El Profe: Dealing with Baseball’s Multicultural Present and Future

Baseball, we have a problem. You took a teaching moment for everyone — players, teams, fans and Major League Baseball itself — and turned it into a one-and-done disciplinary action.

Instead of grappling with the cultural differences inside a growing global game, you slapped the player’s wrist, gave him a convenient five-game suspension starting next season and asked everyone to focus instead on Game 4 of the World Series.

In so doing, the seriousness with which MLB interpreted Yulieski “Yuli” Gurriel’s actions was diluted by letting him play in the World Series.

The Houston Astros first baseman offended with his actions early in Game 3 on Friday when, after hitting a home run off the Dodgers’ Japanese starter, Yu Darvish, he sat in the dugout, pulled back the corners of his eyes and appeared to mouth the word chinito.

Clearly, Gurriel’s actions are unacceptable. Darvish took offense; that more than clears the bar.

Manfred didn’t mince words before Game 4, saying, “There is no excuse or explanation that makes that type of behavior acceptable.”

History is written by those who control the narrative. Punishment is handed out by those who hold the gavel.

In this instance, discipline delayed is a message mixed.

That mixed message matters now in a 21st century game in which players increasingly arrive from different countries across the globe. It will also matter when we reflect back on this moment through a historical lens.

The commissioner sets the tone for all of MLB on the diversity front. Given the incidents of this past season, there remains work to do in educating teams, players and fans about cultural diversity and acceptance.

Moving Forward

The response from Darvish offers a way forward for all involved in this incident.

“No one is perfect. That includes you and I,” Darvish said in a tweet following the incident.

“What he [Gurriel] had done today isn’t right, but I believe we should put our effort into learning rather than accuse him. If we can take something from this, that is a giant step for mankind.”

How does baseball fulfill Darvish’s recommendation about focusing our effort on learning rather than on a single player’s offense?

Surely, this requires updating the cultural sensitivity training that MLB offers.

In Latino circles, the incident prompted difficult conversations about race and culture in Latin America and how they translate to life in the United States. Discussions of cultural practices and of language — for example, about the translation of chinito, and who gets to determine whether it is a racial slur — is but one part of the reality of life as a Latino in the United States.

It is learning about such matters, about empathy in how one’s actions affect others in a multicultural and diverse setting, that Darvish challenges us all to pursue.

MLB is more diverse than ever when it comes to the composition of its players. Interestingly, the 2017 season marked the 50th consecutive season in which Latinos represent at least 10 percent of MLB players. In fact, Latinos have eclipsed the 30 percent mark, opening this year’s campaign at 31.9 percent of major league players, according to the 2017 Racial and Gender Report Card, an annual study released by Richard Lapchick and The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.

And while much attention has been placed on the lack of Latino managers — only one, Rick Rentería (Chicago White Sox), until the recent hiring of Álex Cora (Boston) and Dave Martínez (Washington) — similar attention needs to be given to Latino representation at the highest levels across all the divisions and properties of MLB.

“We need somebody to represent us who knows what goes on in the Latin-American countries,’” Felipe Aloú declared in his 1963 Sport article “Latin American Players Need a Bill of Rights.”

More than 50 years later, it is puzzling that MLB lacks a prominent Latino figure on its diversity initiatives who is as readily identifiable as Tyrone Brooks is with the Breakthrough Series or Billy Bean is as its Ambassador of Inclusion on LGBTQ matters.

Lessons to be Learned

Today, Latinos are entering from more Latin American countries than ever before, each with particular cultural practices and levels of familiarity with U.S. societal norms and expectations.

Much of what Aloú raised about the challenges involved in becoming acculturated to living in the States remains true for Latino players entering MLB.

Aloú’s words emphasized the need for preparation, noting that “it is not only the American public that does not understand the life of a Latin ballplayer in America. The Latin ballplayer who wants to come to America does not know what is in store for him.”

This issue is even more significant for Cuban defectors in the 21th century.

Two years into MLB mandating Spanish-language translators, we are left to wonder what aspects of cultural sensitivity training deals with these kinds of matters when cultures from across the global come together in MLB.

We inquired with different teams and, although no one was willing to go on the record, to our understanding this particular lesson about how race works in America has not yet been covered with Latin American players — not even on the Dodgers, a team whose manager, Dave Roberts, is African-American and Japanese and whose front office reflects the racial and cultural diversity of Southern California and its fans, including having a Japanese-American public relations manager.

Preparation works both ways. It requires that all players learn about cultural differences and racial sensitivity, and adapting. It also necessitates that MLB, as it continues to expand its global reach in terms of talent pool and audience, also becomes more skilled in matters of cultural difference and cultivates more direct participation from Latino voices and specialists.

This is a matter that affects every Latino participant in baseball. Concern about the lack of representation, of not being a direct participant in important conversations, is part of what Felipe Aloú hoped baseball would address in his 1963 article.

Gurriel’s actions are a teaching moment for all. It’s not too late to learn from it.

Featured Image: Christian Petersen / Getty Images Sport