Amid a nationwide reckoning on the social injustices of police brutality and systemic racism, young people have led the charge on the ground and across social media, from organizing protests around the country and the world to signing petitions, sending donations and sharing educational resources online. So when Major League Baseball sought to host a forum on how race relations have affected the lives of its African American players as professional athletes and as people, that’s who the league reached out to.
D-backs pitcher Jon Duplantier and Marlins pitcher Sterling Sharp -- both 25 years old -- and Pirates first baseman Josh Bell, 27, joined MLB Network analyst Harold Reynolds virtually on Monday evening for a pertinent hour-long conversation entitled, “Being Black in Baseball and in America.” It also included a guest appearance from Sharon Robinson, Jackie Robinson’s daughter and an educational consultant for MLB.
For these players, who have grown up alongside the Black Lives Matter movement in an era where smartphone videos have depicted the deaths of an increasingly long list of victims of police violence, the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis was an unsurprising, yet excruciatingly detailed reminder of how Black people have long been treated in America.
“It was further confirmation of the things my parents told me growing up -- ‘You can’t go here, you can’t go there,’” Bell said. “I’m more likely to be pulled over and charged with something than people who don’t look like me. It’s always a tough pill to swallow.”
The difference this time is how their white colleagues have responded. Duplantier, Sharp and Bell all said that numerous teammates and friends have called and texted them in the wake of Floyd’s death, asking how they can be part of the solution.
“The fact that we’re getting them now brings me back to this hope,” Duplantier said. “Because for a lot of my friends [it was], ‘I knew about this stuff going on, but I really didn’t feel it or see it. It’s starting to hurt me now. … That could have happened to you.’”
The players, all of whom grew up attending predominantly white schools, urged their friends not just to reach out to people of color, but also to start tough, necessary conversations in their families and social circles about their own biases and the subsequent societal ramifications of those.
The players acknowledged that in a sport like baseball, where only about eight percent of Major League players and one owner (the Marlins’ Derek Jeter) are Black, it’s harder to speak out for fear of retaliation. That became abundantly clear after what happened to Colin Kaepernick in the NFL.
“I don’t think he could have done a better job of trying to voice what he was standing up against, and I don’t think he had any opportunity to in the minds of the masses,” Bell said. “There was a narrative slated against him … In the weeks following him first taking a knee, I think a lot of players in all leagues were thinking, ‘Is this our time to take a stand and try to voice some of the injustices in the world?’ And the response from the masses told us no. No one’s ready to hear this right now. This man hasn’t gotten an opportunity to play in three or four years. He got kicked out of the league that offseason, really. He was booed all across America.
“It was tough looking in the mirror like, ‘Man, I know I should probably say something about this, but I’m trying to make a life for myself.’”
Throughout high school, college and the professional ranks, the players all pointed to how the lack of representation across the sport on the coaching, playing and management side makes it even more challenging to take a stand. Duplantier shared a particularly poignant story from his high school years that illustrated how it can often feel as if Black players are fighting these battles alone.
“I was at first base and from the opposing team’s dugout, I heard someone say, ‘I got a rope and a tree with your name on it,’” Duplantier said. “It came out of nowhere. I had already committed; I was going to college to play ball. They knew who I was. And I lost it; I lost it instantly. [I] dropped my glove, started walking toward the dugout. I could not hold back the emotions I was feeling in that moment.
“The one saving grace I had was that the first-base umpire was also Black. And he got in front of me. He hugged me real tight, and he said, ‘It’s not worth it; it’s not worth it,’ and just cooled me off. So I walked to the dugout and said somebody else has to go play first base.
“But when that happened, there was no dialogue after that. There was nobody in my corner who I could voice what I was feeling on the inside to. … We were in high school [thinking], ‘I’d go to war with these guys.’ Some of these guys had been my best friends since kindergarten, and in that moment, nobody had my back.”
In order to form a sense of community among Black and minority players, Bell, along with African American teammate Chris Archer, recently started a group chat with 150 people of color in the Majors to talk about the different ways they can impact their communities going forward. Bell’s girlfriend gave him the idea as they were watching the protests in Pittsburgh, telling him, ‘If you really want to make a difference, use your platform. Come up with a narrative and don’t let it die out.’”
That’s where the hashtag “Social Reform Sundays” was born and now exists as an online tool the players can use to make lasting change nationwide.
During last week’s Draft, MLB and the 30 clubs committed more than $1 million in support of five organizations: Campaign Zero, Color of Change, Equal Justice Initiative, the Jackie Robinson Foundation and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, while representatives from all 30 clubs held up signs that read “Black Lives Matter/United for Change.”
It's an encouraging step in the right direction for a sport that prides itself on the legacy of Jackie Robinson and seeks to be an agent of societal change.
“I think baseball, like America, we have to help them be ready for that. Because now is the time for us to voice our opinions and be able to talk openly about race, racism, police brutality,” Sharon Robinson said. “We may not need to take a knee in baseball, but there has to be a way to keep a conversation open and out there, amongst yourselves as players, amongst your teams, and we have to continue to press forward on how far we’ve gotten now since George Floyd’s death. We can’t step back and say we’re afraid. And we have to know that the league will support us on that.”