How Black MLB players are confined by baseball's conservative culture

How Black MLB players are confined by baseball's conservative culture

Programming note: Watch "Race in America: A Candid Conversation" on NBC Sports Bay Area on Friday, July 3 at 8 p.m.

Limited to 750 highly skilled men, it’s one of the best jobs in the world. There is no 8-to-5 grind, no heavy lifting and the setting is mostly outdoors. The paycheck is plush, the lifestyle splendid.

A small percentage of those within the Major League Baseball labor force, however, operate under a strict code of conduct and, therefore, must be precise with every step, ruminate over every word and, perhaps above all, conceal joy.

The Black ballplayer exists in a constricted box. And the man who dares to step outside that box risks being upbraided, downgraded and maybe even lacerated.

“I’ve felt like that ever since I’ve stepped into the game,” Giants outfielder Jaylin Davis said. “You look around and don’t see anyone that looks like you. You automatically feel like that. I feel like we have to work harder. For sure.

“Yeah, sometimes you can’t really be yourself, you have to be this model that they set, and you have to go by it.”

[RACE IN AMERICA: Listen to the latest episode]

Davis was a member of a panel featuring four-time 20-game winner Dave Stewart and free-agent pitcher Edwin Jackson in the latest episode of NBC Sports Bay Area’s “Race in America: A Candid Conversation,” scheduled for Friday at 8 p.m. As African Americans, all three have experienced life in the box.

Davis realizes his career sits on a thin line. At 26, he hopes to someday achieve the status that might grant him the right of expression. Meanwhile, he feels marginalized by his skin color.

Dr. Richard Lapchick, founder and director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, first took on the task of being a watchdog on race and gender in MLB in 1991. In the three decades since his first annual report card, which revealed MLB rosters were 19 percent Black, the ranks have diminished. In his last Racial and Gender Report Card, the percentage was 8.4 -- and that was an increase over the 7.7 percent posted in the previous report.

For every 16 white players and seven Latino players, there are two Black players -- 40 percent of what there once were. Being a member of a vanishing breed brings a psychological burden.

Whenever someone, in any profession, realizes they represent a rare demographic, many of their emotions are internalized.

“It’s frustrating to sit back and not be able to speak your mind, about a fact of being Black and American,” Jackson said. “Because of how it might affect our job, when everyone else has the freedom of speech to go ahead and speak their mind however they want to. How when we say it, it’s coming from a bad place and is frowned upon. That’s the part of the game that makes you pissed off that you can’t speak your mind when it’s coming from the heart.”

Rickey Henderson, the gold-standard leadoff hitter and surely among the top 10 players in history, was criticized for a number of things, most of which fall under the category of vanity. He entered the Hall of Fame on the first ballot despite 28 voters thinking him unworthy. Chipper Jones, a great player but hardly at Rickey’s level, went in with a higher percentage of votes.

Henderson’s career paralleled the tail end of the golden era of Black players, when most teams had four or five or more; the Pittsburgh Pirates became the first team to start nine players of color in 1971. Rickey played beyond the box. So did Willie Mays, Reggie Jackson and Ken Griffey Jr., to name three.

The lone current Black player who crosses the line, Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson, already has picked up a “reputation” for self-promotion one that might be inhibiting if not for the fact that he led both leagues in batting last season.

Everybody else? Pretty much staying in that box, concerned that not doing so might jeopardize his career. A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell strayed far from the box in 2017, dropping to one knee during the national anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality. He’s now playing in Mexico. And still getting threats from “fans.”

“I just think that the condition that the Black players play under today, we always have something in the back of our minds that if I do something, that is out of the system. If I say something, that is out of the system,” Stewart said. “I’m going to lose my job and going to lose the ability to play this game, and I’m going to lose the ability to have the earnings to take care of my family and my family’s family.

“Because we’re at a point now in this game where, two or three good contracts and you make a legacy for your whole family. So, I think that’s what took place with Bruce. This sport has not been tolerant of change. It has not been tolerant of militancy, or freedom of speech or a Black man saying what he thinks.”

[RELATED: Desmond 'stepped up big' by stepping away, Stewart says]

Might this change with the sudden racial awakening in previously unaware or unconcerned corners of America? Perhaps.

But baseball is the most conservative of our three major sports. It’s difficult to imagine dramatic progress when 100 percent of the CEOs and 87 percent of the general managers are white.

Put another way, seven decades after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, the Black ballplayer does not feel fully emancipated. Indeed, he heads to the ballpark each day acutely aware of the diminishing numbers, believing repression is a requirement of survival.

Warriors would gain little partaking in NBA's proposed 'second bubble'

Warriors would gain little partaking in NBA's proposed 'second bubble'

Insofar as the Warriors run a fairly democratic operation, with each player having a voice and the core veterans operating as advisers to head coach Steve Kerr, an invitation to become part of a proposed but not approved second NBA “bubble” presents a dilemma.

If mandated by the NBA, they’ll go, whether it’s Chicago or Las Vegas or another site. That the vets – Steph Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson -- would not be expected to play makes the team’s participation cursory, if not downright pointless.

Yet general manager Bob Myers recently said the Warriors would be “team players” and, in the end, do whatever is best for the league.

“You have to take a step back and say, ‘We’re going to be good partners,’” he said in a phone conversation. “We’re going to do what’s best for the league in a difficult environment.”

Understand, the Warriors don’t want to be there -- and why should they? Their 2019-20 season is over, and there is no definitive start date for 2020-2021. They’d be scrimmaging, at potentially increased risk of the coronavirus (COVID-19), with the crew that absorbed most of the minutes last season.

[RUNNIN' PLAYS PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

Which brings us to their real desire. They want to gather as a group before the next training camp, currently penciled in for November. Kerr told me a few weeks ago that he “wouldn’t mind” getting his team together for what amounts to a minicamp in the middle of an offseason extended by the pandemic.

Coaches want it, and so do the players. They all would like the experience of playing with each other, which didn’t exist last season. Thompson missed the entire season, and Curry played four games, only one with Andrew Wiggins, who came over in a February trade.

Ideally, that would occur at Chase Center, which has opened for individual activities with attendance limitations but remains suspended for full team activities.

[RELATED: Why these 10 big men could fit Warriors in free agency]

Should the day come when the current restrictions are relaxed, expect the Warriors to identify a week to get everyone inside. Get Thompson on the floor with Wiggins and others, scrimmaging together for the first time. Evaluate how Curry and Green have responded to the long layoff.

That would be productive, as well as their first blowout activity since early March.

Going into a second bubble, with a stripped-down squad, confined to a hotel for a week or two, is something the Warriors are willing to do. Willing, but hardly eager and barely engaged.

Warriors trade targets: Five options using trade exception, No. 1 pick

Warriors trade targets: Five options using trade exception, No. 1 pick

The Warriors have by all accounts decided to make the most of the years remaining on the contracts of Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. Translation: Even with all three into their 30s, they remain focused on the immediate.

Ideally, though, they’ll spend the next four months addressing both the present and the future.

Which means it is likely that general manager Bob Myers and his lieutenants -- holding a top-five pick in the Oct. 16 NBA draft -- will make at least one trade over the next three-plus months.

The Warriors will need to be creative, which they have been. They also must be financially flexible, which they definitely are, according to league sources.

Assessing the needs of the Warriors, we identify five players that qualify as attractive targets worthy of considering through a trade that would have to involve their $17.18 million trade exception (with an Oct. 24 deadline) and/or their first-round pick.

Click to see five Warriors trade targets