such incidents during the 2015 season.

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The social sciences have studied the intersection between sports and race for decades, and even relatively recent findings have often been less than encouraging. Research suggests that athletes of color still tend to be underrepresented in coverage, and content analyses of print and broadcast sports media—industries still dominated by white men—have consistently found that the subtle perceptual biases that attended Willie Mays’ rise in the 1950s and that George Will could recognize in 1990 are alive and well today. Black players are more likely, according to a summary of almost a dozen different studies in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport, to be described as “‘natural’ athletes with great physical power than are white athletes,” who are “described more often in terms of intellect, perseverance and hard work than black athletes are.”

The vast majority of the existing literature on these subjects examines the divide between black and white athletes, which has long constituted the primary racial fault line in major American sports like football and basketball (and, of course, baseball until 1990 or so). Similar research with respect to Latino athletes is harder to come by, but it too finds evidence of biases that have not entirely ebbed since the days of pioneering Latino players like Minnie Minoso and Roberto Clemente. A qualitative study of seven years of sports magazine coverage by Andrea Geurin, a researcher and professor of sport management at NYU, found that foreign-born Latino players, in particular, were disproportionately “portrayed as having poor character, and…as lawbreakers or deviants,” and “framed similarly to U.S.-born Black athletes: achieving success because… [they were] naturally gifted as opposed to hard workers.”

Perhaps most notable is a 2012 study by Seth Amitin and (occasional Double Birds contributor) Adam Felder, Scorekeeping: Tracking Subconscious Racial Bias in Baseball Announcing. Hiring a team of coders to analyze a week’s worth of MLB telecasts, the study scrutinized the use of intangible descriptors, both positive (e.g. “hustle,” “scrappy,” “clutch”) and negative (“lazy,” “lackadaisical”), to determine whether players of color were less likely to be described positively even when controlling for performance. Just as Geurin did in her study of print coverage, Amitin and Felder found clear disparities between the portrayal of international Latino players and everyone else:

The analysis reveals that foreign-born players—the vast majority of whom are Latino—are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to receiving praise for intangibles. Latino players are almost 13 percent less likely to be praised for intangibles than their white counterparts. Announcers are nearly 14 percent more likely to praise a US/Canadian-born player for intangibles than they are their international counterparts. …

Players born in the US or Canada are 10 percent more likely to be praised for their effort. White players are 10 percent more likely to be praised for their character.

Indeed, it is not so much that announcers are unwilling to praise non-white players, but the terminology they use in so doing falls into a set of pre-defined “code words.” For example, if a player is described as being a “guy next door,” or “regular guy” there is a greater than 80 percent chance that player is white. If a player is described as “impatient” or “over-aggressive,” there is a greater than 50 percent chance that player is not white.

Findings like these shouldn’t really be all that surprising—not when an even larger and more robust body of social-psychological research has produced mountains of evidence that implicit bias remains a powerful force that still shapes the world we live in, even as malicious and overt racism has become rarer and far less socially acceptable. But they demonstrate that such biases can exist even in the meritocratic, hypernumerical realm of baseball, where in theory players can be judged against one another solely by objective measures of performance. The ugly business of the real world has a way of intruding whether we like it or not.

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The very nature of the international free-agent market seems to lend itself to a particular way of thinking about foreign-born Latino players. From the very first minutes of Carlos Martinez’s professional relationship with the Cardinals, as chronicled in Howard Megdal’s excellent The Cardinals Way, the young Puerto Plata native was being subjected to armchair psychoanalysis:

Matt Slater needed to go back to his bosses, to Mozeliak and DeWitt, and tell him how much money he thought the Cardinals should commit to Martínez, echoing Rodriguez’s enthusiasm. To a person, not just to an arm action.

“All of us, what we do is—we need to be careful with makeup and character,” Slater said. … So after the workout, Dyar and I went for, probably, a twenty- to thirty-minute walk with Carlos by ourselves around the outside of our complex. And [I remember] speaking with him in our broken Spanish and his very, very limited English at that time, trying to get to know him better. …

“So it was just—it was more of just trying to get his intentions. Because we did have questions. He was a very flashy kind of kid. And sometimes you worry what the flash means. So we need to really get down inside and get to know him better.”

Yes, American-born players who come to the league through the amateur draft are judged by teams on their character, too, but none of them are 16 years old—many are in their twenties—and none have ever had to prove their moral rectitude to a scout in a 20-minute conversation through the muddling filter of a cultural divide and language barrier.

You can trace Slater’s line of thinking regarding Martinez on that fateful day in the Dominican–“worry[ing] what the flash means”—throughout his entire career as a Cardinal. The early concerns about his “maturity” and “mental toughness.” The reputation that Bernie Miklasz once called out as a “portrayal of Martinez as some sort of hyperactive, temperamental, overgrown toddler.” The constant talk of his “emotions” on Cardinals telecasts, often from Al Hrabosky, whose demeanor in his playing days made the average toddler look like the bodhisattva. At 24, Martinez is an established big-leaguer and the team’s most reliable starter, but John Mozeliak hasn’t stopped publicly rebuking him for going out at night or “suggesting” that he tone down his hairstyle.

All of this appeared to come to a head last week, albeit in a way that everyone made sure to insist wasn’t a big deal. Some delicate reporting from ESPN’s Mark Saxon and the Post-Dispatch’s Derrick Goold provided us with the basic outline of a bit of clubhouse drama: a late arrival, a tattling teammate, and a few quotes from pitching coach Derek Lilliquist about “mindset” and “being able, mentally, to stay in that place every time,” and from Mike Matheny about “the kid side of him that has fun.”

Look—it’s not as if you can’t find justifications for concerns about Martinez’s maturity, if you go searching for them. He broke into the majors at 21 and had cemented his place in the rotation by 23, after all. There’s the matter of the NSFW Twitter favorites, and the sordid STD-related allegations in a civil suit filed by a Florida woman this year. But porn and some possible horndoggery don’t make him an outlier among major-leaguers—far from it—and along the way there have been the weird paternalistic lectures from Mozeliak and the even weirder complaints about selfies and tattoos. Contrast the treatment of Martinez with that of Shelby Miller, whose path to the majors included a suspension for an “altercation involving alcohol” and a public spat over his training regimen. Do you remember Miller ever being the target of even a fraction of the fretting over makeup and temperament that Martinez has been? I don’t.

Consider, for that matter, the case of Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia. There’s no doubt that Carpenter had the better career as a Cardinal—a 95-44 record with a 3.07 ERA against Garcia’s 62-40 at 3.44. (The gap does get narrower when looking at peripherals, and if you include Carp’s rough six-year stretch with the Blue Jays, Garcia has the superior career numbers.) But reflect for a moment on how each is perceived by Cardinals fans at large. Carpenter made only 125 starts in his first seven seasons as a Cardinal, and throughout his career was notorious for his demonstrative demeanor and on-field outbursts at opponents and teammates alike. Garcia’s injury struggles have been less severe than Carpenter’s, and to my eyes, at least, he’s always been a calm, reserved presence on the mound. How, exactly, was it decided that Carpenter should be held up as a paragon of mental toughness, while Garcia is a “headcase” unworthy of even being mentioned in the same breath? Are you sure that the gap in perception is wholly attributable to the gap in performance? I’m not.

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The absolute least constructive way to approach all of this is through the lens of: Is [writer] a racist for writing X? Is [tweeter] a racist for tweeting Y? Is Matheny a racist for making this comment or benching that player? Nothing adds less value to our understanding of these issues, and nothing ends all discussion of them quicker. That goes for people making such claims but also for those who immediately want to convert any mention of race into a conveniently reductive binary of racist or not-racist. Someone out there will read this whole thing (or, more likely, won’t) and respond to it in exactly this way.

It’s rare—Donald Sterling rare—that any reasonable person is going to feel they have enough evidence to conclude that a public figure meets the criteria for what most people consider “racist,” but if that’s where the conversation begins and ends, we’re letting our public figures, and ourselves, off the hook too easily.

It’s not slandering Matheny to note that sometimes, telling a player to turn down his music can be about more than just the music. It’s not defaming Mozeliak to point out that the policing of players’ grooming habits by sports teams has a long and pretty racist history. It’s not impugning the character of anyone at Fox Sports Midwest to say that greater on-air diversity would improve its telecasts. To suggest that fans, media, and team officials alike be aware of the stereotypes they may be reinforcing when labeling Martinez immature or Garcia a headcase or even Randal Grichuk scrappy, or consider whether the prevalence of such labels might exert a subtle influence on the way we think about them, is not to call anybody a bigot for saying those things.

And that’s really what I think a lot of this comes down to—awareness. I don’t know how to solve these problems; I’m not sure that every one of them can ever be fully solved. But the optimist in me believes that a simple willingness to notice them, a recognition of certain patterns of thought, an open mind about better, fairer ways to talk and write and tweet, could go a long way. So while I’m not telling you exactly what to think about all this, I’m definitely asking you to think about it.