That might seem a strange thing to write after the show of solidarity by the New York Mets and Miami Marlins, who took the field Thursday night at Citi Field, stood silent for 42 seconds — an homage to Jackie Robinson’s uniform number — and then walked off, refusing to play in the aftermath of Jacob Blake’s shooting by police in Wisconsin. Six other games were called off for the same reason: The players on individual teams discussed the weight of the moment and stepped aside.
Yet unlike in the NBA and the NHL — which wiped their schedules clean Thursday as the country grappled with Blake’s shooting, which followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, which followed four centuries of institutional racism that America cannot shake — Major League Baseball staged games in four cities Thursday. The night before, several individual players sat out, even as their teammates played on.
Of the locker rooms in the four major North American professional sports, baseball clubhouses are the most complex. They are home to players from a wider variety of backgrounds than any other — rich White kids from the suburbs whose parents can afford $100 aluminum bats side by side with kids who grew up on dirt floors in the Dominican Republic, kids from Middle America and Asia and everywhere in between.
The way that mix works, the way all of those diverse cultures form unified teams, is less by amplifying and celebrating the differences than by stripping away those qualities and focusing on the similarities. There may seem to be a lesson there, in these times, because we would all do well to find common ground even if two weeks of convention-watching might make it seem as if there is none.
But, really, how baseball clubhouses function is by asking — even demanding — that individuals conform. Conform to the expected way to carry yourself. Conform in the way you put down your bat after hitting a homer. Conform by taking a 3-0 pitch in a blowout. All because the generation before you did it that way, as did the generation before that, as did the generation before that. More than in any other sport, baseball frowns upon individuality — to its great detriment.
Now, though, individual voices must be heard, and that challenges baseball more than any other major sport. Friday was Jackie Robinson Day in MLB, a time designated to reflect on what it meant to break the sport’s color barrier 73 years ago, three years before the NBA welcomed a Black player. That was an era when baseball might have even seemed progressive.
In 2020, that territory is ceded to the NBA, which is bolstered by powerful Black voices among its players, stars who can drive both conversation and policy and have significant influence on front offices and the public. When the Milwaukee Bucks, the team geographically closest to the Kenosha, Wis., site of Blake’s shooting, decided they were not going to play Wednesday, the league — sequestered in a bubble outside Orlando because of the novel coronavirus pandemic — led sports into a historic week of public protest.
Baseball’s response was more piecemeal and less emphatic, which doesn’t mean there weren’t poignant moments. Dominic Smith of the Mets sobbed in a video conference call with reporters as he described his fears as a Black man in America. The Mets and Marlins left a “Black Lives Matter” shirt on home plate when they vacated the field Thursday. St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty, who is of mixed race, spoke passionately about his desire to stop talking and start doing.
Even that can be difficult within baseball’s structure. Flaherty joined teammate Dexter Fowler, a prominent Black voice in baseball, in sitting out St. Louis’s game Wednesday — a symbolic gesture because he wasn’t scheduled to pitch. But at 24, with just more than two years of big league service time, speaking out isn’t encouraged.
“It’s hard for the young guys,” Flaherty said in a nearly 30-minute Zoom call with reporters Thursday. “… What is us sitting out going to do, just a bunch of young guys still trying to make our way in this league? … Are we going to put our voices out there like that, or are we going to play the game?”
Think about the criticism young stars such as Fernando Tatis Jr. and Juan Soto, both 21, have faced over flipping their bats or gawking at their home runs. Think about how, even now, some in the sport want to pack the game’s greatest attractions into cookie-cutter boxes.
Now cast that tendency — to create robots rather than human beings — against the idea of speaking out about the issues our society faces. Given how a major league clubhouse operates, individual players could worry that voicing support for the Black Lives Matter movement is a way of separating themselves from the team.
MLB is aware of the perils of falling too far behind where the country is, but until now we have thought about that primarily in terms of the machinations of the game — how long it takes to play, how much time there is between pitches, whether there’s enough action to hold the notoriously short attention spans of young people.
In the current environment, baseball faces a different kind of decision: Does it want to help lead the national conversation and truly embrace social justice issues in a thoughtful way? As important and effective as the protests by individual players and teams have been, they have come a la carte, and therefore they more easily slip from the mind when the games return.
Given the diversity inherent in major league clubhouses, the variety of voices needed to have a meaningful discussion is already on hand. Will baseball allow those voices to break from the sport’s ingrained conformity — and be amplified? Let’s hope so. We are learning that sports aren’t the distraction we thought they would be during the pandemic. And because of that, we need them to change and meet the times rather than conform and be left behind.