It’s often been said that, one day in the distant future, when we look back at what made “America” what it was, three things will be presented: jazz, the Constitution, and baseball.
The underlying thread that connects all three? It’s the one thing no one ever wants to talk about. Race.
It’s not as obvious as it used to be, with slurs shouted from the grandstands or the dugouts of opposing teams. A player of color can travel with his club, stay in the same hotels, drink from the same fountains, even share the same team showers without the fears that gripped his parents or grandparents. This is thanks to the work of Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente, and others who blazed the trail for black and brown players and showed them how to not just take the field, but celebrate who they were at the same time.
Now, though, the racism is much more subtle. Now it takes the form of demands (almost always from white players and coaches) to adhere to an unwritten code of conduct, usually learned on well-groomed fields in the suburbs of American cities. This code is reinforced in expensive travel clubs and in exclusive training sessions by coaches and parents who embrace old mantras like “doing things old school,” or “playing the game the right way.” It is a far cry from the rock-strewn infields and overgrown outfields of the Dominican Republic, or the rusty bleachers of Puerto Rico, where the game is just as much about survival as it is about stature. It is clear though, once players make the professional ranks, which set of rules prevail. One side has written the roadmap of conduct, and the other can’t even read the language it’s written in.
This, ideally, is where the manager—the glue that holds it all together, the captain of the ship—comes in. His guidance can shape the lives of these young men through their most formidable years, and help guide them through the trials and tribulations of dedicating their lives to a game built on failure.
It’s in these times of failure that guidance is key for young players. They’ve been groomed since puberty to play this game, and for a time, they fail at it. Guidance is proven to be more effective (not just in baseball but in life) if the mentor can actually relate to one’s experiences. This is where a manager who knows the struggles of playing in a foreign country could offer the sort of advice shaped only by those experiences. Unfortunately, current management doesn’t reflect that notion:
As the player pool has become increasingly diverse, representation in management has continued to be a struggle. Since 2000, the number of managers born outside of the continental U.S. has remained alarmingly out of balance. This is true even as MLB executives have come to lean on players from foreign countries as a source of cheap, controllable talent. These players persistently make waves in the player pool, which continues to bring the game its cutting edge stars like Ronald Acuña Jr., Francisco Lindor, Javy Báez and more. Additionally, despite a declining population of Black players, an increased racial awareness among players has amplified the voices of Tim Anderson, Jason Heyward, and others who work to advance equality on the field.
There’s still work to be done in the dugout, though, and it shows. Even if you overlook birthplace, the spectrum of field managers remains decidedly monochromatic:
In this century, 139 managers have been hired by Major League ballclubs. More than three quarters have been white. Even as we stare down the 2020 manager list, 22 of the 28 currently filled positions comprise white men. There are two current openings between the Red Sox and White Sox, and one pending opening if Lloyd McClendon isn’t granted the full time job in Detroit (spoiler alert: they’ve interviewed Phil Nevin, who is, you guessed it, white).
The danger that this management status quo flirts with is best exemplified by contrasting the waning of the Black population—to single-digit percentages—with the growing presence of Latino players in the game.
Black players have had to scratch and claw to get any sort of representation, or even olive branch, from the baseball community at large. Rather than continue waiting, they are gravitating towards other sports that have clearly found ways to make their games more accepting. They see templates for continued promotion within sports like basketball and football. They see coaches and managers of color. In rare cases, ownership is someone other than a white man (this is hardly a ringing endorsement: as of 2017, the NFL boasted only two owners of color. And in the NBA, Michael Jordan remains the only black majority-owner of an NBA team. Grant Hill and Shaquille O’Neal have minority stakes in teams).
It was one of Jackie Robinson’s final wishes to see black management in the game of baseball. And here we are, nearly 50 years after his death. Our progress has been … marginal.
As to how to fix it, this should be easy. Just give players their due opportunities. Many of the white players hired to be managers played alongside Latino players who were just as qualified, but, for “one reason or another,” never got the chance. Sadly, the track record of the game is lacking in its ability to deliver such straightforward results. Instead it keeps going to the same well, as demonstrated by the shortsighted and ridiculous talk of bringing back Tony La Russa, with his rather “conservative” views on society at large, to manage the emerging White Sox—a team helmed by Tim Anderson, Luis Robert, and Yoan Moncada, all dynamic young players of color. It’s clearly not a good fit, which is not to degrade La Russa’s career on the field. But one can’t help but wonder: what mentorship can someone really offer whose best eras were before most of these players were born? Is there really NO ONE else?!
Spoiler alert: There is. There always is.