Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2017 -- No. 21: Fans hurl racist epithets at Adam Jones
We’re a few short days away from 2018 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2017. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.
In late April things got a bit chippy between the Red Sox and the Orioles, with some hard slides, Red Sox pitchers Matt Barnes and Chris Sale throwing at Manny Machado, and other assorted beefing during a series in Baltimore. The following week the teams met again at Fenway Park and things got even uglier. Not between the teams, however, but between some fans and Orioles outfielder Adam Jones.
Jones was berated by racist taunts and one fan even threw a bag of peanuts at him. Jones said that, in the past, he had been subjected to racist heckling at Fenway Park but said this incident was the worst he had ever experienced.
While the incident itself began and ended on that Tuesday night in May, it led to what, unfortunately, is all so common when racism rears its ugly head: denial, deflection and a discounting of both the words and the experiences of the victim by people who are in no position to do so.
It was utterly unsurprising when an ostracized buffoon like Curt Schilling called Jones’ account into question, but such doubts were not limited to guys like him. Most notably, Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated’s MMQB demanded “proof” from Jones that the racial slurs were, in fact, hurled. Never mind that a witness’ unrefuted account of an event is, in fact, proof and never mind that several other players including Red Sox players such as David Price and Jackie Bradley Jr. confirmed that, yes, racial taunts from fans in Fenway Park are not uncommon.
Those two were not alone, of course. As so often happens when such incidents occur, a host of fans, readers, listeners and commenters emerges to discount, or in some cases, deny the event took place. To rush right past the account of the victim in order to proclaim that “not ALL [city/team] fans are like that” and to defensively decry anyone who would say they are, as if that’s the most important matter in all of it. Some of that is just your standard-issue sports fan tribalism, of course. Some of it, though, is in keeping with America’s long history of denying that racism still exists and a denial of society’s complicity in its persisting. It’s about refusing to believe someone when they said something bad happened because (a) that bad thing never happens to them; and (b) they do not want to examine whether they have any responsibility for it or to stop it.
Thankfully, though, the Boston Red Sox and Major League Baseball took some responsibility. They apologized to Jones immediately. The Red Sox and other Boston area sports teams likewise began running anti-racism public service announcements on the scoreboard before games, featuring athletes calling on fans to take a stand against racism and hate speech at sports venues. It makes sense, in that a fan’s willingness to behave in such a deplorable fashion is likely reduced if he knows or suspects that his fellow fans will call him out for it. In August Red Sox owner John Henry said he was “haunted” by the racist past of former team owner Tom Yawkey and suggested renaming Yawkey Way, which runs outside Fenway Park.
It was nice to see the Sox and MLB act and to hear Henry speak out like that, but it’s far less important for us to listen to people and institutions who are in power than it is to listen to people like Adam Jones when such incidents occur. To listen to them talk about their lived experiences and to believe them. To that end, Jones opened up in interviews about the incident and the larger topic of racism in America and in American sports. About what is to be one of only a handful of black men in Major League Baseball and why it is, in his view, that there are only a small handful of black men in the sport to begin with.
Here’s hoping people listened.