The news cycle has moved on, and the three teams advancing to the Championship Series and an impending Game 5 between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants should be the biggest stories in the Major League Baseball postseason. But for the past few days, I’ve found myself balancing my passion and my profession, ordering the emotions of a moment that alienated a swath of the baseball audience, including myself.
During Game 2 of the American League Division Series between the Houston Astros and Chicago White Sox, an on-air conversation between Jim Kaat and Buck Showalter entered territory that caused me to stop. In trying to explain the exceptional talent of White Sox infielder Yoan Moncada, Showalter, my former manager with the Texas Rangers, went from brilliant adjectives to Moncada’s courage through the eyes of the evaluators. This realm often leads us to objectification, which then leads to ownership. And that’s where Kaat stepped in. Then, in a cadence clearly meant to complement Moncada, Showalter asked, “Can we have one of those?” to which Kaat replied, “Get a 40-acre field full of them.”
From the beginning of the conversation, I had a bad feeling, but I didn’t see the joke coming. When he arrived, I felt like he was punching me in the face.
We could dive deep into history here, but, simply put, “40 acres” is a reference to a promise made during Reconstruction to grant “40 acres and a mule” to “African Americans now freed by acts of war. and the proclamation of the President of the United States. “
It was done while Abraham Lincoln was president and reversed into a political cycle after Andrew Johnson took office. It’s a very specific, very historic number, one that first brought hope – reparations for the devastation of war and slavery on blacks – but then, after an unfulfilled promise, unleashed Jim Crow terror in America.
Faced with this reference during a baseball game, I was caught in a pause, wondering how we touched on reparations for slavery during the SDLA while discussing the value of a Latino player. At least, he hoped, it was done without knowing it. For almost a week, I have struggled with whether I should say anything at all, whether the lessons of this are worth following on a public scale, or whether it is better to move on. I responded to my internal debate by deciding that I should at least give it a try.
As a black commentator on baseball, I have long experienced this dilemma. When you are a professional, but also represent a minority, you are in a difficult position. It’s not just about having to autopsy an awkward moment like this, and knowing that you’ll have to do it, whether in public or private, because you can never guarantee that someone else will speak on your behalf, given the risk involved. It is also because, as we do so often in everyday life, you have to consider “what ifs.”
When I’m on the air, these are the conversations I have with myself on a daily basis. During a broadcast, as easily as I can tell a story about defending Jason Heyward, I could share a story about how he has worked to help with issues that disproportionately impact blacks. But would that be taken as playing the “race card”? Being a politician? I have to weigh that, because people often confuse broadcasters who mention race with politics, in an attempt to diminish sincerity.
I often find other ways to participate because I believe in what we can learn from the intersection of sports and social issues: an opportunity that can elevate a game to something that can help us come together as people. This is not too much of a stretch, given that the game means more to us as fans than just what the scoreboard communicates.
So what if you were covering that game, with Showalter and Kaat, as a field reporter or second analyst? What would I have done? What would I have said? It’s an obligation strongly felt by the only black voice in any room, let alone during a baseball game, where you just hope to talk about baseball.
The way I see it, there are a few options in situations like this.
I could have answered indirectly. I could have hit the reply button and brought my issue to the offline producers, so I could go through the proper channels. From experience, I know that narrating a game is difficult. You have to talk for more than three hours and your brain is full of information. Data, analysis, interviews, insider information, whatever. And every once in a while, it just goes wrong, or you react with your mouth rather than your mind. You don’t have time to analyze the nuances of what someone has said without risking the same kind of general error. Easier on balls and strikes, not so much with the racial history.
Or it could have responded directly. I could have stepped in on live TV to express my dismay, even knowing how that could be taken. Would you be accusing an icon? Would it bring too much blackness and make a lot of people uncomfortable? After all, how do you approach it while upset, without going out in a certain way?
I know I would have felt compelled to address what was said. Through my own experiences in the game and on the booth, I have a unique understanding of what a comment like that can do.
I entered baseball when it was much more acceptable to talk about a player like cattle. After all, players are literally depreciating team assets. The scouts’ side is more cheeky when they talk about a player’s body type or height, arm, leverage, all the physical attributes they project onto their potential for success. We are horses, bulldogs or stallions.
These ambiguous compliments can hide where they can lead us, especially when targeting people who were truly property in our nation, who are still working to be included every day. At the polls, in housing policy, in education, in governance.
My other option, when answering in the air moment: I could have stayed silent. I could have internalized it. There is a tag on the transmission. You have to think carefully if you are going to contradict someone or call them, on Twitter or live during a game. It doesn’t have to be because of insensitive content; it could be a mistake in a decision or simply a mistake in the name of a player. The default is that you don’t. And if you do, do it carefully, smoothly, out of respect for your colleague.
So I wonder. Had he had the courage to step out of the booth in the middle of the game? Would I have been silent? Would my silence have helped the story die more than another presenter’s, because mine seems to excuse comments on behalf of all blacks, an unfair burden that assumes we are monolithic?
In this case and in so many others, the intention behind the statement is irrelevant. Kaat apologized for his “poor choice of words” four innings later, but by then, it seemed too late: You don’t have to be malicious to negatively impact someone. In the end, if the comment has made headlines, if it generated controversy, regardless of the agreed intention, there is a black man in the middle. In this case, it is someone who narrates games for a living, addressing hypotheticals and revising his many brushstrokes with racism for context. The pressure is often on blacks to bury their feelings and move on, for the greater good of the game, until we are left wondering if we are on the playing field.
But this is part of who I am. I am a color analyst of color who brings his experience and weaves it into this space. All analysts can contribute our personal stories around identity. They can be universal and educational, but they can also bring pain with that identity. We can let go of slavery or we can recognize its vestiges and how it still plays a role in our systems. Just last week, a school in Kansas City circulated a petition to bring back slavery, so I’m not talking about 1865.
When I was commenting on a Cubs game a couple of years ago, during a live show, a Chicago fan made a symbol behind my head in front of the camera. It could have been the circle game; it could have been a sign of white supremacy. After an investigation by the Cubs, that prompted an indefinite ban.
It was both, it was neither, but in the end, I was in the middle and had to address it. That prohibition does not change the fact that I have to take advantage of my experiences with racism throughout my life, that I have to educate on the speculation of what was meant even when I was not the one who meant it, that I have to being accused of playing a racial card on a hand I never dealt, which may not get credit as a black man so that I can patiently weigh the information and understand that racially-nuanced words, even inadvertently, require a painful internal reckoning, whether or not following an indictment.
We all need to be better and more aware, more educated about history so as not to make bad analogies. However, we also have to see how understanding is an evolutionary process and giving people the bandwidth to grow, including ourselves. I would certainly like to have the same courtesy.
But it is also important to understand that our words do not fall into a vacuum. On air, the millions of viewers who pay attention to each of our words make nuance and context difficult. That can be an additional burden on broadcasters, but it doesn’t make it any less true. It also means that we have a responsibility to understand the true impact of our words, and to realize that, if used flexibly, they can devastate not only the millions of diverse fans affected by what we say as commentators in each game, but also to a person in your industry who is 1,000 miles from the game you are commenting on who may see himself on stage next to you.
But understanding matters more.