On opening day for Major Leagues Baseball’s 2017 season, there is still hope for the sport that was once considered America’s pastime. Facing multiple rival sports, baseball is again seeking to reunite with its past glory, with the focus on future players and young fans, with some help from veterans who played the game, it should be played. Baseball has always had an advantage over other sports since Opening Day comes at exactly the right time. Football season begins just as school and work begin to ramp up after a lazy summer. Basketball and hockey begin as winter rolls in; they only offer a small escape from the treacherous winter weather, Christmas rush, icy roads, and days without sunshine.
However, Baseball’s Opening Day comes at the perfect time, especially as the days begin to stretch out and coats get buried in the back of the closet. On top of that, the dreams of summer vacation and days at the swimming pool begin to feel real. Only a small group of people walk through the great halls of Cooperstown in the winter, but as the weather improves more and more they begin to come. Some come to see the plaques of the all-time greats, while others enjoy the integral spirit of baseball’s greatness.
Further, many people make the trip to upstate New York to be immersed in the unique language of baseball after a long winter without the game. Most the language that was used in baseball ceases to make sense now. Baseball used to be played with actual clubs, players got together in the clubhouse, smoked cigars, talked business, and focused on spending time outside of the workforce. Baseball players weren’t always fully groomed athletes, some had large guts, others couldn’t run the bases with fervor, but most used baseball as an escape from the terrors of factory work. Today, players dress in a locker room and they pitch the ball overhand instead of under, unlike the early days of baseball in the 1850s. Pitchers are also split into several categories including starters, relief pitchers, and closers. Although the language of baseball is continually changing the sport itself has remained relatively constant since its inception. There are at least ten players on the field at one time but the sport itself has grown into something more, it is bigger than just hitting, pitching, fielding, and practicing.
Baseball, unlike football, basketball, and hockey is indeed more than just a sport. Its designation as a pastime hints at its essential conservatism as an activity of a vanished civilization where leisure was valued with human creativity. With regards to leisure, baseball best mirrors the condition of freedom that all Americans strive to be a part of. That all came to a head when Jackie Robinson began to break down the color barrier in 1947. When Robinson first started playing on the same field as whites he did not receive a standing ovation for his efforts. He was often ridiculed by opposing teams as well as his own teammates but he continually fought for equality with his elegance on the field and tough minded attitude. Over the course of his first two seasons with the Dodgers Robinson stayed in hotels with whites, ate at their restaurants, America took a giant leap away from its troubled past. Baseball became integrated a year before the military and nearly 17 years before the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964. However, Robinson’s breakthrough into the Major Leagues was a dreadfully slow process. While Robinson could play at the Major-League level many other stars such as Josh Gibson and Oscar Charles were denied entry during their careers. This dual-segregated system provided an opportunity for talented players from both races to showcase their skills in a “separate but equal” setting. Just like the strategic thinking of Martin Luther King Jr., someone needed to step up to integrate professional baseball to prolong its future. Branch Rickey took the reins on this escapade and he signed Jackie Robinson not simply because it was the morally correct thing to do, but Robinson made the Dodgers a better ball club. In his first year with the team he lead team to the National League pennant and won Rookie of the Year honors. While Robinson’s movement drastically changed the political environment of the sport in the late 1940s, baseball has yet to have a single protest during the political turmoil of 2017. Although 2017 is a new era both politically and socially, Robinson created a template for future generations to follow. Today, with the advent of social media speaking out against important issues is as important as ever and MLB players must use their platform to create change. Baseball players can no longer hide behind the confines of a stadium, they must speak out by creating simple tweets, a Facebook post, or even a comment at a press conference. Change is needed now, especially with the protests going on at many high schools around the country.
Today, when entire high school sports teams are waging silent protests by kneeling on the sideline during the national anthem, there has yet to be a single baseball player stand up for what they believe in. There is a reason for that, according to USA Today African Americans comprise 68% of the player population in the NFL and a whopping 74% in the NBA. However, in baseball that number is just 8%, with only 69 African Americans on opening-day rosters and disabled lists this season. The low percentage of African Americans in the MLB is a culmination of several issues that are directly related to pay-for-play youth baseball leagues. Over the past 15 years pay-for-play youth baseball has grown immensely with families who are willing to pay coaches. It has become a standard for parents of “elite” kids to pay up for travel leagues that play up to 130 games per season. This theory is based on the more you pay, the farther you travel, the better you become. Simply put, baseball in America has become a sport for the rich. While this may be the case the African Americans in the MLB face problems of their own, especially with racial issues at hand.
Despite the drastically low population of African Americans in baseball, change is needed throughout the sport to create a dialogue between players, fans, and front office managers for current political issues. This doesn’t mean that anyone who comes out and protests racial inequality, immigration, or politics in general will be banished from baseball entirely. Still, baseball is a conservative sport where players play in front fans from across the country over a dreary 162 game schedule. On top of that, baseball players play in front of more fans than any other sport throughout the course of the season and they constantly face ridicule around every corner.
While baseball players face a tough road to engage in politics there are some who have decided to stand up for what they believe in. Adam Jones, an outfielder for the Baltimore Orioles, is one of the most outspoken African American players in baseball and he constantly emphasizes with the injustices that minorities face every day. He is continually reminded of the incidents of police brutality in his own city that have unfairly targeted minorities. He was also an important voice for the city in the aftermath of the protests that followed the death in police custody of Freddy Gray, which forced the Orioles to play a 2015 game in an empty stadium.
Jones would like to see change in his community, as well as many others across America, but he stands at attention during the national anthem just like everyone else before games. However, shortly following the Kaepernick protest Jones stated that the MLB is a “white man’s game,” and got the conversation started. The fact is that the First Amendment gives everyone the chance to express themselves in any way that they see fit. However, African American baseball players face a lot of challenges when they want to speak out against social injustices in American society today. Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia even called it “awkward” for any of baseball’s relatively few African American players to speak out.
Sabathia isn’t the only one who feels that the lack of African American representation in the sport drastically changes their behavior on social issues. Chicago outfielder Jason Heyward, who supports Adam Jones, also chimed in on the situation by stating that,” you don’t want to give anybody any extra reason to take something away from you that you worked hard for, and that’s why so many people are not going to protest in this sport” (Wittenmyer). Heyward makes a valid point that players who speak out in a sport that has not changed drastically over the past 150 years are subject to repercussions. Heyward, who supported the peaceful efforts of Colin Kaepernick is no stranger to political issues. Over the course of his career he has been part of town hall forums and he and teammate Dexter Fowler have been active in education efforts in their community back in Atlanta. Despite Heyward’s comments, he isn’t the only Chicago Cub to embrace the importance of political activism in tactical ways.
Theo Epstein, the Cubs team president respects Adam Jones in the highest regards and he is also an advocate for the social issues at hand. He also explained that,” sometimes it takes words like that to get everyone’s attention and get them to focus on some of the inequities in the world,” and the sports industry. Epstein is one of very few team presidents that embraces freedom and equality throughout his organization. He wants his players to speak out on what they believe in even if criticism is waiting for them on the horizon. Epstein’s believes that player’s experiences and perspectives matter and they will make the organization stronger. Players in the clubhouse are also on the same page.
Jake Arrieta, a starting pitcher for the Chicago Cubs, is on the same page as Adam Jones and he wants honesty from players when they speak out about social issues. He also exclaimed that,” if we speak our mind we get criticized in a negative way from it,” which is true for all athletes. Colin Kaepernick could not hide from criticisms from the media, the NFL, and more importantly his peers. However, he started the conversation on racial injustices and he was one of very few people who wanted to speak out on what he believed to be true. Heyward explained activism in sport the best: “In history some of the greatest people, whatever their ethnicity, they’re the ones that weren’t afraid to speak up. They’re the ones that weren’t afraid to be wrong. A.J. wasn’t afraid to be wrong,” with his comments on the state of the MLB.
We are now in a time where social injustices, racism, and protests are a norm and people are slowly opening their eyes to issues we continue to have in our society. African American athletes in baseball must also join the conversation about social injustices by following Adam Jones. It only takes one player to speak out and start a conversation with the rest of society about the issues at hand. Yes, there will always be a fear of backlash from society, especially with the imminent growth of social media but change is needed. African American players have more power than they know, they are leaders in their communities and they must continue to speak their mind. Adam Jones has started the conversation on social injustice in baseball, but who will follow him?