You know those annoying car commercials with Dwayne Wade? The commercial opens with some urban children sadly contemplating a dilapidated basketball hoop. Dwayne Wade rolls up in some SUV, unloads a brand new basketball hoop and a whole bunch of basketballs, flips the keys of the car to the hard-working-looking-urban-basketball-coach-guy, and then rides away on a bicycle. True story: they initially were going to do that commercial with Jose Reyes. In the beginning the soulful urban youth were going to be dejectedly contemplating the fact that they had nowhere at all to play baseball, and then Reyes drives up. He uses the SUV to drive to a series of meetings where he negotiates the purchase of several un-used lots and adjoining dilapidated houses and resolves some zoning issues; he then uses the SUV to drop off construction supplies and tear down a couple of buildings; and finally he unloads, from the SUV, enough baseballs, gloves, bats, caps, cleats, bases, steroids, catcher’s masks, and pitching coaches for a little league team, before turning the car over to the coach, and running away exuberantly (Jose Reyes needs no bicycle!). Unfortunately, they scraped it because they felt that the SUV got upstaged by the logistics of bringing baseball to the inner city (and because it had a running time just under Citizen Kane) and re-did the commercial with D-Wade instead.
Okay, so that’s actually not true at all, but my point is that it is basically hard as hell to play baseball in the inner city, particularly if you don’t have lots of money, as is occasionally the case of the inner city’s residents-- and I think that that is the sort of thing that informs the relative lack of African-Americans in baseball. Gary Sheffield, a former Yankee, currently DHing for the Detroit Tigers, disagrees and, in a recent interview said that there are fewer African-Americans in baseball because they are harder to “control” than Latino players. For one thing, I have it from no less of a source than Keith Hernandez (who is actually a white dude, and unbiased as a consequence) that Latino players are “fiery” and tend to be free, first-pitch swingers, and that doesn’t sound all that easy to control to me.
The racial situation in baseball is clearly awful—there is currently the lowest percentage of African-American’s in the league since the late eighties and several things, from the ‘the-lady-doth-protest-too-much’ celebration of Jackie Robinson’s anniversary, to the controversies surrounding Barry Bonds, speak to a lingering racial uneasiness within the sport; there is clearly room for dialog, and clearly frustrations and grievances on the part of African-American ballplayers that ought to be heard. What annoys me about Sheffield’s comments is that to blame this on the Latinos demanding less respect than African-Americans… I mean, come on Sheff, isn’t it DEPRESINGLY OBVIUS that that’s what the White Man would want you to do?
SYNCHRONISITY NOTE: While taking a technical-difficulty-enforced break from writing this post, I watched Fat City (1972) which is a completely good movie about small time boxers. Stacy Keach plays an alcoholic has-been trying to get back into the game, and an extremely young Jeff Bridges plays a kid who is sort of trying to break into the boxing world. Perhaps the strongest aspect of the film is the two coaches/trainers who oversee a gym and manage Bridges and Keach. The movie does an excellent job of portraying the relationship between these men and the boxing world: their vast knowledge about it and their passion for it; their anxious desire for greatness for their boxers, and the way that this prevents them from fully perceiving the humanity of the athletes. For them, the loves and demons of Bridges and Keach are merely obstacles obscuring one great goal. In one of the film’s best moments one of the trainers describes the potential that he sees in Bridges to his sleeping wife, while the two of them are sitting in bed: “He’s got a great reach, and a good pair of legs, and he’s white, you know? Real clean, good looking kid. I got nothing against coloreds, there’s just too many of them in the game. Anglos don’t want to pay to see two colored guys fight, they want to see a white guy fight.”