Walkouts proof MLB’s men in uniform are learning to listen

Chicago Cubs manager David Ross, a white man raised in northern Florida, struggled to compose himself when asked about Jason Heyward‘s plight as a Black man in America.

“I can’t even imagine what he’s going through,” Ross said, his voice quavering, before abruptly ending his video conference with MLB reporters Wednesday night. The following afternoon, Ron Roenicke, a white man who manages the Boston Red Sox, spoke at length about being moved to tears while listening to center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. and first-base coach Tom Goodwin recount personal experiences.

“It makes a big difference in our lives, and it should make a difference in everybody’s lives,” Roenicke said. “If you’re a kid and you turn on the TV tonight, and you don’t see that we’re playing, and you ask your parents, ‘Why aren’t the Red Sox playing?’ I hope the parents have a serious discussion with their kids and tell them what’s going on and explain what’s going on because we need to discuss these things more, we need to listen more, and that’s the only way that we’re gonna change.”

It was the most basic, fundamental request from the Black men and women who took a knee or marched the streets or turned to any platform with the hope of raising awareness about the social injustice that still pervades this country.

Listen!

Listen to the root of the issues rather than actively search for ways to diminish the cause. Listen to those who spend their lives fearing any encounter with those sworn to protect them. Listen to those who have been made to feel like second-class citizens based on the color of their skin. Listen — even if their struggles are not yours.

And so, if there’s any positivity to be extrapolated from this turbulent time, perhaps we can find some of it in, of all places, Major League Baseball, a predominantly white industry that, over these past couple of nights, has started to show us that people might be capable of sympathizing with others and the issues that don’t directly impact them. We saw it in how emotional Ross and Roenicke got in talking about their Black players. We saw it in the way Clayton Kershaw took the lead so that Mookie Betts wouldn’t sit out alone. We saw it in how Anthony Rizzo lashed out. We saw it in how Rhys Hoskins and Josh Harrison came together.

The response from major league teams in the wake of Jacob Blake’s shooting has been clumsy and disjointed, but it has also been remarkable. A famously conservative sport that is mostly Caucasian postponed 10 games in two days to show solidarity with Black Lives Matter. And that doesn’t happen if white players and coaches aren’t finally listening — truly listening — to their Black counterparts.

Former major league outfielder Torii Hunter, notably outspoken about the racism he experienced throughout his playing career, wrote the following in a text message: “When the people who have always been quiet about the racial issues or injustices we’ve been having in this country to stay in good graces with their family and friends start to speak up and lift their voices to provoke change in all systems, then we are headed in the right direction.”

Kershaw, a white man who grew up in the suburbs of Dallas, now embodies the sentiment. The longtime ace of the Los Angeles Dodgers was spurred to action, like so many others, after watching a police officer bury his knee into George Floyd’s neck on May 25. Since then, Kershaw has gone out of his way to educate himself on the issues that continually plague people of color. He released a heartfelt social media message on Juneteenth, was at the forefront of a poignant video that included several white teammates and vowed to prioritize social justice in his philanthropy.

When Betts decided that he would not play in Wednesday’s game against the San Francisco Giants, Kershaw was among those who rallied around him. He has taken note of those criticizing his efforts but has remained steadfast in his beliefs.

“We’re just doing the right thing,” Kershaw said. “We’re supporting our Black players, we’re supporting the Black community and what they’re going through. If the roles were reversed and there was something that was really difficult for me or really difficult for one of my other teammates, I would hope that we would have the support of our full team. It’s as simple as that.”

Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto, a white Canadian, echoed similar sentiments in an op-ed piece that was published in the Cincinnati Enquirer on June 7, in which he wrote: “No longer will I be silent.” Eleven weeks later, Rizzo, also white, spoke passionately about a lack of support at the highest levels.

“S— doesn’t change, and it’s just the fact of the matter,” the Cubs’ first baseman said Wednesday. “Politicians really don’t give a f— about us.”

It’s a belief that might have indirectly motivated those who were previously silent. We saw it with white managers such as Gabe Kapler, Scott Servais, Joe Girardi, Craig Counsell and Rocco Baldelli delivering heartfelt messages in support of the movement. We saw it with Hoskins, who is white, and Harrison, who is Black, appearing side by side to talk about why the Philadelphia Phillies and the Washington Nationals would not play as scheduled.

“At the end of the day, it’s about humanity and respecting each other,” Harrison said. “Those are things that we tell our kids: Treat others how you want to be treated.”

None of this has been perfect, of course. Heyward, Dexter Fowler, Jack Flaherty and Matt Kemp were still alone in sitting out on Wednesday. Dominic Smith still knelt alone later that night. And the league office, seemingly more concerned with squeezing in as many games as possible through a pandemic, still lacks a cohesive plan.

But maybe a sport that has lagged behind on social issues is finally building momentum. Maybe, on the day MLB will commemorate Jackie Robinson’s momentous debut, we’re actually witnessing unity.

“Black people have been fighting this fight for centuries,” Dave Roberts, one of two African American managers, said. “For white brothers to come in and support the Black man in this game is much more powerful.”

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