All Out Guys
It was a throw away comment buried deep in a recent SI piece about Jimmy Rollins. J-Roll is having a great season and SI wrote a very complementary piece about him as a both a player and a presence in the Phillies’ clubhouse. The article also suggested he was a worthy MVP candidate (I’ll discuss baseball awards soon, but Rollins, who’s having a terrific season, has one area in his game that’s not great, and it’s an important area: he’s not especially good at getting on base).
In any event, author Michael Bamberger raised the subject of Rollins’ background:
The Phillies’ fan base is overwhelmingly white and middle-class; suburban Little Leaguers and their parents, and they have adopted Rollins, working-class in his inner-city boyhood in Oakland, black and proud and eager for somebody from the Phillies front office to ask him questions about the experience of the black baseball player. He said in Miami, “The black player today pretty much has to be a superstar. The role player, the guy off the bench, baseball’s not looking to black players in those positions. Baseball has to take the blinders off.” He’s experienced things in his life that many of his fans have not. In 2005 he missed the wedding of his old teammate, Doug Glanville, to attend the funeral of his first cousin, Jamonie Robinson, a reformed drug dealer, Rollins says, whose life ended with a half dozen bullets in his body. (my emphasis).
And, dare I say, Rollins is on to something.
Earlier this season, Gary Sheffield made some remarks about the declining numbers of African Americans in major league baseball. He was widely derided for those comments, especially, at first, though after he clarified them, and other players, like Torii Hunter, stepped forward to make similar statements, there was some discussion of the merits of Sheffield’s main claim: that baseball was, essentially, outsourcing many of its jobs, especially to Latin America, by directing operational, scouting and development resources away from Black communities in the United States toward baseball academies in Latin America, where organizations can mine for talent for pennies on the dollar.
I am not sure Rollins was speaking exactly to the issue that Sheffield was, and the comment has received no attention, as far as I know. But, I had just been thinking about what appear to be different expectations for white and black athletes when I read Rollins’ comment.
Two players I often think about are Shea Hillenbrand and Sean Casey, Hillenbrand’s long been over-rated – a guy who’s triple crown numbers belie his actual value as a baseball player. At his best, when he’s batted over .300 with good pop, he’s been a decent offensive player, as he was for the Diamondback sin 2004, though barely more than adequate for a corner infielder. At his worst, given his low walk totals and the fact that he doesn’t hit many homeruns, he’s a significant liability. Looking at OPS plus (on base percentage plus slugging, and adjusting for league and park contexts) coming into this season, Hillenbrand’s best OPS plus for a single season was 109 (with the league average set at 100) and his career OPS plus, including this year, is 96. In other words, he’s a below average offensive player for his career, playing at positions that demand good offensive production (Hillenbrand’s also been a regular for much of his career).
And, in 2007, Hillenbrand’s been a catastrophe. He’s split the season between the two Los Angeles clubs. He managed three home runs and a putrid .275 on base percentage in 200 at bats for the Angels (was Scioscia just trying to give the other teams in the division a chance?). And, since coming to the Dodgers, he’s actually been slightly worse. His OPS plus for the season – 59. And, incredibly, after Shea came over to the Dodgers, Grady Little was running Hillenbrand out there on a regular basis, in the midst of a pennant race, batting him in the middle of the lineup (until the end of August, anyway).
The other player I think about is Sean Casey, proof positive that Jim Leyland’s genius has its blindspots. Unlike Hillenbrand, Casey, a lifetime .300 hitter, has had seasons when he’s been an excellent player – he had an OPS plus of 142 in 2004 and 136 in 1999, both while playing first base for the Reds. He came to the Tigers in the middle of the 2006 pennant race and, partly because he was left-handed in an all right handed starting lineup, and partly because he’s a big guy who plays first base, Leyland stuck him in the three hole. Casey proceeded to be absolutely awful for Detroit in 2006, managing to hit. 245 with no walks or power – a deadly combination for a first baseman (though he did have his moments in the postseason). In 2007, Leyland’s still regularly writing Casey into the lineup, and Casey’s still a solidly below average offensive player, with an OPS plus in 2007 of 93. Casey’s regular OPS, .730, is the third worst among regular first baseman in the American league this year (Leyland has, at least, moved him down in the lineup this year which, given that lineup, would have been a criminal offense not to do).
Is it true that only white players get this kind of latitude? Certainly not. For example, Gary Matthews has had one good year in his career, 2006, and parlayed that into a fifty million dollar contract that his true ability level doesn’t warrant. The Brewers signed Jeffrey Hammonds to a really stupid contract several years ago and there are, of course, other examples.
But, it does seem to me that, in general, expectations are higher for black athletes than white ones, and when Black athletes under perform (and the standards for under-performance are themselves, not equivalent), there is more criticism of that under-performance. Darryl Strawberry was a very, very good major leaguer for many years. But, the media and fans spent as much, or more time, picking on his faults, his lapses and the inadequacies of his game than they did his enormous positives as a player (and, that’s leaving aside the attention to his off-the-field problems). Having come into the majors with tremendous hype, it’s as if Strawberry was set up to do nothing but disappoint. Forget that Strawberry finished his seventeen year career with 335 homeruns and an outstanding OPS plus of 138. It’s what Strawberry should have done – he should have hit 500 homeruns, he should won multiple MVP awards. It strikes me that Strawberry is of a type that is more common among African American athletes than any other – that even high levels of performance won’t garner more attention than their perceived failure to play at their maximum ability, or their off-field behavior. In a similar vein, one could argue that the same has been true of T.O. and Randy Moss (and, man, is the media back-pedaling on its preseason criticisms of Moss like a frantic cornerback after his destruction of the Jets in week one).
I thought of these threads while watching Baseball Tonight earlier this week. Host Karl Ravech asked his panelists, which included Dusty Baker, who their picks were for “all out guys” – guys who gave great effort all the time. My first thought, before any names were mentioned, was that this was a category that an African American would not be chosen for. Blacks are “natural” athletes, not self-made ones. You all know the studies by now – the ones that show that announcers and fans are overwhelmingly likely to assign descriptors like “intelligence” and “hard work” to white players, and “natural” to Black ones (via The Situationist, here’s one such study).
Baker named Dustin Pedroia, the Red Sox rookie second baseman, for the AL. And, the panel came up with Dodgers’ catcher Russell Martin, for the NL. I have no beef with the hustle of those two players. But, it was hard not to think about Rollins’ comment, and Rollins the player in this context. Like Pedroia (5′ 9″), Rollins (5′ 7″) is short – tiny by baseball standards and, it seems to me, a scrappy guy to have made it this far. Furthermore, Pedroia already has a very good batting eye and an onbase percentage near .400 this season. Is that because he’s a hard worker, a smart player, or is it because he has innate handeye coordination that allows him to wait a fraction of a second longer before deciding whether to swing? Rollins may run faster and be stronger (he’s 28 and Pedroia’s 23), but does that make him a more natural athlete? Is Rollins less of an all-out guy?
Like Pedroia, the Canadian-born Martin is an excellent young player and I have nothing against him. But, I do wonder – what would it take for a Black player to be acknowledged a top hustle guy? A recent paper given at the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) convention looked at data from 1947 to 1986 and found, according to Rob Neyer’s summary that:
strongly implies a pervasive bias against black players for many years after Jackie Robinson debuted. This certainly has been suggested by many commentators over the years, but I believe Armour is the first to objectively quantify 1) the degree to which black players dominated the game in the 1950s and ’60s, and 2) the barrier that black non-stars faced when trying to establish themseves in the majors. There’s another level of research that might still be done, but it now seems apparent that many, many legitimate — if marginal — black players were consigned to the minors in the 1950s and ’60s while their white counterparts were holding down bench jobs in the majors.
So, maybe a few things are happening relevant to Rollins’ comment. One, unless an African American player is a standout, they are less likely to be drafted, or given a real shot at making the major leagues, or a real shot at significant playing time. And, two, given the higher bar they have to clear, a greater proportion of African Americans who do make it to the majors are of above-average talent, which then reinforces deeply embedded stereotypes about Blacks as natural athletes, as opposed to scrappy, hustle guys who made it by sheer force of will, character, etc., not by genetic gifts. And, three, therefore, if they do not play well, their under-performance is more likely to be attributed to attitude problems, effort issues, etc., than to the limitations of their athletic abilities.
The BBTN panel was not practicing anything like an overt form of racism. But, the subtlety of how we talk about athletes – who disappoints us, who “overachieves” is necessarily bound up with larger biases – including unconscious ones – about race.
This plays out differently in baseball than in basketball and football, at least in some ways, because those two leagues feature a large proportion of Blacks. The Sheffield comments, as inartfully put as they were at first, only brought to the surface an issue that folks have been talking about for years – why, given the tremendous number of gifted African American athletes, have their numbers declined so drastically in one of America’s three major sports?
Rollins is extremely well liked, and did not include a perceived slur against another ethnic group in his observation about the status of African Americans in baseball today. But, he’s touched on a subject in which some significant research, and plenty of anecdotal evidence, backs him up. The bulk of sports media and fans are tired of talking about race. But, it continues to rear its head in pervasive ways, even when it’s not obvious. Rollins deserves props for raising the issue, even if no one picked up on it.