Commentary

Hunter wrong on race, not problems

Baseball could do more to attract African-American and U.S.-born players to the sport

Updated: March 13, 2010, 7:46 AM ET
By Johnette Howard | Special to ESPN.com

Roberto Clemente Jr. likes and respects Angels outfielder Torii Hunter, noting the numerous times Hunter has been a nominee for the Roberto Clemente humanitarian award, named for his father, the Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Famer who died in a 1972 plane crash. Clemente and Hunter also have worked in Major League Baseball's RBI program, which is trying to revive baseball in inner-city America.

Roberto Clemente Jr.
AP Photo/Kathy WillensRoberto Clemente Jr. would like to see more Latin players speak up.

So a few days ago, when Clemente heard what Hunter had said about Latino ballplayers being used as "impostors" for U.S.-born blacks, Clemente admitted, "I could not believe those words came out of Torii Hunter's mouth."

But if you want to get Clemente more riled up, ask him who reliably speaks up for Latin players when issues involving them arise. After White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, there's, well … who?

"That is one subject that gets me very hot," Clemente said. "Because if you look at the box scores every day, you see what Latin players are doing day in and day out. You see the contributions being made to the game. And yet nobody [Latino] has taken the guys together and said we are a lot of guys that are very brave and intelligent, we have a lot to say, and a lot of power we can use when things come up. And that is a shame."

At this point, it's more constructive to make a list called What Hunter Should Have Said than bash Hunter any more.

As Hunter has found out, it's a pretty ridiculous exercise even to hint that the unprecedented diversity in Major League Baseball overall is a sham, or worse, some secret conspiracy to freeze out U.S.-born blacks. The feared "extinction" of the African-American ballplayer isn't a new topic around Major League Baseball. (The numbers dipped to 8.2 percent in 2007 before ticking up to 10 percent last year.) But linking that anxiety to the indefensible proposition that Latinos' success in baseball has come at the expense of U.S.-born blacks, as Hunter did during a roundtable discussion hosted by USA Today, is where Hunter drove off the cliff.

Hunter alluded to an invisible bogeyman: race-based roster engineering.

"People see dark faces out there," Hunter said, "and the perception is that they're African-American. They're not us. They're impostors. Even people I know come up and say, 'Hey, what color is Vladimir Guerrero? Is he a black player?' I say: 'Come on, he's Dominican. He's not black.'"

Just as troubling, Hunter wasn't exaggerating when he went on to tell USA Today: "As African-American players, we have a theory that baseball can go get an imitator and pass them off as us. It's like they had to get some kind of dark faces, so they go to the Dominican or Venezuela because you can get them cheaper. It's like, 'Why should I get this kid from the South Side of Chicago and have Scott Boras represent him and pay him $5 million when you can get a Dominican guy for a bag of chips?' … I'm telling you, it's sad."

Hunter has since admitted he made some poor word choices. But the sentiments Hunter expressed aren't new. During spring training 2007, CC Sabathia, the current Yankees ace who was then with the Cleveland Indians, called the number of fellow African-Americans in the game a "crisis," adding: "I don't think people see the problem. They see players like [Jose] Reyes and [Carlos] Delgado and assume they're black." Three months later, Gary Sheffield, who is also black, was quoted in GQ magazine saying that Latinos were replacing African-American big leaguers because teams saw Latinos as "easier to control" and thus more attractive to keep even when their talent didn't warrant it.

Sheffield said, "I know a lot of [American-born] players that are home now can outplay a lot of these guys."

"I'm sorry it's come out like that," Clemente said. "But I guess that [feeling] is out there."

No one familiar with Hunter or his demonstrably excellent work in the community thinks he's a racist, including Clemente. But Hunter's mistaken focus on racial identity obscured that other points he made about the state of baseball were dead-on: Baseball isn't attracting enough African-American athletes -- or enough American athletes, period. Big league teams have taken advantage of the fact that it makes economic sense to dive into the Latin American countries because they can sign kids sooner (age 16), for less, and without their having to go through the amateur draft.

Had Hunter really wanted to start a provocative discussion, he could've asked this: If Major League Baseball is sincere about growing the game in urban areas, why not build multimillion-dollar academies here as scads of teams have done in the Dominican? So far, MLB has built only two -- one in Compton, the other in Houston.

Hunter could've gone on to note the competitive advantage Latino teenagers enjoy in such total-immersion baseball academies. They're getting better instruction and better competition than, say, a kid in Compton might.

"I've been to the Dominican," said Erikk Aldridge, a former college baseball player who now teaches at USC and runs one of the Los Angeles-area RBI programs with which Hunter has worked. "Those academies are like the IMG tennis academies we have here. The players live there, sleep there, go to school there, train there. It's a huge advantage."

MLB Academy
AP Photo/Houston Chronicle/Michael PaulsenThe Urban Youth Baseball Academy in Houston is one of two in the United States.

Hunter also could've spotlighted that one of the stickier problems that baseball faces is that there's no one-size-fits-all strategy. The big issue in inner-city America is opportunity. But a front-burner issue in Latin America is the exploitation of those "bag of chips" kids who do sign early there.

On Wednesday, the same day Hunter's remarks were published, a story that got lost in the news churn was MLB's decision to fire its chief Latin America executive, Ronaldo Peralta, who was based in the Dominican Republic. Latin American baseball has been hit by scandals in recent years that have included document tampering, steroids use, alleged skimming of players' signing bonuses, and lying about players' ages and identities.

Aldridge says there are a lot of societal reasons that African-Americans are playing baseball less; one of them is that "black families are smart." He says the parents he deals with see football or basketball as a quicker, clearer, cheaper pathway for their gifted sons to make the pros, or at least to secure a full-ride college scholarship.

"I love baseball," Aldridge said. "But it's a hard sell."

Baseball is making an effort to fix problems like that. It can do far more. But when four out of 10 big league players are born outside the U.S., it's hard to argue there's some social crisis or nefarious plot afoot in the game. Baseball is more international and ethnically varied than ever. Scapegoating Latinos to explain the lagging participation of American blacks or anyone else is an ugly way to go.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.

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