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Mental Ward: Ruminations on responsibility and race

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Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

It is one of the severest tests of friendship to tell your friend his faults. So to love a man that you cannot bear to see a stain upon him, and to speak painful truth through loving words, that is friendship."

--Henry Ward Beecher


So, Yordano Ventura.

He's been in the news again for comments he made to Joey Bautista on Twitter two days ago, comments that he deleted almost immediately and apologized for the following morning. Depending on whose translation you want to put confidence in, he either referred to Bautista as "nobody" or he said that he was "nothing" to him, but either way it was an unwarranted and regrettable instance of one player speaking out against another on behalf of his teammates and friends.

Gregg Zaun, ignoring Ventura's apology on Monday, went on a rant of epic proportions prior to Toronto's game against Minnesota where he dressed down Ventura for his immaturity, among other things. This is the same Gregg Zaun who on more than one occasion has advocated for old-school baseball practices including hazing that borders on abuse:

I’ll never forget it: I was out in the stretch circle, I played catch with Chris Hoiles every single day, and I lobbed the ball to him — and he was paying attention, but he pretended like he wasn’t. He head-butted the ball and all of a sudden I had what was called "the posse" all over me. Cal Ripken, Ben McDonald, Brady Anderson, Chris Hoiles, all of the above. They beat me on my ribcage, physically abused me on my way to the training table. They taped me spread-eagle to the training table, they wrote "rookie" on my forehead with pink methylate, and they shoved a bucket of ice down my shorts. I missed the entire batting practice, and you know what? Phil Regan, the manager of the Baltimore Orioles, he did not care, because he knew that what those guys were doing was ‘educating me.’

It should be noted that Gregg Zaun's major league career began in 1995 and ended in 2010, not exactly the halcyon of old school baseball temperament, and serves as a stark reminder of how recent the phenomenon of gritty, authoritative veterans and the players who defend them has persisted in the major leagues.

Is this the way that baseball wants it? Because there's often a lot of doublespeak about how it wants its players to behave. Fun, but restrained. Happy, but not showy. Enjoying the sport, but not putting down their opponent. Playing tough, but not hurting anyone. Does baseball still want the hidden fraternity to exist that Zaun and others, like Gabe Kapler in 2010, report on?

My gut says no. Not at all. Not anymore, anyway. Well, they certainly don't want anyone to know about it. But baseball is still struggling with how to come to terms with its diverse player base, and the multiculturalism it brings, despite seventy years of integration. It's still very much a game divided along racial lines, particularly in the way we talk about the players who participate.

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It's never been a fair system, at least not for young Latinos and African-Americans. It's an issue that has been prevailing for decades around the game of baseball--the issue of race, of cordoning the sport (and other sports, for that matter) into a homogenized context, free of the flavor and charisma and personality that punctuates many minority cultures. From ongoing conversations about Yasiel Puig, to intimations about Aroldis Chapman's lifestyle, and the way in which a vastly-Caucasian fourth estate discusses men of color in the game.

It's nothing new, of course. The Atlantic ran a highly polarizing article about research into how announcers favor American players over foreign (read: Non-white) players:

Indeed, it is not so much that announcers are unwilling to praise non-white players, but the terminology they use in so doing falls into a set of pre-defined "code words." For example, if a player is described as being a "guy next door," or "regular guy" there is a greater than 80 percent chance that player is white. If a player is described as "impatient" or "over-aggressive," there is a greater than 50 percent chance that player is not white. This echoes the findings of similar research in the field of print sports journalism.

It's a subject that lingers through decades of racial stereotyping from such brazen comments as Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder to Larry Krueger, the San Francisco broadcaster who intoned in 2005 that the Giants were "brain dead Caribbean hitters hacking at slop nightly" (Felipe Alou, from one of those Caribbean island nations, was manager at the time), to Jon Heyman who at one point insisted that Albert Pujols should produce his birth certificate if he expected to receive $240 million in free agency. This, in spite of the fact that Pujols emigrated to America when he was 16, a process that would have begun in his early teenage years, when it would have been very unlikely that his parents concocted a plan to lie about his age. Not that Heyman isn't somewhat infamous for his racially-tinged remarks.

Or even still, in a random YouTube video from 2013 (with over 1.5 million views) of a Puerto Rican child showboating a grand slam in a little league game, the host states the following:

"It's like Manny Ramirez, Barry Bonds-esque, when they sit and watch it, Ramirez hits the home run *raises arms*, Griffey totally looked at it all the time, Prince Fielder does this, and then also Rickey Henderson and Alex Rodriguez-esque, where he sort of, flips the bat."

Brown. Black. Black. Black. Black. Brown.

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It is hard to perceive it as a coincidence, then, that Brett Lawrie, a white man with a more than checkered past and a history of, politely stated, ill-tempered behavior, was given the benefit of the doubt on his takeout slide against Alcides Escobar.

Or that the White Sox, a situation stoked by Jeff Samardzija's Opening Day antics and Adam Eaton calling Yordano Ventura a cocksucker, are mostly marginalized in the retelling of the events that led up to Samardzija chasing after Lorenzo Cain in an effort to fight him. The same Lorenzo Cain that Samardzija had hit intentionally on Opening Day following a Mike Moustakas home run. The same Mike Moustakas that was nearly hit square in the face (and, unlike Josh Donaldson or Brett Lawrie, was actually hit by the pitch) by Chris Sale earlier in the evening, (though it appeared to be unintentional).

Much like the time in the Toronto series on Saturday, when Omar Infante was nearly hit in the face by an errant pitch, which would have made him one of four Royals players that had been hit in the series leading into Sunday's game and the events that unfolded. No particular meaning was applied to the incident, and in the following day's timeline, was forgotten by large media outlets. Outlets that overlooked Kansas City's relative placement on hit by pitch leaderboards, and that a similar incident occurred between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati at nearly the same time.

Nor is it difficult to ignore that Bryce Harper, though he has been wound through the media as being hotheaded and immature, has always been put in the context of being passionate and dedicated, unlike his Latin counterpart Yasiel Puig, whose arrogance, confidence, and overt charisma is seen as disrespectful. Harper has been ejected three times this season for arguing with umpires. Puig has been ejected twice in his two-plus years in the majors.

We, as a culture, as a society, have issues with race. In talking about it, in trying not to talk about it, in not knowing how to talk about it. But to continue denying that there is systemic racial bias in the way we watch, talk, or tell baseball stories is to continue denying that there is, in fact, a problem of race in this country, a problem of discrimination, and an effort to marginalize cultural mores that do not conform to what is considered to be socially normative behavior.

Whether it is codified in the language we use to speak of others, or more explicitly in the actions we take against them, baseball is struggling, as America struggles, to gather its balance and gain equal footing for its population. To speak openly of a thing is not to condemn or defend, but to bring it to light the honest pursuit of egalitarianism in the recognition of our flaws.

Baseball has a race problem. We have a race problem. The least we can do is acknowledge that it is sitting with us in the stadium.