Cubs

Cubs’ Theo Epstein vows to ‘look inward’ for solutions to MLB's systemic racism

/ by Gordon Wittenmyer
Presented By Cubs Insiders
Cubs

Cubs president Theo Epstein hadn’t spoken publicly in nearly three months when he opened a conference call with reporters Monday by voicing support for the Black Lives Matter movement and those protesting across the country against police brutality and systemic racism.

Closer to home, his own sport and even his own team are reflective of similar systemic problems that have made the game on the field increasingly white when it comes to the Americans who play it, and even more so when it comes to those in positions of authority in front offices and manager offices.

Blame Epstein for that last part.

In fact, Epstein acknowledged that — whether simply as a function of his role running baseball departments for two teams over the past 18 seasons or, more specifically, his role in the higher-tech, advanced-metrics revolution that has increasingly filled front offices across baseball with similarly educated, similar-looking, Ivy League types.

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“I certainly plan to continue looking inward and question my own assumptions, my own attitudes and my own decision-making until I can do better,” Epstein said. “It’s an area where we can certainly do better overall.”

The Cubs had a black farm director until Jaron Madison — a former college coach with a master’s degree in sports management from San Francisco and a lengthy resume in scouting and player development — was moved to a special assistant role, with an emphasis on scouting. He’s the only African American among top-tier executives in the baseball department.

 

“The majority of people that I’ve hired have similar backgrounds to me and look a lot like me,” Epstein said, “and that’s something I need to ask myself, ‘why?’ “

The bigger question might involve, “what” and “how.” And “when.”

Much of Epstein’s track record, as well as countless conversations with him and those around him over the years, suggest sincerity in the thoughts expressed Monday and an inclusive worldview in general.

But as many in baseball like to say, it’s a results-oriented business.

Epstein has hired one general manager and five managers in his career as a baseball operations boss and one was a minority. That was Rick Renteria, the guy he fired one year into a three-year deal when Joe Maddon unexpectedly became a free agent in the fall of 2014.

Certainly, the Renteria-Maddon scenario speaks more to Epstein’s cutthroat competitive nature than anything else — and it was hard to argue with the move two years later during the parade to Grant Park.

But if Epstein and the rest of baseball believe it’s important to solve the systemic issues in what players such as Adam Jones call “a white man’s game” — whether reversing the decades-long decline of black Americans playing and/or the persistent underrepresentation of people of color in management — the results matter. The numbers matter.

Are Dusty Baker and Dave Roberts really the only black managerial candidates qualified enough to land one of the 30 big-league jobs — Roberts the only one whose opportunity wasn’t the result of a last-minute process created by the Astros’ historic cheating scandal?

“The system doesn’t fix itself,” Epstein said. “It’s on each of us to take action to stand up and make some changes.”

One of those changes with the Cubs, he said, involves the creation of a “diversity committee,” currently in the planning stages, “that can make sure we set better standards for ourselves and make ourselves accountable to do better on these issues.”

If there’s reason to believe baseball can make substantive changes, whether in hiring practices or creating a culture that not only attracts more non-white Americans to the sport but also a more inclusive clubhouse culture, maybe it’s simply the national moment some have called a “tipping point.”

George Floyd’s killing by a cop in Minneapolis, on the heels of the video of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder in Georgia, which surfaced just weeks after Breonna Taylor’s killing by police in her home in Louisville, after killing, after killing, after killing of unarmed black Americans by police for decades across the country.

Among the voices raised during more than two weeks of national outrage that has sparked massive protests coast to coast are those of dozens of black athletes, including baseball players and former players with stories ranging from fearful traffic stops without cause on late-night drives home after returning from road trips to Torii Hunter detailing the night he accidentally tripped his alarm, then had two responding officers pull their guns when he answered his own door.

 

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“It’s been really powerful, moving and eye-opening in some respects to read those articles and hear those testimonials from some of the very best and most important players in the game,” Epstein said.

It’s all part of the systemic nature of racism, Epstein said. And the systemic nature of it means that it involves all of us, he said, and that “we all have to admit that we’re all part of the problem.”

And then what?

“It means that it’s there whether you see it in the moment or not,” he said. “It means that it’s taught, learned and self-perpetuated. 

“And what it means to me, as a next step, is that it’s certainly time to listen, and we absolutely have been doing that and plan on doing that some more.”

Those conversations are becoming a more formal part of the Cubs’ organizational culture, he said.

It’s anybody’s guess where any of the self-examination and pledges to improve might lead, with the Cubs or the league at large — and might be a sucker’s bet, given the history of this particular league.

But maybe the moment is big enough to stir even baseball’s hardened institutional core into some kind of substantive action. Maybe this time the moment has finally arrived, if far too late for far too many.

And maybe Epstein’s voice and sizable stature in the game can even become a catalyst, if he has the will to find the solutions and the strength to force the action.

As he said Monday, “Protocols are nice, but results are better.”

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