Dave Stewart

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.

How Ian Desmond 'stepped up big' by stepping away from 2020 MLB season

How Ian Desmond 'stepped up big' by stepping away from 2020 MLB season

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."

[RACE IN AMERICA: Listen to the latest episode]

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."

[RELATED: Colin Kaepernick, Nate Boyer helped enact real change with discussion]

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."

1989 Bay Bridge World Series earthquake: Oral history of the moment, aftermath

1989 Bay Bridge World Series earthquake: Oral history of the moment, aftermath

Editor's Note: This story originally was published on Oct. 17, 2019. Watch Games 1 through 4 of the 1989 World Series between the Giants and A's this week at 8 p.m. on NBC Sports California and streaming here, beginning Monday and wrapping up Thursday.

Technology has changed the way baseball is played and watched, but the sport remains committed to its traditions, and in the minutes leading up to the first pitch of the World Series, the routine always has been the same.

Both teams line up on the foul lines, and every player is introduced, whether he's a star or a journeyman reliever, the ace of the staff or a rookie who didn't even make the final 25-man roster. All coaches are announced, along with trainers and members of the clubhouse staff. It's a special moment that takes place in both stadiums.

Exactly three decades ago, at 5:04 p.m. on Oct. 17, the Giants and A’s were spread throughout Candlestick Park, preparing for their second round of introductions. They were stretching and chatting and getting ready for the cameras when they were interrupted by a moment this region never will forget.

The magnitude-6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake struck 31 minutes before Game 3 of the 1989 World Series, devastating the Bay Area, bringing two rival fan bases together for a more important cause and leaving the rest of the Fall Classic in doubt.

As the 30th anniversary of the Bay Bridge Series approached, both franchises celebrated that season’s accomplishments, and players from both sides looked back at the moment that a World Series became part of something so much bigger …

Minute of impact

The earthquake was centered about 60 miles from Candlestick Park, with the heaviest shaking taking place in the Santa Cruz Mountains and lasting around 15 seconds. The earthquake claimed 63 lives and resulted in more than 3,700 injuries, with heavy damage throughout the Bay Area.

Many of those playing in the World Series either had grown up around earthquakes or spent enough time in the Bay Area to become familiar, but they knew right away that this one was different. Three decades later, the sights and sounds of that moment still are crystal clear to the men who were preparing for Game 3.

A’s closer Dennis Eckersley: “I was in the bathroom combing my hair, because it’s almost introduction time. The bathroom is pretty close to the exit, as it turns out. I was combing my hair, and it sounded like a train was coming through the door. It was unbelievable, the screech of all the iron in the stadium. I knew what was happening. Auxiliary lights came on, and I said, ‘Earthquake!’ and I was out the door. I’m from the Bay Area, so I know what earthquakes are, but this was ridiculous.”

Giants pitcher Atlee Hammaker: “I was in the clubhouse talking to Bob Knepper and Dave Dravecky. We felt the rumbling, and I thought, ‘What in the world is that?’ Bob goes, ‘It’s an earthquake. Get outside.’ We ran out into the players’ parking lot, where they had the hospitality tent out there. We saw the asphalt rolling like carpet, and we knew it was bad.”

Giants pitcher Dave Dravecky: “It was like a freight train was literally coming through the doors of the clubhouse. We stood up and just raced out into the parking lot area.”

Giants pitcher Mike Krukow: “I was right behind the plate. I had walked out of the dugout and was looking up at the stands behind home plate to see if my wife and family had gotten into their seats. I had kind of a unique view in that I’m looking into the stands. The backstop at Candlestick was self-supporting — it was the smallest backstop and most rigid because it didn’t have any support stands — and that thing never moved. You hit a foul ball, and it would bounce off and go halfway back into the infield. I’m looking up, and I feel this thing under my feet, like it was a 600-pound gopher going under my feet. That’s what it felt like. I got into an athletic position to try to keep my balance, and it didn’t go away. I looked up and saw the backstop, and it was swaying 7 or 8 feet."

Giants first baseman Will Clark: “I was running a sprint in center field because it was right before introductions. I was walking back toward the first base line, and I heard a roar. You think it’s like the F-15 flying above. I looked up, and the light towers are going back and forth, and you’re like, ‘Oh god, this ain’t good.’ About that time, the wave came through the stadium.”

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Giants closer Craig Lefferts: “I was in the clubhouse on the phone talking to Chili Davis as he was driving into the stadium. Inside the stadium, we’re underground, so when the electricity went out, it went pitch black. It was crazy. The earthquake almost took me to the ground. Chili told me that he went from the right lane to the far left lane and then got off the road.”

Giants outfielder Kevin Mitchell: “I was in right field running sprints and talking to Tony Phillips. I knew something had happened because I could see the TVs blinking off and on. They were playing that [Queen] song, ‘We Will Rock You,’ and I thought the fans were stomping.”

Giants infielder Robby Thompson: “It kind of went silent. Once it stopped, the fans started singing ‘We Will Rock You.’ All of a sudden, that stopped. There were radios and small televisions, and all of a sudden, the news started coming out. There was just kind of silence in the stands, and it was like, ‘Uh oh, something bad must have happened.’ “

Giants infielder Matt Williams: “I was sitting on the bench and noticed something. I didn’t know exactly what it was, and then I heard the crowd start to rumble and start to break out in ‘We Will Rock You.’ I stepped out of the dugout and looked up and noticed that there was dust falling from the upper deck.”

Hammaker: “All we thought about was our families in the stands. Did the stands hold up? We ran back through the tunnel and through the double doors and came into the stands, and they were all good.”

Williams: “The immediate concern at that point was safety. Everybody’s got their families there, of course, and making sure that they had safe passage down to the field. The police came out on the field. The power was out. It was still bright, but the power had gone out to all the light standards. We had police come on the field in their cars, and we were able to hear the scanners about what was going on in the city. I knew it was something greater than just a tremor at the ballpark and loss of power at the ballpark.”

Clark: “Once things sort of calmed down, I was able to get back to the dugout. By that time, all the police radios were going crazy.”

Krukow: “There was a police officer who had been in our dugout all year, the same guy, and we had gotten to know him. I came back to the dugout and said, ‘What’s the matter, Bobby?’ I looked at him and he said they had a new communication system that’s infallible and it was out. He was concerned about that. Then it kicked on and I got an ear load of some of the things going on. He said, ‘We’ve got some problems.’ At that point we knew we weren’t going to play.”

A’s pitcher Dave Stewart: “The first thing we heard was that the bridge collapsed. When we got on the field, all of the walkie-talkies and the speakers from the police officers [are on] and you can hear what’s going on if you’re paying attention. The first thing I heard was that the bridge collapsed, and then as time passed, I heard that the Marina was on fire. More time passed, and they talked about the Cypress Structure collapsing. It was coming all in segments.”

Eckersley: “You’re getting bits and pieces of information, and all I kept thinking was everything was going to be all right. Total denial, right? You don’t know the severity of this thing at all. You thought it’s an earthquake, and now everybody will get back in their seats and let’s play. Then you heard the bits and pieces, and thought, ‘Uh oh, this is serious.' "

Mitchell: “I knew it was serious when I came in and Willie Mays told me the bridge had fallen. I knew it was a serious situation there. I had never been in anything like that, and it was just sad that something like that had happened.”

Williams: “I think everybody’s concern was getting everybody out of the ballpark safely. It’s 60,000-plus people packed in that place, and to make sure that everybody got out safely at that point. With an earthquake, you know another one is coming at some point. We didn’t know when and we didn’t know how, but get everybody out safely and head home. We’ll reassess and see where we’re at.”

Baseball's big decision

Stadium workers repair damage done to Candlestick Park during the Loma Prieta earthquake, which delayed the 1989 World Series by 10 days (Photo by The Associated Press)

Loma Prieta was the first major earthquake in the United States to be broadcast live, and much of the existing baseball broadcast infrastructure was put to use in other ways in the following hours.

ABC broadcaster Al Michaels turned into a reporter for the national news broadcast, and the Goodyear Blimp, no longer needed for the game, provided aerial coverage of the damage done to San Francisco and the Bay Area. It took hours for players and team employees to reach their respective homes and make sure loved ones were safe.

Game 3 was quickly postponed by commissioner Fay Vincent, and Major League Baseball and the two organizations began the process of figuring out what would come next because of the damage done to Candlestick and the region. There was some talk of moving the remaining games to another city in California.

Ultimately the delay was just 10 days, but as players waited to get back on the field, many of them wondered if their season had come to an end the second the ground started shaking.

Clark: “I thought they would cancel the World Series. We had the Marina fire, we had the [Bay] Bridge collapse. The San Mateo Bridge had structural damage. Candlestick had structural damage.”

Eckersley: “Fay Vincent was the commissioner. He was holding the cards, and it wouldn’t have surprised me if they cancelled it. Ten days went by.”

Krukow: “After I saw what had happened in the city, I thought it was going to be over. There were no cell phones back then, so we drove into Burlingame and waited in line an hour to get a six-page Chronicle, and that was kind of what our information was. The whole thing was chaos, and because of that chaos, we didn’t think we would play again.”

Thompson: “It got close [to being canceled]. At that point, we weren’t really pounding the table to do either [play or not play]. We were all fine with, listen, there are more important things than a World Series. We’re talking about lives and downtown and the bridge and everything else. It was terrible, obviously.”

Giants pitcher Scott Garrelts: “The hard part is staying focused there, and you’ve got to be sympathetic to all the damage and the loss of life and everything going on in the city. Everything that went on put things in perspective of just realizing we are playing a game. You play the game, you play the game right, you play the game hard — but you also realize it’s just a game.”

Giants outfielder Brett Butler: “I thought they would [cancel it]. I was shocked. I was surprised when we came back, and that we came back and played in Candlestick. I thought maybe we would play somewhere else.”

Krukow: “I didn’t give [talk of a neutral location] much credibility. I didn't think we would ever leave the Bay Area because of who was involved in playing. You can’t take two teams from the Bay Area out of the Bay Area and have them go play. That would make zero sense.”

Williams: “The engineers had to get in and take a look at the ballpark and make sure it was safe. With all that happened around the city and the loss of life, baseball really didn’t mean much at that point. We huddled as a team and talked collectively with our front office and with the A’s and made sure it would be safe if in fact we decided to play. Secondly, there’s the morality of it. It’s a game, and in times like that, it doesn’t really mean anything. Albeit it’s the World Series and it’s the Bay Bridge Series and all of that. It still didn’t mean anything at that point because people lost their lives, their homes, their loved ones. At the end of the day, we all huddled together — Major League Baseball, the A’s, the Giants — and we decided it would be good to come back and play once everything was established as safe.”

Stewart: “There was a lot of talk of it. There were debates going back between the commissioner’s office and I think the owners of each team about the right thing to do, with what was the right protocol with a situation similar to this. Obviously it’s never happened before. Now we’re in it ,and we’re trying to figure out what exactly is the proper thing to do in respect to San Francisco and respect to Oakland. I knew [a cancellation] could possibly happen. I just tried to stay focused on playing the game.”

Thompson: “We waited it out, and I think it was a shot in the arm to both cities to get the game back and let people forget about, for the moment anyway, what had just happened.”

Stewart: “As time passed and we decided that we were going to play, I thought of baseball as entertainment. I thought of it as the national pastime. I still felt that baseball was the No. 1 sport in America, and I felt that it would be a healing process for both areas. I felt we should play.”

Eckersley: “I think they made the right decision because the Bay Area needed to heal.”

Krukow: “We just had a massive hit to our community, so what could possibly be something that would heal the spirits? We’ll reconvene the series in that community.”

Stewart: “It was a strange feeling that first game back. There are mixed emotions about whether we should be doing this or not, although we made the decision that we should be doing it. There was still that slight hesitation [about] what the right thing is to do.”

What if?

Stewart, who won 21 games in the regular season, had thrown 138 pitches in Game 1, striking out six and allowing just five hits in an A’s shutout victory. In Game 2, 19-game winner Mike Moore allowed one run over seven innings in a 5-1 Oakland win.

The Giants knew what they were in for with those two, but they hoped to get to Bob Welch in Game 3 and take off from there. Instead, a well-rested Stewart again took the ball and threw seven strong innings en route to World Series MVP honors. Moore gave up two runs over six innings in Game 4, and the A’s finished the sweep with a 9-6 victory. They scored 22 runs over the final 18 innings.

Three decades later, this is a series that doesn't look particularly close. But some Giants and many of their fans still wonder what could have been without the 10-day layoff. Could they have grabbed momentum? Did it make a difference that the A’s went to train in Phoenix while the Giants stayed in the Bay Area during the delay? Could the title drought actually have ended 21 years before Bruce Bochy and his band of misfits beat the Texas Rangers for San Francisco's first World Series championship?

Clark: “We were going to have to go out, do a good job and then get some breaks. They won the first two games in Oakland, and then we were headed back to Candlestick with our screaming fans, and then the earthquake hit and all hell broke loose.”

Eckersley: “We were ready. We went down to Phoenix, back to where we went to spring training, and played a couple of intrasquad games. We were ready. I think that’s the smartest thing we did.”

Stewart: “It allowed us a better opportunity to do things that we needed to do. Pitchers’ fielding practice, infield instruction and drills, outfield drills. We had fields there to do that on. We played simulated games there. It was just a better atmosphere to get the work done.”

Williams: “We worked out. We did the same at Candlestick. And we got out in the community and tried to help as much as we could with anything that we could.”

Krukow: “We went into the city and to shelters. They worked it out where we were in large groups and we went to various parts of the city. It was really one of the most remarkable things I had ever experienced. I had never seen a community come together like that. Everybody was helping. People had lost their homes, friends, relatives, and we came in, and it kind of represented something that was kind of a distraction. We sat there and talked and listened and spent some hours there. It really was one of the most incredible things I had experienced.”

Thompson: “We just tried to keep busy and keep loose and keep throwing and find a place to go.”

Clark: “Hypothetically, if there was no earthquake, I was liking our chances. Because we were coming back and momentum was going to shift.”

Butler: “Our chances were good. We knew that they had a couple of pitchers that were pretty good in Dave Stewart and Moore. We thought that our pitching staff as a whole was better, even though those two guys were really good. We thought that if we could play all the way through, it could have been a different series. Their two best pitchers pitched Game 1 and 2 and then 3 and 4 because [of the] break. If we could have gotten to their [third, fourth and fifth best], we were better than theirs.”

Lefferts: “I think we win a couple games for sure [without the break]. But you’ve still got to face Stew again.”

Stewart: “The first game, I was focused, ready to pitch. Losing never really occurred to me. The second game, I would say I was fresh, and my focus was as if it was the first game. So now I get the opportunity to give us the first foot forward. If I can pick one thing for why I pitched the way I did, I think a lot just has to do with your expectations and what you expect of yourself. More cases than not, you’re able to make that happen. Losing never entered my mind when it came to pitching in the World Series.”

Thompson: “I think there’s probably a better fight from us [without the break]. They were on a mission. The Dodgers beat them in 1988, and they came back with pretty much the same squad. They had a lot of thunder in their lineup, they had speed, they had the pitching staff. I don’t know if it would have been a different story, but I think it would have been a little bit of a different battle.”

Williams: “We were going to get Game 3 at our place against a pitcher we felt we could beat and get back in the series, and we’d see where we would go from there. But ultimately that never happened. As a player, you always want to play in the World Series. You never know if you will. That one was tragic and unique and interesting all at the same time. We got a chance to play in it, and we would have loved a better result, but it didn’t work out that way for us.”

Stewart: “In respect to the lives that were taken, the destruction that had happened, all of the craziness and disarray and the rebuilding of the area, I felt that was the right thing to do to not parade and to not have a championship celebration. We got the trophy.”

Special thanks to Anthony Garcia for his contributions to this story.