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.

Giants' Austin Slater has flexor strain, could be in lineup by weekend

Giants' Austin Slater has flexor strain, could be in lineup by weekend

The Giants got relatively good news from the tests taken on a young player who might be having a breakout season. 

Austin Slater has a right flexor strain that kept him out of the lineup for a second straight game, but manager Gabe Kapler said it's possible Slater will be able to DH sometime this weekend against the A's. 

Slater felt pain during Tuesday's game in Houston and had to sit Wednesday. He was able to take swings Friday and Kapler said that went well. 

"A flexor strain for a position player is less daunting, perhaps, than for a pitcher, because outfielders can monitor how often and how hard they throw," Kapler said. "They may have one or two throws an entire game. I think there are ways to allow flexors to come around for outfielders that you just couldn't do for pitchers."

Slater had an elbow sprain in 2018 but it happened the last week of the season, so there was no need for a timetable. The injury this time is poorly timed, as he has been one of the hotter hitters in the league, slugging three homers on the road trip and compiling numbers that are up there with Mike Yastrzemski and Donovan Solano, the two early-season stars for the Giants. Slater has a .444 on-base percentage and is slugging .632, and he's tied for the MLB lead with five stolen bases. 

[RELATED: Giants to have 10,000 cutouts in seats]

The Giants released a few other injury updates Friday. Sam Coonrod (lat strain) threw a 30-pitch bullpen session, which should put him pretty close to a return. Drew Smyly (finger sprain) is throwing on flat ground and will be re-examined this weekend. Jeff Samardzija (shoulder inflammation) is rehabbing San Francisco but has not been cleared to throw. Reyes Moronta (shoulder surgery) is throwing bullpen sessions at the alternate site in Sacramento. 

[BALK TALK: Listen to the latest episode]


Giants plan to add player names to back of home jerseys in 2021 season

Giants plan to add player names to back of home jerseys in 2021 season

The Giants can simultaneously be the most recognizable and the most anonymous team in the National League. 

If he wanted to, manager Gabe Kapler could send out a lineup that would have been normal way back in 2012: Brandon Belt at first, Brandon Crawford at short, Pablo Sandoval at third, and Hunter Pence in the outfield. Back in spring training, those four shared a clubhouse with Buster Posey, too. 

At the same time, the Giants often start groups that look more like the half of a split-squad that's headed out to Glendale for the late game of a spring training doubleheader. They used 64 players last year, a National League record, and a lot of them weren't even in town long enough for fans to learn their first name. 

[BALK TALK: Listen to the latest episode]

In a nod to that latter issue, the organization will make a significant change to the home jerseys next season. Team president and CEO Larry Baer told the San Francisco Chronicle's Bruce Jenkins that the organization decided earlier this summer to put player names on the backs of home jerseys.

"Part of it is the substantial roster turnover we've had, but it's also about the way people consume games now," Baer said. "You'd like to believe everybody's sitting down in front of the TV for three hours of Kruk & Kuip, but between social media, Twitter, highlights availability, a lot of people tune in for 20 minutes and then go do something else. The game's on the screen, but they aren't necessarily paying attention. If they're a casual fan, they don't want to have to figure out if that's Alex Dickerson or Mike Yastrzemski."

[RELATED: Battle of the Bay has extra meaning in shorter MLB season]

Teams are not allowed to change their jerseys during the season, so the new look won't go into effect until 2021. The current one is an homage to the team that arrived from San Francisco in 1958 and was a favorite of former owner Peter Magowan. 

It made more sense earlier this decade, but roster turnover has become a big part of the weekly routine at Oracle Park under new president Farhan Zaidi. There were a lot of misses, but that helped the Giants find Dickerson and Yastrzemski, two players who are key parts of this year's lineup and will have their long last names on their backs by this time next year.