Up Next

Locker Room Talk

Major League Baseball struck out at the World Series by not facing up to blatant racism

Commissioner Manfred’s lack of strong action gave fans a license to continue their backward thinking and behavior

The headline of a local newspaper Wednesday morning laid out a hopeful narrative before Game 7 of the World Series: Yu Darvish Can Avenge Game 3 Nightmare, Become World Series Game 7 Hero.

Darvish, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 31-year-old pitcher, found himself in the middle of a controversy during Game 3 after giving up a home run to Yuli Gurriel. A camera caught the Houston Astros first baseman pulling his eyes into a slant and mouthing a racial epithet.

The racist gestures, seen by millions, ignited a debate about racism and intolerance that white-bread Major League Baseball has rarely seen. While pro football, with its majority of black players, and pro basketball, with its black majority, have focused on social protest, MLB, with a negligible African-American presence, had steered clear of conflict until the Darvish-Gurriel controversy exploded.

This was not the traditional black vs. white racism. This was a more complex variation of bigotry — immigrant to immigrant, person of color to person of color. Gurriel, a Cuban, deriding Darvish, the son of a Japanese mother and Iranian father.

On Wednesday, Darvish, who had already said he’d forgiven Gurriel, was taking the mound in Game 7 with a chance at redemption and revenge.

I came to Dodgers Stadium looking for my pitch: a fat one, over the plate. The moment never reached first base.

Darvish, who lasted only an inning and a third in Game 3, lasted just two innings in Game 7, leaving after giving up five runs.

And it was Gurriel who took the high ground. Gurriel had requested a private meeting Monday with Darvish to personally apologize. Darvish declined the invitation, explaining to reporters Tuesday: “I told him, ‘Hey, you don’t have to do that, because you made a comment, and, like, I’m not that mad. So, like, I really didn’t care that much about that.’ ”

Making his first plate appearance against Darvish on Wednesday, Gurriel, in a gesture that was both disarming and respectful, tipped his helmet to the Dodgers pitcher.

The Astros hitters then proceeded to lay into Darvish.

After the game, I asked Darvish whether the pressure of the past few days had weighed him down — had, alas, been too much of a distraction. Speaking through an interpreter, Darvish said he felt no pressure.

“What happened didn’t affect me at all,” he said. As for facing Gurriel for the first time since the racist shenanigans, Darvish said his biggest concern facing Gurriel was maintaining control. “I just tried not to hit him, and that’s about it,” he said.

That was it?

Later I ran into Dodgers manager Dave Roberts in one of the corridors beneath Dodger Stadium. After offering congratulations on an exceptional season, I asked Roberts how he felt about Gurriel’s racist, slant-eyed gesture. As he had said publicly, Roberts echoed the theme of forgiveness.

“I am personally invested,” said Roberts, whose mother is Japanese. “But you know what? I just followed Yu Darvish’s lead and take the high road. I know Yuli feels terrible about it. He gets a mistake, and we’ll try to move on.”

The game can move on, the players can move on, but at a time of increasing intolerance within the United States, when bigotry and hatred are being let off the leash, Major League Baseball has done no favors.

Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred chose to protect the MLB shield rather than make a power move that baseball, which has had its own issues with exclusion, would not tolerate racism. Gurriel’s actions, captured on television and appealing to the lowest denominator of bigotry, should have been cause for suspension from a World Series game at least, and four games plus a fine next season. A five-game suspension in a 162-game season next year is meaningless.

“Baseball absolutely failed,” said Kai Ma, a producer for the MSNBC AM Joy show. “The institution sent a weak message, a slap on the wrist. It energized the Astros fans to be even more racist,” said Kai, who is Korean-American. She pointed out that a day after Gurriel’s suspension was announced, the player was given a standing ovation. After the victory in Houston, some fans even duplicated Gurriel’s racist gestures, pulling their eyes back into a slant.

“A message was sent that says, ‘Hey, that’s OK,’ ” Kai said. “What it tells me is that Asian racism is still not taken seriously in this country.”

Kai was born in Baltimore, raised in Los Angeles and grew up watching the Dodgers’ Asian stars such as Chan Ho Park. “That was an entry for my family to feel that we belonged here, that we were American.”

There is a danger in allowing such racist mocking to pass virtually unpunished and barely acknowledged, especially in a climate where Muslim Americans, in particular, find themselves being demonized and singled out. Japanese-Americans of a certain age are especially sensitive to this.

Years ago, I had the privilege of speaking with three Japanese-American men — Chitoshi Azkizuki, Shiro Kashino and Roy Sakamoto — whose lives and whose families’ lives had been turned inside out after the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor. Azkizuki was a freshman at San Jose State when the attack occurred on Dec. 7, 1941. Days later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that forced the internment of Japanese-Americans. Azkizuki, Kashino and Sakamoto were among the 110,000 Japanese-Americans who were relocated to 10 concentration camps. Families lost their homes and businesses. Japanese-Americans who were eligible for the draft were reclassified as enemy aliens.

Baseball became a lifeline in those internment camps, an extension of a vibrant baseball culture that existed in California beginning in the 1900s.

Those men talked about fighting off hopelessness, playing on makeshift diamonds against the backdrop of barbed wire fences and guard towers. The men described how baseball games were a lifeline to hope.

Baseball played an important part then, and Major League Baseball can play an important part now, in uniting a nation where fear and uncertainty abound.

Long after Wednesday’s Game 7 had ended, I found myself reflecting on the Darvish-Gurriel interlude. It seemed so far away, as if the crates of champagne being delivered to the winning Astros and bitter tears being shed by the losing Dodgers had washed away a learning moment.

As Wednesday evening turned into Thursday morning at deserted Dodger Stadium, I wondered what baseball had really learned.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.