Major League Baseball gets things wrong most of the time. Labor negotiations, pace of the game, the marketing of star players, the loss of young fans — name it and MLB has botched it. But you figure that, every once in a while, the law of averages would deliver an opportunity so easy that not even a bungling sports enterprise could mishandle it. The “you” I speak of here would be a fool like me.
The easy opportunity arrived last week, and the premise that MLB could hit a ball placed on a tee was soundly refuted.
Baseball’s powers that be handed a pitiful one-game suspension to Yankees third baseman Josh Donaldson after he called White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson “Jackie” during a game Saturday in New York. Donaldson is white, Anderson is Black and Jackie Robinson is the player who broke MLB’s color barrier in 1947.
It is no exaggeration to say that Robinson is so revered for his impact on the game and society that he’s the Martin Luther King Jr. of baseball. It’s why each year on April 15, the day he played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers, every player on every big-league team wears the number Robinson wore — 42.
It really doesn’t matter what Donaldson’s intent was in calling Anderson “Jackie.” He said it was a running joke between the two players, Anderson denied it and … again, doesn’t matter. When it feels like our country is being burned down in new ways every day, words matter greatly. You’d have to be a special kind of idiot not to understand that calling a Black baseball player “Jackie” would be offensive, unless, I don’t know, that was your goal. In the same way that most people of sound mind understand that throwing Hitler’s name around isn’t a good idea, ever, most people understand that teasing a person of color about a Black hero would be incredibly stupid and insensitive.
Unless, I don’t know, you knew exactly what you were saying.
But here’s where MLB had a golden opportunity and blew it.
Donaldson should have gotten a 4.2-game suspension, a nod to Robinson’s number.
A 4.2-game suspension would have given him sufficient time to think about what he said and why it was repugnant. It would have brought more attention to Robinson’s impact on baseball. And it would have given everyone a chance to watch Donaldson enter a game midstream, another reminder of what he had said to Anderson. Not a scarlet letter, but a scarlet in-game substitution.
A one-game suspension is an insult to every person of color who is a baseball fan. A one-game suspension says, “We didn’t want to hand out a suspension, Josh, but we’re getting lots of public pressure, so sit out a game and let’s hope this goes away.’’
A 4.2-game suspension says: “We can’t have this. Not in our game, a game built, in part, on the shoulders of Jackie Robinson. Society has a long way to go, and baseball does, too. Look upon this as another small but needed step in our journey.’’
In a 2019 interview with Sports Illustrated, Anderson talked about the challenges of being a Black athlete in a sport run, played and watched mostly by white people.
“I kind of feel like today’s Jackie Robinson,” he said. “That’s huge to say. But it’s cool, man, because he changed the game, and I feel like I’m getting to a point to where I need to change the game.”
If Anderson is guilty of anything, it’s of even remotely equating his originality and flair for the game with Robinson’s bravery in the face of ugly societal resistance to his presence in the big leagues. But nothing about that gave Donaldson the right to refer to him as “Jackie.” Anderson said Donaldson was with the Twins in 2019 when he first called him that in conversation.
“I told him, ‘We never have to talk again. I won’t speak to you, you won’t speak to me, if that’s how you’re going to refer to me,’ ” Anderson said Tuesday.
Donaldson did it anyway Saturday, eventually leading to a benches-clearing encounter between the Sox and the Yankees. After the game, he introduced everyone to his inside-joke defense, built on the idea that Anderson was in on the laugh-out-loud idea of a white person making light of an African-American icon’s name to a Black person.
But to reiterate, the details don’t really matter. There’s no misunderstanding here, no hidden context. The only thing lacking is a conscientious response to an obvious wrong. Another swing and a miss by Major League Baseball.