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‘The moment we’re in’: United as baseball champions, Boston Red Sox are divided by Trump

President Trump congratulated the Boston Red Sox for their 2018 MLB World Series win at the White House on May 9. (Video: The Washington Post)
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BALTIMORE — It was an iconic baseball celebration: Boston Red Sox catcher Christian Vázquez leaping into the arms of pitcher Chris Sale after the final out of the World Series last fall, teammates in perfect unison.

But on Thursday, the star players were far apart. Sale was at the White House, where the 2018 champions were honored by President Trump. Vázquez was home in Boston, one of at least 10 players, all Latino or African American, who elected not to attend.

“It’s personal, bro,” Vázquez, who is from Bayamon, Puerto Rico, said in a brief interview before a game against the Baltimore Orioles here Wednesday. Of the more than a dozen players who attended, only one — outfielder J.D. Martinez, who is of Cuban descent — is a minority. Manager Alex Cora, who is from Puerto Rico, also was absent.

“Everybody has personal opinions,” Vázquez said. “I don’t like to talk about those thoughts.”

The Red Sox have sought to play down the split, but the cleaving of the team along racial lines has symbolized an era in which Trump — who has sown and exploited deep divisions in American society — has forced the nation to confront fundamental questions of identity. What had once been feel-good ceremonies at the White House have become pitched moments of cultural reckoning.

From famous sports heroes to lesser-known Olympians to the stars of the performing arts, the toxicity of the Trump era has led once apolitical entertainers to pick a side, and, in doing so, render a judgment on the president himself.

“It really shows the divide and the place we’re in in our country,” said retired figure skater Adam Rippon, who won bronze at the Winter Olympics last year but did not participate in Team USA’s visit to the White House. On Twitter, Rippon, who is gay, declared he would “not stand with” an administration he said is willing to “discriminate against those that they perceive as different.”

In an interview this week, Rippon said the racial split among the Red Sox is more evidence that minorities are “excluded” from Trump’s governing agenda and feel compelled to take a stand.

“It’s amazing to win the World Series and go the White House, and it’s incredible,” he said. “But the flip side of that is I feel as an athlete you have this incredible platform and you have a choice to be that role model for your younger self.”

A White House spokeswoman declined to comment and instead referred to Trump’s public comments. At the South Lawn ceremony, Trump regaled the players and coaches and promised to give them a tour of the Lincoln Bedroom. He recounted Sale’s clutch performance in the clinching World Series game but made no mention of Vázquez or Cora.

In brief remarks, Sale called the visit a “very high honor,” and Martinez said it was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” thanking Trump for his hospitality.

On rare occasions, athletes boycotted White House visits under previous presidents for political reasons. But Trump has directly and eagerly engaged the dissenters, aggravating the disputes and fanning racial and social tensions.

Entire teams, such as the University of Virginia men’s basketball squad this month, have declined invitations, while the White House has not extended offers to some women’s teams, including two Women’s National Basketball Association champions, which have typically been on the list.

Trump angrily rescinded invitations to the Golden State Warriors in 2017 and the Philadelphia Eagles last year after black players announced publicly they would not come.

“I have never, ever, ever voiced my opinions that way before, because I’m not a political person,” said Carmen de Lavallade, 88, a black Creole actress, dancer and choreographer, who was among the first to spurn Trump.

In August 2017, she announced she would not attend a traditional White House reception for performers honored annually by the Kennedy Center. That prompted Trump and the first lady to respond by skipping the awards event.

“It’s like he opened Pandora’s box,” said de Lavallade, who had performed for President Lyndon B. Johnson. She cited Trump’s equivocations in denouncing the marchers in a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville for prompting her decision.

Some black athletes have visited the Trump White House, most prominently golfer Tiger Woods, a business partner of Trump’s to whom the president awarded the Medal of Freedom this week.

But the highly publicized snubs have raised the stakes for others. In January, Trump treated the Clemson University football team to a spread of fast food in the East Room during the partial government shutdown.

More than 70 players showed up, but 42 of the team’s 57 African American players did not, according to a report in the Root, which said players cited Trump’s “divisive politics” and “racism” as reasons they decided not to attend.

In an interview Wednesday, Red Sox President Sam Kennedy said the organization decided after winning the 2004 World Series that it would adopt an “apolitical” position and accept invitations to the White House based on respect for the institution. Most players showed up in 2005 and 2008 to meet President George W. Bush and in 2014 to meet President Barack Obama.

Amid the controversy this year, the players have said they respect one another’s decisions and called it a private matter.

But Cora has been outspoken that it would be inappropriate for him to visit the White House when his native Puerto Rico is still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Maria, which led to more than 3,000 deaths on the island two years ago.

The sentiment has been interpreted as an implicit rebuke of Trump, who has angrily rejected criticism of his administration’s response to the disaster. The president has blamed local officials for poor management and vastly inflated the amount of federal aid money that has been dispensed to the island. A broader disaster relief package has been stalled in Congress, with Trump opposing a Democratic push for more money for Puerto Rico.

Cora has been dogged by questions, and he said before the game Wednesday that he was done addressing the matter. The players “know how I feel,” he told reporters. “We just put it to rest.”

While current Red Sox players have played down or tried to avoid discussing any tensions over the White House visit, former star player David Ortiz this week said he supported those skipping the event and condemned Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants.

“You don’t want to go and shake hands with a guy who is treating immigrants like [expletive], because I’m an immigrant,” Ortiz, who was born in the Dominican Republic, told radio station WEEI earlier this week.

The discomfort in the clubhouse was apparent after the team’s 2-1 victory Wednesday when a Red Sox staffer blocked a Washington Post reporter from reentering the clubhouse with other journalists, saying no more questions about the White House would be permitted.

In Boston, the racial division has threatened to erode some of the good feeling from last year and serve as a reminder of the team’s troubled history with segregation. The Red Sox were the last major league franchise to desegregate, in 1959, under their longtime owner Tom Yawkey.

Kennedy noted that the organization has taken a stand on some sensitive cultural issues, including successfully petitioning a city commission to rename a roadway near Fenway Park from Yawkey Way to Jersey Street.

“I’ve talked to a lot of players,” said Kennedy, who attended along with Red Sox owner John Henry. “It’s important to let the guys know that we respect and support their individual decisions.”

Still, it is hard to miss the symbolism that the team split apart after Wednesday night’s game and players took different flights home to Boston, said Dianne Pinderhughes, a professor of political science and Africana studies at the University of Notre Dame, who focuses on race, gender and politics.

“It’s an unintended consequence in the way in which the team is dividing,” she said. “It leads to sensitive outcomes.”

In the clubhouse Wednesday, some players sat at their lockers absorbed on their cellphones, and others huddled around a television to watch another game.

At times, players drifted into small groups. Four white players began a card game, while Vázquez and Eduardo Rodriguez, a Venezuelan native who also did not visit the White House, conversed in Spanish.

Though he declined to discuss his decision, Vázquez, like Cora, expressed pain over the slow recovery of Puerto Rico, where he said some of his relatives lost power and had the roofs blown off their homes. Members of the team, including white and Latino players, visited the U.S. territory last year, once on a relief mission to deliver supplies and again after the World Series for a parade in Cora’s honor.

Asked whether his decision would affect how he is viewed by the public, Vázquez responded: “It’s tough. . . . The kids see us every day on the TV no matter what happens, if I go or not. It’s nothing personal. I’m ‘bueno’ in my home, with Puerto Rico.

“We need help to get back to the beautiful Puerto Rico we had before,” he said. “That’s all we ask.”

Across the room, Mitch Moreland, a first baseman from Amory, Miss., arrived at his locker sporting American flag shorts — a gift, he said, from teammate Andrew Benintendi, of Cincinnati. Moreland called the White House visit “very special.”

“Everybody’s got their choice. We respect each other,” Moreland said. Of his own decision, he offered a patriotic response: “I was born in America, and I’m probably going to be buried here, so I’m excited about the opportunity.”

Pitcher David Price, of Murfreesboro, Tenn., was digging into a newspaper crossword puzzle in front of his locker. Price, who is black, had caused an uproar earlier in the week when he retweeted to his 1.8 million followers a Boston sportswriter’s observation that the racial divide on the team means only the “white Sox” were visiting the White House. Price later clarified that he found the tweet insensitive and was seeking to admonish the writer.

Of the fraught politics, Price said: “That’s just the moment we’re in.” But he said he respected those teammates who are going: “Absolutely. That’s America — right? Right?”

Price declined to explain his decision and said he was not monitoring public reaction. But he appeared acutely aware of the nuances of the debate. Overhearing a reporter tell another player the Golden State Warriors had turned down a visit with Trump, Price felt compelled to interject.

“The invitation got rescinded,” he said with emphasis. “Make sure you say that.”