'You can't just not do it.' Inside baseball's mixed response to social justice movement, and what's next

ByJeff Passan ESPN logo
Thursday, August 27, 2020

In the hours leading up to their scheduled game Wednesday night, some members of the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants saw an opportunity. Already Aug. 26, 2020, had registered as one of the most significant sporting days in recent memory. A player walkout scuttled three NBA postseason games. Two other games in major league baseball had been postponed. This was the Dodgers' and Giants' chance to do more, to stand up against racial injustice in a meaningful way.

Amid the discussions, sources familiar with the conversations told ESPN, they considered something a number of players thought would be particularly powerful: the teams walking onto the field, like they were about to stage a game, only to turn around and leave before the first pitch, together, unified. In a sport that for so long has treated racial issues as a third rail, this would be an indelible image: a ball on the mound, players unwilling to use it because police shot a Black man in Wisconsin.

Ultimately, it would not happen. Too many players, sources said, were uncomfortable with an on-the-fly protest of that level -- with attaching symbolism to action. On this day, when the basketball world shut down and offered no clear path to a restart, the postponement of the game between the Dodgers and Giants would have to be enough. Getting baseball even to that point took years of work.

As remarkable as Wednesday was -- the sport that saw a single player take a knee to protest police brutality three years ago had three games shelved because of it -- it also illustrates how much more is possible. While Dodgers players followed the lead of their star outfielder, Mookie Betts, and committed to sitting out, other teams with Black players who opted not to play -- the Chicago Cubs (Jason Heyward), Colorado Rockies (Matt Kemp) and St. Louis Cardinals (Dexter Fowler and Jack Flaherty) -- carried on with their games. As passionate as Milwaukee Brewers and Seattle Mariners players were in their fervor not to play, one player leader on another team pushed back against the idea of postponements. "I'm not an activist," he said, according to a person familiar with the conversation who declined to name the player.

Still, the person sharing the comment said, it's important to understand how pervasive that sentiment remains around baseball -- how a sport that leans culturally conservative has been, and will continue to be, slow to embrace a social justice movement that contrasts with the worldviews of so many. In one clubhouse conversation Wednesday, a player asked: "What's the point of this?"

The cursory answers revealed themselves as day turned to night. New York Mets slugger Dominic Smith knelt by himself during the national anthem. After the game, tears streamed down his face. "It was a long day for me," Smith said. He tried to compose himself, to talk about what it's like to live as a Black man in a world where Jacob Blake is in the hospital because of point-blank gunshot wounds.

"I think the most difficult part is to see people still don't care," Smith said. "For this to continuously happen, it just shows the hate in people's heart."

He tried to compose himself again, to make his real point.

"Being a Black man in America -- it's not easy," Smith said.

His words were a clear answer for anyone who asked for a point or purpose to Wednesday's protests. For Smith, it was a quite literal cry for help -- for those who might not agree with him or might not understand to recognize that his pain is not in vain, his tears not crocodilian. It was even clearer with the Milwaukee Bucks, who answered the what and why with lucidity: They wanted to speak with Wisconsin's attorney general and lieutenant governor and offer their voices and platforms to effect change in police accountability that so often becomes politicized. They went to the people who are likeliest to be able to help translate words into actions, a powerful next step that inspired the Brewers.

They've been in near lockstep with the Bucks on social issues.Josh Hader, the elite closer whose racist tweets sent as a teenager stained his reputation, was the first player on the team to speak up on social injustice, saying: "It's something that just can't stay quiet." During the team meeting to discuss the possibility of canceling the game, outfielder Christian Yelich, a former MVP, was among the most fervent in advocating the importance of action, according to sources.

"There comes a time where you have to live it, you have to step up -- you can't just wear these shirts and think that's all well and good," Yelich said. "And when it comes time to act on it or make a stand or make a statement, you can't just not do it. And that's what we decided here today. Us coming here together, collectively as a group -- making a stand, making a statement for change for making the world a better place, for equality, for doing the right thing."

Yelich's words resonated. The Brewers are a team with one Black player, Devin Williams. They also play in a city 35 miles north of Kenosha, Wisconsin, where Blake was shot, and proximity mattered. When Brent Suter, the Brewers' reliever and union representative, broached the idea of not playing with Cincinnati Reds players Mike Moustakas and Wade Miley, they were supportive. Moustakas and Miley had played for the Brewers. They recognized why this mattered so much to Milwaukee. So even if some players in Cincinnati's clubhouse wanted to play -- and they certainly did -- they weren't so much as asked their opinion. The Reds were going to be allies.

That, actually, was a clear takeaway from Wednesday: The baseball clubhouses with strong, outspoken leadership can accomplish things even in a sport in which a diverse ecosystem makes consensus almost impossible. Baseball players can't agree on what food to order, let alone the prevalence of institutional police brutality and systemic racism, and clubhouse environments have not typically fostered discussions about complicated subjects. And yet here were the Dodgers, coalescing behind Betts, with future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw at the forefront, saying: "As a white player on this team, how can we show support? What is something tangible that we can do to help our Black brothers on this team? Once Mookie said that he wasn't gonna play, that really started our conversation as a team as what we can do to support that. We felt the best thing to do was support that in not playing with him."

The tangible efforts of Betts and Kershaw; of Yelich and Suter and Williams and Ryan Braun; of Moustakas and Miley and Amir Garrett; of the Giants and Padres who refused to accept forfeit wins; and of Dee Gordon and Taijuan Walker and Kyle Lewisand the Mariners -- they made MLB's response stand out. Numerous players expressed disappointment to ESPN that the league, in a statement, didn't offer support for players who chose not to play, saying instead that it "respect[ed] the decisions": "Given the pain in the communities of Wisconsin and beyond following the shooting of Jacob Blake, we respect the decisions of a number of players not to play tonight. Major League Baseball remains united for change in our society and we will be allies in the fight to end racism and injustice."

It was a cautious response on a day that called for more. It also was reflective of a sport that does not face nearly the same level of pressure the NBA does from its players. The respect level between the players and commissioner pales compared with that in the NBA, too. Baseball remains stuck in that unfortunate place where some high-ranking officials want to do the right thing, where some team executives push for it, but where not enough owners have shown they believe in the fight for social justice for the sport to feel fully committed.

Even if the teams return as expected after a one-day absence, the consequences of Aug. 26 won't go away anytime soon. Consider: On Wednesday, Walker, Seattle's 28-year-old starter, was standing up in an emotional meeting with the Mariners, explaining why he believed it was necessary for them not to play. On Thursday, he was traded to Toronto. And on Friday, as Walker starts the intake process with the Blue Jays, the sport will celebrate Jackie Robinson Day.

Typically held on April 15, the day is meant to honor all of Robinson's contributions to baseball. It is largely ceremonial, even though there's opportunity for so much more. There is no greater time on the baseball calendar to show what the game can be, to go beyond videos and words, to fulfill the real legacy of Robinson, one that may still live on in baseball after all: actions.

Related Video