Ian Desmond, distractions, and the “white man’s game”

This article is free for anyone to read, but please consider becoming a Patreon subscriber to allow me to keep writing posts like this one.

​Ian Desmond, Rockies outfielder, posted a lengthy explanation on Instagram for why he wouldn’t be participating in MLB’s mid-pandemic 2020 season. The whole thing is worth your time, as before the reveal he’ll be sitting out the season, he focuses on his own upbringing on and off the field as a biracial American, the disadvantages poor, Black communities face in being able to replicate his own journey in this era that’s hyper-focused on baseball of all levels as a business, and racism within MLB itself.

What you should probably not do is read this and react to it in a way where your first questions are about how this impacts the Rockies in 2020, if Desmond stepping away from the sport and his significant paycheck for a year to spend time with his family and to tend to his roots makes their lineup better or worse, if there is something else the Rockies should be doing with the the pro-rated sum of the $15 million he was supposed to earn in a “normal” season. Kind of weird that people laughed at the NBA’s Kyrie Irving for saying that the return of his league was a distraction from the social issues, when many of those same people are now distracting themselves from the very social issues Desmond wrote about in his post in favor of some transaction analysis.

Adam Jones once said that MLB is “a white man’s game,” and he didn’t mean that it was predominantly white in terms of its makeup. He meant that the structures in place meant that the league was run by and for, primarily, white people, that in “demographic and attitude” it was a white game. That made speaking up as a Black man difficult for him, because he knew once he began to do so, once it became obvious he was willing to tell the truth about where the power was and why it was in MLB, he would be shown the door. Jones, upon reaching free agency last year, didn’t receive any MLB-level offers outside of maybe as a clubhouse presence guy, and ended up moving to Japan for the 2020 season instead. And all he did was explain why peaceful protests like those started by Colin Kaepernick in the NFL wouldn’t happen in MLB.

Desmond, in his Instagram post, echoed Jones’ sentiment on the matter when discussing the intentionality of baseball’s whiteness in America, and the damage it does to the game and the people who could, in a much different structure, find themselves playing it:

I remember, as a biracial kid, I dreaded filling out paperwork. I feared those boxes: white, Black, other. The biracial seat is a completely unique experience, and there are so many times you feel like you belong everywhere and nowhere at once. I knew I wasn’t walking around with the privilege of having white skin, but being raised by a white mother (an incredible mother), I never felt fully immersed in Black culture.

I almost always checked Black. Because I felt the prejudices. That’s what being Black meant to me: do you feel the hurt? Do you experience racism? Do you feel like you’re at a slight disadvantage?

Even in baseball. I’m immensely grateful for my career, and for all people who influenced it. But when I reflect on it, I find myself seeing those same boxes. The golden rules of baseball — don’t have fun, don’t pimp home runs, don’t play with character. Those are white rules. Don’t do anything fancy. Take it down a notch. Keep it all in the box.

It’s no coincidence that some of my best years came when I played under Davey Johnson, whose No. 1 line to me was, “Desi, go out there and express yourself.” If, in other years, I’d just allowed myself to be who I was — to play free and and the way I was born to play — would I have been better?

If we didn’t force Black Americans into white America’s box, think of how much we could thrive.

You want to ask a production-related question or seek a production-related answer in response to Desmond’s sitting out? Stick to figuring out the one he asks here, because that’s the one that matters.

Desmond also stated that MLB is failing in what it could be doing as the national pastime, as a place for potential players from all backgrounds to be able to come together and have their lives improved. It’s not a safe space for anyone but bigots, despite what Trevor Bauer might try to tell you in the times he should most be logging off. “We’ve got rampant individualism on the field. In clubhouses, we’ve got racist, sexist, homophobic jokes or flat-out problems. We’ve got cheating. We’ve got a minority issue from the top down… if baseball is America’s pastime, maybe it’s never been a more fitting one than now.”

This isn’t to say MLB lacks players who are good people, or that all of its white players are racists slash homophobes slash sexists. But there is institutional racism in MLB that they have no interest in confronting, and many of the players are fine with things the way they are, too. Why do you think the Red Sox’ white players visited Donald Trump in the White House after their World Series victory, even as the non-white players spoke out publicly about how they wouldn’t be accepting that same invitation? Why do you think Nationals players went out and did the same thing a year later? There is a solidarity issue among MLB’s players, and that’s one of the many reasons Black players do not feel comfortable being themselves in “a white man’s game,” why we’re still waiting for a queer player to be openly out during their career, and why, when Jones or Desmond or Andrew McCutchen or Manny Machado or Doug Glanville or literally anyone with something to say speaks up, their words are briefly considered, if at all, by far too many fans and the league itself.

This lack of attention is why MLB’s words around the police brutality of Black people — words they couldn’t even mention the police in — ring hollow. This is, as Desmond said, an issue from the top in MLB’s central office to the bottom, in the clubhouses themselves. Speculating on what the Rockies will do without Desmond isn’t going to help change any of that, but engaging with what Desmond said just might. As more players feel comfortable speaking up in the way Desmond has become comfortable doing so, then it can force their teammates to confront their own privilege and behavior, and in turn put them in a united position to force MLB to change. That’s a tall order, and much easier to write than to do. But the alternative is that MLB loses the current Desmonds and Jones and the future ones, too, which will only ensure that the white man’s game stays that way forever.

Visit my Patreon to become a supporter and help me continue to write articles like this one.