More than 100 members of Congress expressed their “firm opposition” to a proposal by MLB that would reportedly eliminate more than 40 minor league teams.
The letter, signed Tuesday and addressed to commissioner Rob Manfred, warned that the proposal would “devastate our communities, their bond purchasers and other stakeholders affected by the potential loss of these clubs.”
The current agreement between Major League Baseball and the minor league teams — called the Professional Baseball Agreement — expires at the end of the 2020 season.
MLB is looking to make some major changes that would overhaul all levels of the minors, particularly at low Class A and below.
According to multiple reports, the more than 40 teams at the lower levels that are not included in this venture would be reclassified into a “Dream League,” which would be run jointly by MLB and Minor League Baseball and would include players who were not selected in the draft.
“Reducing the number of Minor League Baseball clubs and overhauling a century-old system that has been consistently safeguarded by Congress is not in the best interest of the overall game of baseball, especially when Major League Baseball’s revenues are at all-time highs,” the letter said.
The exile of Oakland A’s Bruce Maxwell and the birth of MLB’s Black player movement
To find Bruce Maxwell‘s America, you first have to leave it, as he did, by crossing over into another country, into an exile both self-imposed and voluntary. It is to journey 165 miles southwest of the U.S. border at Laredo, Texas, into the Mexican city of Monclova, and look back at the most important intersection of his life: Sept, 23, 2017, when the Oakland Athletics catcher told his manager, Bob Melvin, he would kneel during the national anthem.
Maxwell had made that decision witnessing a country in full retreat. Colin Kaepernick had knelt the year before, and for the act of protesting police brutality during the national anthem, no team would sign him. Protesting white supremacy in Charlottesville, Virginia, 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed when James Fields deliberately drove his car into a group of protesters. A month later, the president of the United States gave a speech in Huntsville, Alabama, near Maxwell’s hometown, calling any NFL player who kneeled in protest of police violence a “son of a bitch.” Maxwell had only a year of service time in the big leagues, but history waits for no one, and the nation was coming apart.
Maxwell would take a knee in his crisp white home jersey, alone, while the rest of his teammates stood. Death threats and harassment immediately followed. Four days later, in Texas, his A’s teammates would joke with him about assassins in the box seats, how no one wanted to stand next to him during the anthem or sit next to him in the dugout for fear of being hit with a bullet intended for him. In the following weeks, Maxwell’s protest would be met with skepticism, condescension and virtually no true support from anyone in major league baseball.
As with Kaepernick, his critics distorted his protest, misdirecting a warning about a fraying nation inward toward themselves. Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, for example, said he would “have a problem” with a kneeling player because his father served in the Marines for 30 years, adding that a player needed to “be educated” before making such a gesture. To Maxwell, there couldn’t have been a more insulting response, because it came from one of only two Black managers in the game — and implied that Maxwell had no idea why he was risking his entire career, even though high-profile confrontations between police and the Black community had been international news for half a decade. Roberts’ comments also ignored the fact that Bruce Maxwell III was born at Clay Kaserne, the U.S. Army installation in Wiesbaden, Germany, where his father, Bruce Maxwell Jr., was stationed in 1990. Maxwell knew all about the military.
When Maxwell looks at an America in reckoning after the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police, he sees that America, the America of 2017, and it informs his cynical view and justifiable rage. He sees GMs in a game that has ruined countless careers of players who were outspoken then — GMs who did not sign him after his protest now holding up Black Lives Matter signs at the 2020 draft. He sees players who did not support him then now being lauded for their courage facing racism. This week, Cincinnati Reds All-Star first baseman Joey Votto took batting practice wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt. On June 26, The Wall Street Journal profiled several Black executives, silent for years, who now want to talk. Black players who weren’t there for Maxwell then are now seeing their outspokenness carrying more reward than risk — the same people who did not speak with him then are being listened to now — all because today’s tipping-point moment has made it safe for them to speak. He does not see courage. They risked nothing.
“The season’s gonna resume. They’re going to get more fame because it’s going to look like they’re standing up for what’s right,” Maxwell says. “They’re making T-shirts and they’re showing they care, but they don’t go back to the original sacrificed person. Where was all of this then? It’s easy to talk because everyone’s talking. I was out there by myself. I’m bitter as f—, and I’m not hiding it.”
In a sense, Maxwell has gone full dissident. He not only plays in Monclova as the starting catcher for the Acereros but now lives in the city full time. When he thinks about the big leagues, so many of his thoughts are punctuated with a question that has not yet been answered to his satisfaction, Where were you? He is talking to baseball, players and management, and he is talking, in a larger sense, to his country.
Seeing Maxwell through this lens also explains another enormously important intersection in his life: During spring training before the season abruptly shut down, the A’s needed catching. Maxwell’s agent, fearsome former Oakland pitcher Dave Stewart, suggested Maxwell. Melvin, general manager David Forst and executive vice president Billy Beane all agreed to bring him back to the majors. The exile was over — and Maxwell turned them down. He would not go back, to the A’s or to America. He was happier in Mexico.
When Minneapolis exploded over the killing of George Floyd, 13-year big league veteran Cameron Maybin texted Edwin Jackson, who has played for nearly half the teams in the league — 14 teams in a 17-year career. Jackson and Maybin were using a player group chat that Black players originally created to share information on COVID-19, but Floyd’s killing transformed the group chat into an organizing hotline. Maybin and Jackson texted Dee Gordon of the Seattle Mariners, a nine-year veteran. Maybin’s message was, simply, “We have to do something.” He hoped to get 20 or so players on board. They reached out to retired players. Maybin’s former New York Yankees teammate CC Sabathia enthusiastically joined. Edwin Jackson invited Maxwell to join the group.
“I told him, ‘We weren’t there for you, but we’re here now,'” Maybin says of Maxwell. “He should feel every way he should feel. He should be mad. We should have been there. We had the chance to apologize to him. What we’re doing has been overdue. Long overdue.”
The group chat swelled to 130 members. Maybin contacted the Major League Baseball Players Association. For a group of players who were nonexistent during Ferguson, and Kaepernick, and Maxwell, something remarkable was happening. When he did not hear back, Maybin took the first steps toward activism and formed the group anyway. Along parallel channels, Sabathia and recently retired 16-year big league veteran Curtis Granderson already were communicating with Tony Clark, the MLBPA executive director. Maybin and Granderson’s team built a website. The group named itself The Players Alliance.
Maybin likened the moment not to a match but to a teakettle, heating up with each deadly, heartbreaking encounter between police and the Black community. During this tumultuous decade, high-profile Black athletes and entertainers from LeBron James to Kaepernick, Beyonce to Dave Chappelle, have publicly and prominently spoken out, while Black baseball players in voice and action have largely been invisible. Now, after nearly a decade of silence, the teakettle was starting to whistle. Colorado Rockies infielder and outfielder Ian Desmond, for one, said Floyd’s death “broke his coping mechanism.”
Inspired by the video made by NFL players that forced commissioner Roger Goodell to apologize to them for not listening, the Black MLB players recorded a similar video with the hashtag #Justice4BLM. Symbolically the video lasted eight minutes, 46 seconds — which was initially reported to be the exact length of time Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin drove his knee into the neck of George Floyd until it killed him.
“It was the magnitude of it all, so many instances, so many of these videos going viral, and it’s all of the things you’re dealing with as a Black man,” Maybin says. “What you tell your kids. How you drive. When you drive. When I take my uniform off, all of this is real for us. On the one hand, baseball always tells you to be a role model, but then they say you can’t speak or you lose everything.”
On June 29, Desmond, listed as a member of The Players Alliance, announced he would opt out of the 2020 shortened season amid the coronavirus pandemic, but not before posting to Instagram a withering explanation that also underscored the rising mood of players.
“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. One African American GM. Two African American managers. Less than 8% Black players. No Black majority team owners. … If baseball is America’s pastime, maybe it’s never been a more fitting one than now.”
“Good for him,” Sabathia says. “This s— is waking people up.”
On July 4, another member of The Players Alliance, Dodgers pitcher David Price, opted out of the season, citing health concerns. Along with Desmond and former Detroit Tigers pitcher Tyson Ross and his brother, Joe Ross, Price is the fourth member of The Players Alliance to opt out of the 2020 season.
On June 10, the Boston Red Sox posted a cryptic, three-word tweet that read, “This is real.” The post was accompanied by an image: an official news release in white type against a black background confirming statements made days earlier by Torii Hunter regarding the racial slurs he absorbed from Red Sox fans over the course of 19 years as a visiting player at Fenway Park with the Minnesota Twins, the Los Angeles Angels and the Tigers. “True change starts from within,” began the final paragraph.
That same day, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, Major League Baseball opened its 2020 first-year player draft with a “Black Lives Matter. United for Change” virtual message. Kenny Williams, the longtime Chicago White Sox general manager and current executive vice president, told harrowing stories of the racism he had encountered in his life. Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, who initiated the draft-day event, had watched protests across the country, questioned his own hiring practices and pledged to use the moment to be a better, more inclusive executive. In one night, baseball pledged nearly $1 million to social justice organizations.
The national mood was shifting, and the messages of support were encouraging. But the optics during the draft moment were indicting: Of the 30 executives holding “Black Lives Matter” signs, 28 were white men. Players have feared speaking out with good reason: Baseball has historically been a hostile environment for African Americans. The sport annually celebrates the groundbreaking courage of Jackie Robinson, but Black players have long avoided even the most uncontroversial racial issues. Even discussing race at any level comes with risk. Without strength in numbers in the clubhouse (there were only 68 African American players on Opening Day rosters in 2019), baseball players are unique from football and basketball, in a disadvantageous position. With only two of the league’s 30 managers being Black, plus often hostile white teammates and Asian and Latino players indifferent to what they view as a domestic political issue, the Black baseball player is distinctly vulnerable to retaliation. Maxwell remains the only MLB player to have taken a knee.
New York Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen said on a Zoom call with reporters on June 10, “We have a systemic racism problem in this country. It affects all of our institutions. Baseball isn’t immune to it.”
As the players and the leaders talked, Maxwell grew embittered in Mexico by what looked like opportunism. For generations, Black players have felt that baseball is not only not immune to systemic racism but one of the country’s leading practitioners — and now, he thought, everyone was in this together?
“No Black athlete in America is more afraid of ownership than the Black baseball player,” Dave Stewart says. “It’s not like in basketball or football where you have big numbers of Blacks. Here, they know they don’t need you. They can play baseball without you.”
One sport, three reckonings. Maxwell rebuilds his life uncertain about where he fits in a dizzying American retrofit. Baseball, meanwhile, with its statements, is positioning itself as part of the solution, even though for more than a half-century it has sent the message to Black players that advocating for African Americans will be a career death sentence. Minneapolis provided the final push Black big leaguers needed to reconnect to a heritage they abandoned out of that fear, a past they’ve abandoned since Bill White, Frank Robinson, Henry Aaron, Bob Gibson and Curt Flood led the fight to desegregate spring training facilities in Arizona and Florida nearly 60 years ago. For all the corporate safety of the current moment, player activism in support of the Black community exposes them to a potential fate Bruce Maxwell knows firsthand.
“At the time Maxwell did it, they were afraid,” Hunter says. “They were running from things. They had a wife, kids, big money. They were trying to protect what they had. The fact of the matter is people are talking now. Guys are fed up. They’re coming together. They’re trying to be as one.”
In Hunter’s words, the players are now “awake.” Their collective action is the body of The Players Alliance. The final images of George Floyd are its heart. And Bruce Maxwell is its conscience, the cautionary tale of speaking without permission, of what can happen to them, of what took so long. He represents the flesh-and-blood example of the human cost of protest, how it’s treated in this country, in the game, and the personal cost when the collective fails to protect its values. While some players have apologized to Maxwell for not being there three years ago — Cleveland center fielder Delino DeShields Jr. said in an interview with ESPN’s Joon Lee and in various social media posts that he felt like a “sellout” for not supporting Maxwell in 2017 while a member of the Texas Rangers — they are in many ways apologizing for themselves.
“On the one hand, it is progress, because the fact that players are talking is better than no one talking at all,” Stewart says. “But ‘Where were you?’ is a fair question. In the NFL, when Kaepernick first took his knee, he had support from other Black players. When Bruce did it, the Black baseball players did nothing. What they did is to me the equivalent of seeing a Black guy getting his ass kicked in the street by a whole bunch of white guys — and the Black guys just stand around, watching it happen.”
In the June 23 episode of HBO’s “Real Sports,” Bryant Gumbel dedicated his closing monologue to what he and his friends refer to as the “Black Tax,” in his words, “the added burden that comes with being Black in America, and it’s routinely paid no matter how much education you have, how much money you make or how much success you’ve earned.”
Spurred by Kaepernick a year earlier, and by President Donald Trump’s speech in Huntsville, Maxwell knelt for the final nine games of the 2017 season. He’d been in the big leagues for only a year, making his debut in 2016, and while appreciating the courage, Clark was concerned Maxwell lacked the professional service time to better protect himself against potential reprisal. Maxwell immediately felt the effects of what he had done. Forst would say he wasn’t sure Maxwell understood the severity of the reaction. There were death threats and increased isolation, the inescapable feeling of a certain level of betrayal. Where was everyone?
“I supported what he was doing. I just wasn’t taking a knee,” says Sabathia, who at the time was the ace left-hander for the Yankees. “The way I saw it, that was Kap’s thing. That was Kap’s gesture. It wasn’t the right gesture for me, but nobody can say I didn’t say anything. When Kaepernick first protested, everyone in the clubhouse always came to me. I don’t run from the issue. I’ve been the recipient of police brutality. I didn’t reach out to Bruce Maxwell because I didn’t know him, but we do a lot — through my foundation, speaking out. Just because taking a knee wasn’t the right act for me doesn’t mean I wasn’t there.”
By his own admission, Maxwell was fraying emotionally. He did not take a knee to draw attention to himself. But he also didn’t expect to experience total isolation — or a gnawing sense that many of his fellow players questioned his commitment to activism, believing he was just a new guy trying to make a name for himself. “No one understands how miserable I was,” he says. For years, Maxwell had legally carried a handgun. As the vitriol increased — the death threats, the online harassment — he began to resign himself to the thought that he might have to use it.
On Sept. 28, 2017, in Texas, the A’s were playing their first road series after Maxwell had begun kneeling. The sniper jokes felt too real to be funny, and soon Maxwell began interpreting them another way: In the event of an attack on him, his teammates were telling him nobody would have his back. By this point, it hadn’t been lost on him that none of his Black teammates or other Black players in the league had joined in the protest or even offered robust verbal protection. He was alone. “It is much easier being Black when there are other Black people around you,” Maxwell says. “There was no one. People are saying what they should have done. They’re saying it now, but no one was saying anything then.”
When he first knelt, Maxwell received more support from outside the game than within it. Hunter, Stewart and former teammate Coco Crisp all reached out to him directly. So did Steph Curry and David West of the Golden State Warriors. Kaepernick called him. Clark made overtures to invite Maxwell to address the MLBPA’s November meeting in Dallas. But the support came from retired players or from those outside the game. Only one active player reached out to him: Baltimore Orioles center fielder Adam Jones called him directly.
“Bruce was right. Kap was right. Absolutely right. We could have called him. We could have reached out,” says Cliff Floyd, who played 17 seasons in the big leagues, winning the World Series with the 1997 Marlins. “We could have called him and said, ‘We feel you. We hear you.’ We could have provided a shoulder, some advice, because we’ve been there. He was just a young guy. It was our responsibility to reach out to him. There’s no doubt we could have sponsored him better, and we didn’t.”
On the afternoon of Oct. 28, 2017, at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona, Maxwell got drunk, ordered takeout and fell asleep. Startled by the doorbell, he took out the SIG Sauer 9 mm handgun he kept slung in the elastic of his waistband and answered the door. The young woman, 25-year-old Lindsay Ashworth, later told police she saw an unsteady Maxwell in the doorway before he pointed the silver handgun toward her face. Maxwell says he never pointed his gun at Ashworth. He paid for the food. She went to her car and called 911. Fifteen minutes later, Maxwell was surrounded by 10 members of the Scottsdale police. According to case No. 17-23914, he was arrested on one count of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, a felony, and a second count of disorderly conduct with a dangerous weapon, a misdemeanor.
Scottsdale police body cameras filmed portions of the scene. In video footage acquired by TMZ, Maxwell can be seen sitting on an electric generator unit, shirtless and barefoot, wearing just a pair of shorts. He is handcuffed, raging at police. He echoes Kaepernick’s 2016 line of police killing Black citizens and receiving paid vacations. He references Philando Castile, who in 2016 was fatally shot by a police officer during a traffic stop in suburban St. Paul, Minnesota. Castile, who was licensed to carry, had told the officer he had a firearm. In the Maxwell video, he is seen lecturing officers as if reading the counts of an indictment. One officer tells Maxwell he doesn’t want him to be afraid of police. “Guess what,” Maxwell responds. “Half of America is already afraid of you motherf—ers.” The footage lasts three minutes, 22 seconds. Nearing its end, Maxwell can be seen handcuffed in the back of a patrol car. His voice has broken, shattered by rage and tears. He is crying. He appears to be having a complete breakdown. “F— baseball. F— the MLB. I’m fighting for our f—ing country.” He has just been added to the list, a Black man at the top of his profession and still the one in handcuffs. He is paying the Black Tax.
The chain of events that followed his kneeling altered his life. Forst and Beane told Maxwell they supported him. The state dropped the felony charge when it agreed with Maxwell that he did not point his gun at Ashworth, as the police report originally alleged. “The only charge I have was disorderly conduct. Being belligerent and talking loud to the cops,” Maxwell says. “That’s it.”
He fell out of favor with the A’s when he arrived to 2018 spring camp overweight. The A’s responded by signing veteran Jonathan Lucroy. Maxwell became a backup. The tumult continued into the season. In Boston, not far from where Maxwell was stretching, former A’s player and Red Sox broadcaster Jonny Gomes conducted an interview in which he criticized kneeling players for “not doing anything.” Maxwell fell out of favor with Bob Melvin and in June was demoted to the minors while the team erupted for a surprise 97-win year. The season ended, the A’s released him. He got married and divorced. No team signed him.
“I got pushed out of the game because I took a knee during the national anthem,” he says. “It eats at me. I find a way to still get my work done, but it still eats at me. Everyone talks about veteran leadership, but where were they? Chris Archer deflected every question. Didn’t even want to make the BLM video. No time for that dude. Andrew McCutchen? Where was everybody? How do you let a guy with one year of service time outlead you? I didn’t do this for the clout. I did this because of what’s happening in this country and because we play in the whitest sport. We play in the most racist sport. There should be more of us out there.”
He expected the worst going into that 2017 series in Texas. Out of respect for the organization, and accompanied by DeShields, Maxwell took the unorthodox step of speaking to Texas Rangers GM Jon Daniels in a conference room on the clubhouse level. Maxwell recalls Daniels offering him words of support, which Daniels confirmed. Before the game, Rangers legend Michael Young met Maxwell and offered him words of support. When the anthem played in front of 41,664, Maxwell knelt. DeShields ultimately chose to stand.
“I went every professional route you could have and people stared at me and left me out there like I was no one,” Maxwell says now. “And Delino? He’s my dog, but you stood there and watched me for three days … on the same field … and now they applaud him?”
Says Hunter: “I understand it. His dream was shattered. All you want to do is play baseball. You live your whole life to get to the big leagues. He wanted someone to listen, and the people he was fighting for didn’t speak up.”
Since the end of Jim Crow segregation, Black baseball has operated under the premise that the triumphant voices of Jackie Robinson and others during the civil rights movement provided not greater opportunity to speak freely but instead far less. Black players believe they are one controversial statement away from being out of the league. During the 2017 postseason, Edwin Jackson, then of the Nationals, explained to me the career jeopardy that supporting Maxwell posed. “It’s hard, and I did feel for him. My wife was giving me grief for letting him protest out there by himself, but at the same time it wasn’t like any of us were consulted. And to try that in this town? She was mad at me, but I also asked her, ‘Do you want me to play or be forced into retirement?'”
Who would volunteer for a career death sentence? It is a question Black players ask often as a response to criticisms that they are not vocal enough in their sport — a question they ask because they know their sport. Black players have long felt baseball doesn’t want them. They point to the microscopic numbers today, when only 7.7% of players are African American. (The percentage of Black players hasn’t been above 10% since 2005, according to SABR.) The Yankees in 2019 had nine Black players in their entire minor league system — and no African American scouts. The entire National League West in 2019 fielded three African American regular players: Ian Desmond of Colorado, and Jarrod Dyson and Adam Jones of Arizona. Five teams, three players. They point to the old saying “No Blacks on the bench.” In order to stay in the big leagues, Black players had to be good enough to be in the regular rotation. “If you saw a Black player, you knew he was a starter,” says Dusty Baker, now the manager of the Houston Astros. “The white guys were the ones who could soak up knowledge on the bench — and those guys were the ones who wound up becoming managers. If you were Black, you were contributing.”
They point to how quickly reputations stick in the game, how unforgiving baseball culture is of nonconformity — and how that reputation gets a player shipped out of town, even without creating controversy. Yesterday, it was Earl Wilson of the Red Sox being traded to the Tigers in 1966 for publicly confirming he was ordered to leave a segregated bar he entered with two white teammates in Lakeland, Florida, during spring training. Today, in a time when the biggest voices in American sports are using their influence to speak out on injustice — as Robinson would — it is the Yankees subtly discouraging their new superstar, Aaron Judge, from being publicly vocal on racial issues, encouraging him to follow the racially disengaged, politically neutral model of Derek Jeter, another signaling of the price Black players can expect to pay by supporting Black people.
They point to the overwhelming accomplishments required for African Americans to become managers. To this day, baseball has never had a Black manager who did not appear in the big leagues as a player, an example of the extremely high bar required to be hired. Of the 15 Black managers, nine have been All-Stars, one (Frank Robinson) is in the Hall of Fame, three (Don Baylor, Maury Wills, Frank Robinson) were former MVPs, and another, Baker, was an NLCS MVP in 1977. Only a couple (Bo Porter, Jerry Manuel) were not above-average players — and Manuel was a first-round pick. It is the natural extension of Baker’s point: If being a role player was largely unavailable to African Americans, it would stand to reason that future Black managers would have been very good players, but it also means that for a Black player to become a manager, he must first be one of the very best position players in the game.
More from Howard Bryant
The major league minimum for players in 2019 was $555,000 — just to walk in the door. With much to lose, the Black baseball player knows, against this backdrop, there is no support system that encourages his voice.
“I’m just gonna speak from the heart. Whose names did I see on my paycheck?” Cliff Floyd says. “You see John Henry’s name on your paycheck. You see Claude Brochu’s name. You see Fred Wilpon’s name. You don’t see Robert Johnson. I’m not saying Bruce Maxwell got what he deserved, that he deserves to be in the Mexican League. I’m saying that’s where they can put you.
“When he did that, I was laying on the couch and I felt that,” Floyd says. “But I was also worried for him. I thought, ‘You gotta get your paycheck too. Get your money. Get your protection. Secure your bag. Speak after.'”
Baseball is a largely white, suburban sport reinforced by foreign labor. It is conservative by tradition and Southern by culture and geography. The Yankees, Angels and Cubs are well-connected to Donald Trump — Yankees president Randy Levine and Trump have been close for decades from when Levine worked for Rudy Giuliani when he was mayor of New York. Angels owner Arte Moreno and his wife, Carole, donated tens of thousands to the Trump campaign. Todd Ricketts, brother of Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts, left the Cubs when Trump nominated him as deputy secretary of commerce. (Ricketts later withdrew and is now finance chairman of the Republican National Committee.) There is concern on the part of some members of The Players Alliance as well as the players’ association that a coordinated Black player protest in baseball would catch the president’s interest, as the NFL’s protest movement did, and that they would be the target of his attacks as NFL players were.
While Black players’ voices have long been muted, Latin American players have increased in numbers and on-field dominance, but that has not translated into power. The unwritten etiquette of the game — showing no emotion or showmanship or self-promotion, lest a player risk retaliation — is a holdover from the 19th-century, pre-integration (and certainly pre-television) game. In his Instagram post, Desmond referred to baseball culture as having “white rules,” another racial microaggression of baseball that’s nonexistent in basketball, football or soccer, sports that culturally adapt to the demographics of players. In Latin America and Asia, as well as historically in the Negro Leagues, the game was and is played with more entertainment flair, less policing of behavior. More style, less retaliation.
Beginning in 2008, the players’ association was concerned about the rise of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, immigration policies in Arizona and how the political climate in that state might affect Latino players during spring training. In 2010, the state passed SB 1070, the toughest anti-immigration bill in the country, mandating that foreign residents carry identification at all times or be charged with a crime. The late Michael Weiner, then the executive director of the players’ association, told me he had hoped some of the star players would rally the Latino membership and lend some of their prominence to a fight that Weiner saw as a threat to civil liberties and put the state’s Latino population in danger. It didn’t happen. Players were too nervous about crossing their teams, upsetting their teammates — and being sent back. Or having visa issues. They couldn’t risk being labeled a “troublemaker.” Weiner decided the membership had reached a conclusion: American politics, even policies directly affecting them, could not be their problem. The risk was too high.
After the Astros won the World Series in 2017, the Trump presidency pulled baseball into its vortex. Maxwell had knelt a month earlier. Some Latino players were upset by Trump’s derogatory comments about Puerto Rico during the Hurricane Maria crisis and wanted to take action, despite being pressured by Astros management to visit the White House. Clark, the MLBPA executive director, gathered his staff for feedback and discovered that a unified union response was not feasible. They already had decided to wait on addressing Trump’s calling kneeling Black players “SOBs” and Maxwell’s arrest, as he was too toxic to be the appropriate messenger for the MLBPA’s Dallas meetings.
“What we found was that we simply didn’t have the membership consensus to engage with what were perceived as political initiatives as could other sports,” Clark says. “What we found in the case of Hurricane Maria was there was enthusiasm to engage from a humanitarian perspective but not from a political one.”
The translation was clear: White players were neither interested in, nor hostile to, mobilizing against Trump’s insult; Latino players were not sufficiently radical to make a statement independent of the union; and Black players lacked the numbers and courage to challenge an entrenched baseball culture full of repercussions they knew better than anyone. Without a unified front, there would be no action. The result was silence. Everyone stayed in line, and nothing happened.
WHAT’S THE PLAN?
As the group chats intensified this June, the nascent Players Alliance grew in confidence. Cameron Maybin was heartened by conversations with Gary Sheffield, who played 22 years in the big leagues and was known as one of the most fearless players in the game. Phone numbers and contacts were exchanged across the league between players. For years, the Black elders of the game have lamented the loss of the legendary closeness among Black players that had existed since 1947, when Robinson, Larry Doby and a small handful of African American players were in the game. The signs of a rebirth were encouraging.
“I think this is going to bring everyone closer together. Five years ago, nothing like this would have happened, and it didn’t,” Sabathia says. “The group is now conscious and aware. They’re ready to carry the torch.”
The elders approved, but the elders were retired, and in their day had seen moments fizzle. They weren’t going to be on the field taking the risk, bearing the potential wrath of angry fans at home and on the road. The league and its teams were supportive of Black rights in the wake of George Floyd, but what about when the moment ended and angry fans threatened to cancel their season tickets? That would fall on the active players.
Strategy sessions over Zoom chats focused on logistics. Would players take a knee during the national anthem? And if they did, was it even remotely sustainable? Taking a knee in football was one thing; the NFL played once a week. Was it sustainable during an MLB season, with 30 spring training games, 162 regular-season games and potentially playoffs, to kneel 200 times? Was that even a smart strategy? It was key, some members of the group stressed, to remain focused on the values of the group more than the optics. Kneeling didn’t exactly make a player more authentic or committed than one who didn’t. The combination of the value system and the show of solidarity was a delicate but important consideration.
The players discussed financial protection, where some players were far better equipped than others. Jason Heyward and David Price signed $184 million and $217 million deals, respectively. They were more insulated from retaliation than guys on one-year deals who were at risk of being picked off, one by one. Maybin won a World Series ring with Houston, hit .285 in 82 games for a 103-win Yankees team that reached the ALCS in 2019. After the season, he received 28 minor league camp invites. As the risks of establishing a voice increased, a sense of unity began spreading throughout the group. Ironically, the skepticism players had three years ago about Maxwell’s commitment to activism when he was an unknown will now test a Players Alliance that has yet to risk anything.
“You think we haven’t had these conversations? Let me tell you about all the things I thought about but couldn’t do anything because I was the only Black guy in the clubhouse,” Maybin says. “Stew is 100 percent right. We talk about these things in the group message. You have the scarcity of us on the field, and then if a guy shows any athleticism, he gets pushed to the outfield, so we’re really competing against each other for the same jobs. We’re not cultivated to be catchers, or starting pitchers, like Dave Stewart was. So when one of us makes it, another gets pushed out.”
Tangible goals were being discussed: What was the plan? What did the players expect to accomplish? Through the group chats and Zoom calls, however, the players already had attained a certain amount of success: Risk was never far from the discussions, but the Black players were talking. They were mobilizing.
In March 2018, The New York Times ran a story detailing the stress and often deadly fates of people who have placed themselves on the activist front lines. Tired. Taxed. Broken. Psychologists have long considered the toll of activist work — heightened in an age of nonstop social media vitriol — a crushing form of PTSD. Since the signature August 2014 protests in Ferguson after the police killing of Michael Brown, six prominent activists from that uprising have been found dead, forcing then-Missouri state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal to suggest in 2017 that the activists were being targeted. The pressure of the movement has exacerbated existing physical or mental conditions of other activists nationwide. Erica Garner, daughter of Eric Garner, the man police choked to death in Staten Island, died at the age of 27 after a heart attack. Last year in St. Louis, police ruled that 24-year-old Ferguson protester Danye Jones had died by suicide after he was found hanging from a tree. During the George Floyd protests, 19-year-old organizer Oluwatoyin Salau was found dead, a victim of a June 13 double homicide in Tallahassee, Florida, after she and Victoria Sims, 75, were reported missing.
The Oakland A’s front office has always maintained that its falling-out with Maxwell had nothing to do with the protest or the gun charge but everything to do with him — how he played, his attitude and optics, his words, his face, his eyes and shoulders. His demeanor. After the arrest, the organization asked him not to give too many interviews, to avoid drawing attention to himself. The team’s strategy was caution, for itself but especially for him. The first priority for Maxwell was to become an established, reliable professional baseball player. In his first interviews, Maxwell said he would not protest at all in 2018, but he felt stifled. He was not free. His activist voice was not just muted, it was nonexistent. When Trump suggested that protesting players “maybe don’t belong in the country,” Maxwell posted a Facebook response, but his then-agent, Matt Sosnick, urged him to remove it. He felt amputated.
The A’s were frustrated in reading Maxwell’s countenance, and he grew weary of constantly being read, of having each expression analyzed, dissected. Was his head in the game? What was he mad about? Could he talk? Could he not talk? Did responding to the president saying he didn’t belong in America make him, in the eyes of the A’s, a distracted professional? Playing baseball was difficult enough, and now the constant reading and misreading — a common complaint among African Americans in the corporate workplace — wrecked an already delicate sense of equilibrium.
Maxwell fired Sosnick after the 2018 World Series. Stewart took over. His strategy was to immediately rehabilitate Maxwell’s reputation. Stewart went to his friend, longtime talent evaluator Allard Baird, to ask him to take a look. Baird told Stewart that he had gone to Triple-A Nashville to look at Maxwell as a possible fit for the Mets. Stewart later discovered that Baird wasn’t alone. The A’s never sought a trade for Maxwell, but 14 teams had gone to see him in Nashville. The consensus was what Baird reported back to Stewart: Maxwell looked like “he didn’t give a s—.”
Stewart told Maxwell the word on him.
“You know what? I didn’t,” Maxwell recalls. “Emotionally, I felt done.”
When Stewart attended the 2019 winter meetings in San Diego looking for work for Maxwell, he received the same response from more than a dozen teams: It wasn’t the kneeling that made Maxwell toxic. It was the gun charge — even though it had been dropped to a misdemeanor nearly 20 months earlier. Everyone in the game knew Pittsburgh needed catching, but Stewart received the same response from the Pirates about Maxwell: They were all set.
Before the pandemic shut down the sport this spring, Oakland was struggling at the catching position, so Stewart approached Bob Melvin and told him Maxwell was available. It would be an easy fit. They knew each other. Maxwell knew the system. The A’s needed catching. He needed a job. He was playing in Mexico, about to begin his second season with Monclova. Melvin told Stewart he would take the idea to David Forst and Billy Beane. Both signed off.
Bruce Maxwell was heading back to the A’s — until he told Stewart he wouldn’t go.
“Bruce couldn’t get past his ego. That’s why he’s not in the major leagues,” Stewart says. “I told him, ‘You have to humble yourself sometime.’ He wasn’t willing to do that. I had to go back to the A’s and tell them we weren’t going to be able to work something out.”
Maxwell, Stewart and Stewart’s wife, Lonnie, talked for hours. Maxwell believed that if the A’s were serious, they would have called; it wouldn’t have needed to be Stewart’s idea. Maxwell told Stewart he wanted a real chance. “I told him, ‘They were just doing you a favor because you’re Dave Stewart,'” Maxwell says. Stewart told him big league baseball teams don’t hand out jobs as favors.
“I didn’t feel there was a real want for me,” Maxwell says. “I told Dave, ‘I don’t want a job because you’re my agent.’ I didn’t want to be a charity case. I think Dave thinks I made a mistake, and I respect that, but here’s the real: I still had a lot of pent-up feelings about being there, and as I told Dave, I didn’t want to mess up his reputation if I walked in there and couldn’t make it work. I just kept asking myself if I wanted to be subjected to all that again, walking in there, with everyone wondering what my face meant and if they were going to judge me because I wasn’t as cheerful as they wanted me to be, or they were just waiting to call me a failure if I didn’t play well. I didn’t need it. They did a favor for Dave.”
Beane recalls the opportunity.
“I certainly have a personal and professional relationship with Stew, and we have an affinity for Bruce because we drafted him,” Beane says. “But this has always been who we are. We liked him as a player, and we’ve always been able to adjust to unique personalities. Would we do Stew a favor? Yes, he had a credit bank with us, but that’s not why we did it. Bruce worked hard to be a major league-level player. He is a major league player, and Stew’s right: We don’t just hand out major league jobs.”
Ultimately, the picture became clearer, coalescing around a certain truth. The evaluation between Maxwell and major league baseball wasn’t one-way, as it usually is, where players will do anything to play in the big leagues. If a team sincerely reached out to him, he said he would listen, but he really didn’t want to go back to Oakland.
On June 26, USA Today profiled African Americans who reached a conclusion similar to Maxwell’s: In the age of Ferguson, Trump and now George Floyd, the strain of being in America might best be dealt with by leaving it. “All three,” the story read, “are part of a small cultural cohort: Black émigrés who, feeling cornered and powerless in the face of persistent racism, police brutality and economic struggles in the U.S., have chosen to settle and pursue their American-born dreams abroad.” The Mexican League season was canceled, but Maxwell, for the time being, has joined that tribe. He remains in Monclova. He is still on group chats, but while The Players Alliance finds its footing, strategizing, choosing to respond to its reckoning by engaging, Maxwell dealt with his by being free of America, and free of the big leagues. He says he is free.
“The last three years of my life have been hell. I lost my money, my job, my wife, and I’ve finally gotten to a place where I could figure myself out,” he says. “When I came down here, all eyes were on me, without backlash. Honestly, I’ve never been happier. I busted my ass to become myself. I like myself now, and this opportunity here, nobody gave it to me. I earned it. I finally feel like I belong somewhere, and I cannot put that aside right now. My happiness makes me money, ’cause when I’m happy, nobody can touch me. People love me unconditionally down here, unlike in the States.”
Five things MLB can do right now to confront systemic racism
Major League Baseball is scrambling to get the 2020 season off the ground, with considerable concerns about travel, safety and logistics during the coronavirus pandemic. Also hovering over the game is the question of how it will face a new sensibility about race in America.
Being neutral is no longer an option. The sport can set the tone if it can shift from words in a statement to taking on a whole new social stance. MLB has already developed initiatives toward more inclusive hiring practices, yet this is also about a culture shift, a change in the norms to both elevate inclusion and respond to racial injustice. Given that the game’s public response has often slipped into silence or avoidance, here are five things I would suggest right now to start that culture shift, knowing that these are just the tip of the iceberg.
1. Update the Selig Rule
The Selig Rule requires teams to interview diverse candidates for job opportunities inside and connected to Major League Baseball. Like any rule, it needs to be revisited from time to time. Now would be one of those times.
A few years ago, I wrote that I supported the Selig Rule because of the power of putting good intentions in writing. It provides a reference point. It raises accountability. The rule has shown success in unearthing qualified diverse candidates for certain positions. Yet there are areas in the game that are still out of the reach of its intended impact. For example, teams have unilateral power to bring in special assistants outside of this rule. This puts emphasis on someone’s relationship with team leadership. In the past, these positions were not crucial for hiring, say, the team’s next manager, but more and more, they help determine who becomes the best candidate. Without the league having the influence to lead each team toward the larger goal of diversity, the only way this pipeline becomes diverse is through the commitment of individual team owners. And unless you, as a candidate, are part of this inside track, you’re a long shot in the interview process. Because these positions have tended to reflect the homogeneity of baseball ownership, some oversight and sharing of best practices would be beneficial to accomplish a group mission, rather than a team one.
How to take action right now: Bring all the teams together to draw up a robust best-practices document representative of all points of view but based on expertise in how to achieve and protect inclusiveness throughout the sport.
2. Use analytics in a new way
Even though this has always been part of the game, the past decade in baseball has seen an explosion in analytics. Now, there are departments inside each organization dedicated to crunching numbers, finding patterns and seeking value under every rock. They make projections and explain history, and every team uses its department in its own way. Analytics can turn an organization’s philosophy into an algorithm. Analytics can tell you that if you try to steal third during a day game with a left-handed pitcher on the mound during a solar eclipse, the chances of success increase by X percentage points. The details have details.
But when we ask organizations about the lack of diversity in certain positions or why there persists a culture impacted by significant bias both overt and in the shadows, there are few answers. Yes, it’s an emotional issue, rooted in long-established systemic biases that can be tough to quantify, but we have developed many social models for a whole host of other circumstances. Why not turn those analytical minds toward this goal of diversity? Or use analytics to understand how the system can perpetuate disparity? After all, there are aspects to it that are indeed equations. Bias is measurable when it comes to outcomes. We have statistical data points. We spend so much time on economic value and on outcome value on the field that we tend to think our unstated human priorities will be met through magic. Perhaps analytics can help us pose questions such as: Why don’t minority candidates advance at the same rate as white candidates? Why do I hire people who look like me? What is the impact of a player playing in a cultural environment that is unfriendly or, worse, openly hostile? Do players of color have someone with whom to discuss experiences with racism anywhere inside the organization? What is done about racism? Is it harder to be a role player when you are Black? In policing, there are data for disproportionate arrest rates, use of force and so on. Many of these data points are tracked along the lines of race. Successfully inclusive companies design themselves to control bias. If any industry can do the deepest of dives, it’s baseball. Why not use it for a greater good?
How to take action right now: Bring in an expert — such as Iris Bohnet from the Kennedy School at Harvard University, whose studies in the fields of people analytics and behavioral design are second to none — and get to work.
3. Be a bridge among players, fans and law enforcement
Speaking of police, this is a partnership that should be expanded. Police and baseball share a lot of common culture, including the union history and the reach into communities across the country. Little leagues are everywhere, and minor league and big league teams have strong local presences. Baseball can help develop and share resources with police to help reimagine policing through the best spirit of the game. Everywhere I played, I had a direct relationship with local law enforcement. Players know that experience well, whether it is an officer looking out for players to secure their safety or a working friendship linked together for charity or volunteer officers in players’ lives as coaches when they were younger, as they were in my case.
Baseball can be part of this solution because the game understands the passionate community of fans around its teams. This is one great loss as the minor leagues contract. The intangibles of teams’ reach allowed players to do so much with their influence to improve relationships. This is a time when we need to engage more, sit at the table together and allow the language of baseball to break the ice. Police are everywhere, and so is baseball, and the two have a longstanding connection. There are about 700,000 police officers in the United States in about 18,000 departments. There are 180,000 Little League squads and millions of players. There are 30 big league teams and 250-plus minor league teams. Together, they represent an underutilized partnership.
How to take action right now: I serve on the Connecticut Police Officer Standards and Training Council, and it is amazing what can happen when people consistently work together with a common goal. The council has civilians and law enforcement working together to set policy. Many states have a similar structure but do not have civilians in the room. Help this become the standard.
4. Take full advantage of baseball’s existing diversity
Baseball already has rich diversity on the field. When I played, it was an aspect of the game I truly loved. People from all over the world, all over the country, different socioeconomic backgrounds, all trying to figure it out as a team. I saw many examples of players reconsidering their assumptions by the end of a long season. A season in baseball is a time when you gain much more information about a person than their skin color and their home address. Sometimes, knowing that those initial assumptions were incorrect or oversimplified can help you see the world through the eyes of another person. The game can do more to showcase players working together. You travel, eat, play, pray, room, ride, win, lose, cry, train … together. It’s an advantage over what is a fairly segregated country, where people generally retreat to their silos, whether involuntarily or by choice. Baseball provides access and opportunity to share cultures and ideas in unique ways. That is worth a lot, and the game should be proud of it. We can work together because we have been working together already.
How to take action right now: Launch a campaign to show real diversity at work. Call it: “One Team.”
5. Don’t run and hide from racism
The typical strategy when it comes to uncomfortable topics a team, league or organization is confronting is to let the media cycle kill it. There is a calculus that people will get bored, the media will get bored, and any inconvenient truths will melt away. To date, racism certainly has been pushed into that category. If the approach is based on the false belief that racism exists only when the people who experience it bring it up, then baseball will fail to be part of the solution. The problem with this ignore-it-until-it-goes-away strategy is it diminishes the impact of racism or at least makes it seem as though we all have the privilege to just move on. Many do not. The company line, the quote about unity, the “this is not who we are” has meaning only when you stand up for those words every single day. Better to acknowledge this is who we have been or we have been silent for too long.
Diversity programs can fail in part because those put in the position to address diversity have no real power unless they are putting out fires, but baseball can do a better job to lead the charge, especially when it benefits society. It’s tough to assess but achievable. It will be uncomfortable at times, and business interests might need to adapt, but these are moments for great leadership to be uncompromising on core values. It cannot be a knee-jerk reaction, either. Baseball has to be careful with cancel culture. That has been used by corporations as something to hide behind and a way to avoid taking a deeper look at themselves. The risk is that we tend to cancel the lessons, too. We must remember that racism is not a 24-hour news cycle in people’s lives. Don’t treat it that way.
For the most part throughout its history, baseball has been silent on racism. Jackie Robinson was told that he needed to resist the urge to fight back, and he held his breath until he bought time. Then he fought, vehemently, for equality beyond the game of baseball — in the face of hate, death threats and family jeopardy. That is the Robinson baseball needs to tap into at this moment: the legislator, speaker, marcher, debater, columnist, activist, campaigner and mirror to a country that needs to do better. We have no excuse for our silence or our selective ignorance of how Robinson’s last public baseball wish was to see the power of diversity woven into the game’s leadership.
How to take action right now: Revisit the entire legacy of Jackie Robinson. Bring to life his other goals for equality — the ones he pursued in his life after baseball. Use his example of how to respond to injustice, both in public and in private.
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It’s impossible to calculate the effort devoted to the craft of pitch framing in the past 15 years of professional baseball — or, if you prefer the more elegant term used by some catchers, pitch presentation. Thousands of man-hours have been put in to learn the slight turn of a shoulder or a wrist that can dress up the quality of a pitch — not to mention the countless days of video review and the daily feedback from staffers.
Along the way, there has been a dramatic evolution of style, from the manner in which Jose Molina worked to receive the ball in the center of his body to Tyler Flowers‘ extending his gloved hand and seemingly catching the ball at the edge of the swing path.
This refined art has made the difference in millions of dollars of earnings between catchers who received pitches properly and those who didn’t, and it will basically become obsolete sometime in the near future, once major league baseball implements an electronic strike zone. The subtle shoulder and wrist turns won’t matter anymore because machines will judge whether pitches passed through the strike zone before reaching the catcher.
The electronic strike zone is no longer theoretical. It’s a matter of when, not if, now that the umpires have acknowledged that the league has the right to implement the technology. (The guess here is the 2022 or 2023 season.)
The most progressive teams in baseball have greatly valued pitch framers, from the Astros to the Rays to the Brewers, in the belief that a small handful of strike calls can make an enormous competitive difference. Yasmani Grandal got $73 million from the Chicago White Sox this winter, and his reputation as a strong defensive catcher is built on his consistent ability to get strike calls for his pitchers.
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