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Beyond Jackie

How Dee Gordon is bringing back the black ballplayer

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

[Ed. note: Please welcome Matthew Roberson to Lookout Landing! Follow him on Twitter @mroberson22 where you can read his takes on baseball, the NBA, and being a 90s baby.]

In the midst of an electric Spring Training, in which he introduced himself to Mariner fans with a .303/.333/.545 slash line and a trio of home runs, Devaris “Dee” Gordon stood out for many reasons. His blazing speed, infectious smile, and surprising power made him a singular presence in Peoria. Unfortunately, something else also caused him to stick out.

As he said to Aaron Levine of Q13 Sports, “I’m the only black guy in camp. That speaks volumes.” The number of black players in MLB is dwindling - plummeting, in fact, to the point that having even one black player on the squad is more than a few other teams can say.

In this Spring Training chat, Gordon offered some ideas about the lack of African-American representation, stating that the equipment needed to play baseball “costs too much. Every bat costs $500. Gloves are $400. Everyone’s parents aren’t able to afford that. It’s my job to help any way possible.”

It’s impossible to know the tone, rhythm, and depth of this conversation, distilled into less than 280 characters. To be sure, it is an important, pressing, and sometimes heavy conversation to have. It is a conversation that can push the game forward. It is a conversation that carries weight. It is a conversation ostensibly about black people and baseball, but also a conversation largely about class, culture, and access.

While I certainly cannot pretend to know what it’s like to be on a big league roster, I know all too well the feeling of pulling up to a baseball practice, game, or tournament and being the only person of color. Being a black baseball player – much like being a black person – is a constant reminder that you are different. Switching over from an NBA or NFL game to an MLB game provides a stark contrast and allows for uncomfortable thoughts about baseball being a white man’s sport.

In 2016, Adam Jones straight up said that baseball is a white man’s sport, leading Tony La Russa to point out that he is wrong and further prove Jones’ point. Free tip for white front office grandpas born in the 1940s: explaining why baseball is in fact not an elitist sport works directly against your argument. Also, pointing to Latin American and Asian players and screaming DIVERSITY is completely missing the point.

Regardless of opinion, the fact remains that black MLB players are few and far between. Reports from last season indicate that black players make up roughly seven to eight percent of the league, and an alarmingly small percent of that group is pitchers.

When trying to identify the root of the problem, it’s hard to avoid falling into a weird chicken-and-egg situation. Are less black children playing baseball because they don’t see baseball players that look like them, or are there less black players because fewer black children are playing baseball? And, more importantly, why aren’t black children gravitating toward baseball like they are other sports?

As Dee Gordon alluded to, money is a major part of the issue. The youth travel ball circuit is insanely expensive, both in terms of dollars and time commitment. Cash-strapped parents are understandably hesitant about putting themselves in debt so their kid can learn to hit a curveball. As Andrew McCutchen said of his parents, “they didn’t have the option of skipping a shift to take me to a tournament over the weekend.”

But expenses are part of AAU basketball as well, a scene dominated by black children. Growing up with a fraction of the resources of their American contemporaries has not stopped Dominican players from populating the All-Star teams every year. The underlying issue may have more to do with baseball’s stubborn and infamous adherence to a bygone era.

Future MLB Commissioner Chris Rock lamented baseball for being stuck in the past, constantly romanticizing an era that was anything but romantic for the black community. While much of Rock’s speech was tongue-in-cheek, he hits several serious points about the decreasing rate of black interest in baseball. No major sport tries harder to suppress personality and expression than baseball, where a simple chest thump or even the slightest bat flip earns hitters a fastball to the rib cage and a permanent scarlet letter. Even more troubling is the pattern of gatekeepers hellbent on protecting the hallowed unwritten rules. It’s a group of self-appointed, self-righteous men who all seem cut from the same cloth (spot the similarities between Brian McCann, Bud Norris, Brian Dozier, and Madison Bumgarner).

As older white men continue wearing the fun police badge, Rock’s most poignant line of the whole spiel, “You lose black America, you lose young America,” rings even truer. For decades, black people have been the tastemakers of the nation, deciding what kinds of sports, music and slang are worthy of crossing over to mainstream admiration. Somewhere along the way, the black community decided that baseball was no longer part of that club. Despite strong arguments to the contrary, baseball has entered the dreaded zone of uncool.

Before we go any farther, it’s important to note that baseball does many things to expand the game to people of different backgrounds and upbringings. It is unquestionably a global game, capable of bridging gaps between Japan and Puerto Rico. The Dodgers are fresh off a season of vaporizing the National League, led by a manager of black and Japanese descent, and a Pakistani general manager born in Canada. The roster featured dudes from Cuba, Curaçao, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, and more. Baseball doesn’t have a problem captivating people from around the world; it has a problem captivating people in its own backyard.

Also, because I know how internet comments work, yes I am aware of David Price, Andrew McCutchen, Marcus Stroman, and other highly successful black men playing Major League Baseball. Yes, I am aware that Aaron Judge is half-black, just like Derek Jeter, arguably the most popular baseball player of this century. I know who Barry Bonds is. I know that Alvin Davis, aka Mr. Mariner, is a black man, and the franchise might not even still be in Seattle if not for Ken Griffey Jr. Making the “we have black players” argument is like denying climate change because it snows sometimes.

Digging baseball out of the sports sunken place is more about a culture shift than anything else. It will always be true that baseball requires a grip of equipment, while basketball and soccer simply call for a ball and a playing surface. Football, while very equipment-reliant, always seems to be flooded by charities and celebrities looking to keep kids off the dangerous streets in favor of a dangerous after school activity (what up, Coach Snoop). There’s a whole other conversation to be had there about toxic masculinity in the black community, where turning your body into a weapon is much more noble and heroic than opting for the relative safety of a baseball diamond.

There are several things that, in theory, could result in a black baseball revival. The continued work of RBI, Boys & Girls Club, and individual players’ organizations have the power to Make Baseball Cool AgainTM. It’s not so much about changing the fabric of the game itself; it’s about changing the players who comprise that fabric. If a black kid likes baseball, they like baseball. Limiting mound visits and pitching changes is not nearly as vital as making sure black people are a part of them.

Parents can be a part of this renaissance, too. I surely speak for thousands of baseball fans when I say that my love of the game was born out of my parents’ palpable love of the game. As hokey as it sounds, there are few things more pure than a parent and child playing catch, and nothing on the internet makes me instant cry as hard as this video does. Parents showing genuine interest and enthusiasm for the sport often breeds the same interest and enthusiasm in their kids.

Just having baseball parents doesn’t guarantee a baseball child, though, especially in African-American families. Take Dee Gordon, for example. His father Tom was a three-time All-Star who played 21 MLB seasons. Still, young Dee viewed the game as slow and boring, and didn’t see himself playing baseball. Read some of the stories after his PED suspension, calling him a villain, or dumb and entitled, and it’s easy to understand why black teenagers would shy away from the sport.

It’s easy and lazy and pessimistic to say that black people liking baseball again is a lost cause. It’s much more fun and inspiring to go the other way, though. I’d like to one day welcome a child into a world where black players once again make up a healthy percentage of MLB roster spots, and we no longer need to have this conversation about what it will take for that to happen.

That will be years from now. I am in no way prepared or qualified or intelligent enough to have a child anytime soon. For now, the march toward black representation is a bit stalled and in need of a jump start.

Maybe it will take another transcendent figure like Griffey. Maybe it’s already underway, thanks to players like Dee Gordon and his contagious charisma. It’s ambitious to think baseball can ever surpass football or basketball in terms of black popularity and participation. Baby steps are a good place to start. Those turn into toddler steps, and eventually they’re running, each day bringing bigger and more confident strides.

If my hypothetical child – who in no way is even close to being a remote possibility yet – dives headfirst into baseball like I did as a kid in the late-90s, I hope they can arrive for their first day of tee ball and see a team that reflects the world they live in. I want them to know that baseball is an everybody sport and play the game with a joy that only a child blind to society’s evils can do.

I want them to know that there is a path for them.