Tim Anderson wants to bring change to baseball.
He's already different, a word he uses a lot, from all of his teammates, as he explained to Sports Illustrated's Stephanie Apstein in an article that came out Tuesday. He's the only black player in the White Sox clubhouse in a game that for a long time now has faced the issue of dwindling numbers of black players.
Those racial conversations have merged with the ones surrounding the old- and new-school approaches to playing a sport that's been around for a century and a half, and Anderson is at the center of all of them.
His April 17 bat flip against the Kansas City Royals seemed like a "let the kids play" moment, one that would restart the never-ending talk about unwritten rules. And it was that kind of moment and it did restart all that talk.
But when the inevitable plunking came in Anderson's next at-bat — an enforcement of those unwritten rules by the apparently old-school Brad Keller, who's two years younger than Anderson — a whole new situation emerged, one in which Anderson reacted by yelling at Keller and using what baseball called a "racially charged word," getting him ejected from that game and suspended for another.
Anderson addressed the racial elements to the whole incident to Apstein. He admitted to calling Keller, a white player, a "a weak-ass f------ n-----" and said he didn't think that deserved a suspension, bringing the league into it by saying "that’s a word that’s in my vocabulary, when’s the last time (baseball official Joe Torre, who's in charge of handing out suspensions) heard that word?" He added, "I don’t think there’s a black guy that’s up that high in baseball that they could drag in and be like, 'Hey, what do you think we should do to this guy?'"
But no comment in the story did more to increase the wattage on the spotlight continuing to shine on Anderson than this one:
"I kind of feel like today’s Jackie Robinson," he told Apstein. "That’s huge to say. But it’s cool, man, because he changed the game, and I feel like I’m getting to a point to where I need to change the game."
Certainly Anderson, who took a group of kids to a screening of the Robinson biopic "42" ahead of Jackie Robinson Day earlier this season, isn't suggesting that his quest to change the game will require the same levels of heroism Robinson displayed when breaking the color barrier more than seven decades ago. But he's also no stranger to the continuing racial issues in the United States and he talked with Apstein about breaking the "have-fun barrier," explaining why the game needs to change when talking with local media prior to Wednesday's doubleheader in Chicago.
"Yeah, I think it does, because the game is boring," he said Wednesday at Guaranteed Rate Field. "A lot of fans don't watch, I'll admit. So you try to do something to make these fans want to come back and make these kids want to come back to the ballpark. Yeah, I'm going to do whatever it takes to draw these fans to the South Side. I'm going to do something different every day. Whatever it is, it don't matter."
Baseball will not go as far to say that it is boring, obviously, but it's hoping to accomplish the goals Anderson laid out, of attracting more fans and different kinds of fans than the ones who have already sat through decades of summers. They've taken to promoting the bat flips, the on-field displays of emotion and the new, young faces in a game so often obsessed with what came before. "Let the kids play" started with a chill-inducing commercial of players screaming and getting dirty and clapping and fist-pumping and, yes, bat-flipping.
To some, Anderson included, those things are fun. To others, they appear rude or arrogant or as something that deserves punishment. I will admit to being firmly in the "fun" category. You, the reader, might agree or disagree. And your opinion on the matter might very well be influenced by which players on which teams are among the screamers and bat-flippers. White Sox fans might not like the flash and style of Javy Baez on the North Side just because he's a Cub. They might stand and cheer when Anderson plays in a similar manner.
Players might feel the same way. Earlier this homestand, White Sox catcher James McCann spoke glowingly of Anderson but admitted he's more of an old-school thinker.
"Awesome teammate and great guy," McCann said. "His emotion, passion and love of the game are good for baseball and our clubhouse and the energy in here and it’s also good for young kids watching the game and seeing someone with so much love for the game. Hopefully it rubs off on the younger generation.
"I’m more old school. You’re not gonna see me throwing my bat. I’ll jog out of the box, but for me I’m not a guy that will do that. Do I have a problem with it? Not necessarily. My biggest thing is, if you’re a guy who’s gonna bat flip then don’t get mad when a pitcher fist-pumps and shouts when he strikes you out and vice versa."
A ringing endorsement of Anderson, sure. But hardly a ringing endorsement of letting the kids play.
But it's not so cut and dry, either. This conversation is not just: to bat flip or not to bat flip. It's not only about retaliatory plunkings. There's a clear racial element to things, which Apstein addressed. Plenty of the kids baseball's marketing department wants to let play, the guys who play with a new style and a new kind of attitude, are black and Latino, many in the the latter group coming from other countries and growing up in vastly different cultures. While the data on the racial makeup of baseball's fan base is not as easily obtained as the data on the racial makeup of its players, it doesn't seem an illogical jump to suggest that the majority of baseball fans are white Americans who grew up in vastly different cultures from some of the game's biggest stars.
Anderson told Apstein that part of his "have-fun" crusade involves "bringing black culture to baseball and doing it in a different way." It's not always the case that the old-school guys are white and the new-school guys aren't. There's representation on both sides of that debate. But there's perhaps a bigger point to be made than just that some people think bat flips are cool and others don't.
Changing the game doesn't necessarily mean destroying what came before or taking it from someone else. It involves adding more to it, people from different backgrounds adding the style they grew up with to a game lacking in such diversity. And if players are allowed to do that, as baseball seems keen on happening, it only expands the number of people interested in the game. As we've seen from the reaction to "let the kids play," the new styles of black and Latino players are being embraced by plenty of white, American fans. It's not an unpopular opinion, though it's far from a universal one, that this kind of thing is good for the game.
So why does Anderson feel like Jackie Robinson? Because he's seeing obstacles to trying to play a game he wants to play it.
"I'm trying to have fun, and they don't want me to have fun," he said Wednesday on the South Side. "So I think it's cool when you bring excitement to the game and you bring something different. I think I bring something different to the game, and that's a lot of energy and a lot of excitement."
It should very much be appreciated by anyone attempting to form an opinion on the variety of issues at play here that Anderson has shown himself to be nothing less than an outstanding person. He's a husband, a father to two young daughters and someone who is constantly involving himself in the community. He works with inner-city programs and appears as a positive influence in the life of kids on the South Side and across Chicago.
He's always friendly and cordial when speaking with the media, and he receives solely rave reviews when it comes to the kind of teammate he is. Those thinking he might be arrogant or disrespectful based on the way he acts on the field should know all of this, and that his declared objectives from these actions are to have fun and to try to get his teammates to do the same thing.
This is a person who's been through the imprisonment of his father and the recent death of his best friend. And he's come out the other end with a smile on his face and a mission to be a fun-loving person. That's extraordinarily admirable and should vastly outweigh any opinion drawn from a bat flip.
These conversations are vast and varied. They won't stop. And as long as Anderson keeps speaking up and speaking out — and keeps hitting at a level that will almost surely earn him AL Player of the Month honors — he can keep the spotlight on him, where he's willing to be a crusader for a different kind of baseball.
"I don’t know the old-school rules. I guess those are the rules when those guys played, but they’re not playing anymore," Anderson said Sunday in the White Sox clubhouse. "So I think we’re going to switch it up a little bit."
Let the kid play.Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the White Sox easily on your device.