Programming note: Watch "Race in America: A Candid Conversation" on NBC Sports Bay Area on Friday, July 3 at 8 p.m.
Ian Desmond has bigger things on his mind than playing professional baseball, yet he's not turning his back on the sport.
The Colorado Rockies outfielder announced Monday on Instagram that he won't play in MLB's shortened season amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Desmond instead will remain in Sarasota, Florida with his pregnant wife and four kids, working to get local youth baseball "back on track." The 34-year-old, who is biracial, said the fields he grew up playing on suffered from years of neglect, exemplifying baseball's inaccessibility reflective of societal inequality.
"Why can't we support teaching the game to all kids -- but especially those in underprivileged communities?'' Desmond wrote. "Why aren't accessible, affordable youth sports viewed as an essential opportunity to affect kids' development, as opposed to money-making propositions and recruiting chances? It's hard to wrap your head around it.''
Desmond is stepping away from MLB to do the kind of work that Dave Stewart is innately familiar with. Stewart, a former A's pitcher and current NBC Sports California analyst, has worked extensively to help children in underserved communities. The A's community service award is named for him as a result of that work.
Stewart, who is Black, believes Desmond is rising to the occasion in a way that this moment requires.
"I said, 'Man, this brother stepped up.' " Stewart said on "Race In America: A Candid Conversation," which airs Friday at 8 p.m. PT on NBC Sports Bay Area.
"It's the first thing I thought of. He stepped up, he stepped up big. He had things that obviously had been bothering him for a long period of time. He voiced the things that were bothering him, he voiced the things he thought needed to be addressed in baseball, but he also made baseball aware and the world aware that if I read it right, he's got a baby on the way, he's got children at home, I'd much rather be safe spending time with my family teaching these kids how to play the game. And in the meantime, baseball handle your business is the way I took it. Baseball, handle your business."
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Desmond said some of his formative memories occurred on the fields he's trying to revitalize, but they weren't all happy. He wrote that he "never felt fully immersed in Black culture" growing up with a white mother, but still identified as Black when asked because of the prejudice he experienced. Desmond recalled his high-school teammates chanting "White Power" before a game, and his eventual grade-school classmates needed to be told in a school-wide meeting that he was enrolling.
In the wake of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis police custody last month, Desmond felt he could be silent no longer. He pointed to MLB's distinct lack of Black owners, front-office executives and managers, noting that about 8 percent of players are African American while racist, homophobic and sexist jokes are all-too-normal in clubhouses and unwritten rules that aim to create conformity all-too-often stifle Black players from being themselves.
MLB has "a minority issue from the top down," Desmond wrote, and former A's pitcher Edwin Jackson said it was "empowering" to see his one-time teammate address it.
"That's something we love to see," said Jackson, who played with Desmond on the Washington Nationals in 2012. "That's something that is sad that we had to suppress those feelings for so long from being afraid to speak up. For him to be able to speak up now and not be afraid anymore, I love to see that. I love to see that, and I wish we could have that for more people. It's brave. It takes a lot to do, to express your feelings to the world about how you feel, it takes a lot to do that."
Jackson said he spoke with Desmond about the decision, and that it's very reflective of his former teammate's overriding feeling.
Desmond simply has had enough.
"He wants to express himself and show you his values, what he values and the order he has his values in," Jackson said. "His family comes before the game. His life comes before the game. It shows that he's put a lot of his emotions on the back burner because of baseball. He's tired of it, he's switching roles. He's putting his family first and he's putting himself first, beyond the sport that we play."