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Hok Talk: MLB has an image problem

Not the kind that’s likely to sink them, but one that should be fixed all the same.

Wild Card Round - New York Yankees v Cleveland Indians - Game Two Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Cynicism in Cleveland

Earlier this week, the baseball club in Cleveland announced they would be changing their name. This is long past due, and those of you who have paid attention will probably have noted that I have tried very hard never to use the team’s nickname since I started writing here. Once I even accidentally posted a game thread swapping the name out for “Racists.” What I’m trying to get at here is that my opinions on this matter have never been complex, nor has my expression of those thoughts has ever been particularly subtle; as, indeed, I do not view the situation to be a complex one nor the insult offered by Cleveland’s baseball team to have been subtle.

In their statements, the ownership of the Cleveland Baseball Club (CBC from here on) expressed that they’ve been thinking very hard about this since June or July, which is, on its face, ridiculous. The CBC had already admitted, to some degree, that using Indians as their mascot was in poor taste when they finally, two years ago, removed Chief Wahoo as their mascot and logo. Either the owners didn’t give any thought then to the fact that the whole thing was kind of racist, or they did and hoped that simply removing the logo would be sufficient. Of course, the logo didn’t really go away. They still sell Chief Wahoo merchandise in the club store and announced that they will continue to do so even after they finally change the name. They’ll donate some of the proceeds to indigenous peoples’ charities. This is a bit like if you were hit by a drunk driver and the perpetrator started selling alcohol branded to mock you. After years of complaining, they finally agreed to donate a portion of their profits to charities for drunk driving survivors but flatly refused to stop selling it.

However, this isn’t even the most absurd aspect of the CBC’s decision to change the name. In and of itself, the decision to change it is an admission that the name was - at the very least - in poor taste. An admission that they could and should do better. Still, they plan to keep the name through at least the next baseball season with plans to change it before 2022.

I don’t claim to be a business-minded person or a marketing guru. I’m sure there are all kinds of complications that come with changing the team’s name. That said, the CBC’s ownership should have been working on this as a contingency plan for years. And, since they haven’t, they should have at least followed in the footsteps of the Washington Football Club and gone without a nickname until they could get all of their ducks in a row. This is a little like if we were at a party and I followed you around the entire night, and every time you tried to talk to someone else, I shouted, “You’re a moran!” Then you would tell me I was being kind of offensive. Then I would agree with you, apologize for it, but keep doing it for an hour before finally left you alone. I suspect you wouldn’t feel my apology or change of heart was particularly genuine. And who could blame you?

The problem goes much deeper

I have been a diehard fan of baseball for more than two decades now. I’m the kind of guy who built a radio transmitter solely so I could listen to baseball games on the internet while I mowed the lawn. I put all of my allowance money for two years into the collectible card game MLB Showdown. I followed the Kansas City Royals without a single playoff run for 17 years. I write for a baseball website nearly every week. But I gotta tell ya; the shine has come off the sport for me a bit. Especially lately. Teams all over the place are crying poor and cutting their staff and not signing free agents because of the pandemic; meanwhile, the Royals - who should be in the most precarious financial position of anyone given the fact that the team was just purchased about a year ago and they’re in a tiny market - didn’t fire or furlough anyone and are spending plenty in free agency. I also have a harder and harder time believing team owners care about their on-field product; I continue to hear about plans for leveraging their team ownership into other kinds of revenue, such as building shopping centers around the stadiums. You can’t pretend they’ve handled the situation with the minor leagues well, either. And they’re already picking another fight with the MLBPA by pretending they can unilaterally change the start and length of the 2021 season. It’s entirely possible that that would be the best path forward. MLB still doesn’t get to dictate it without negotiating with the players over it. The greediness and callousness of the CBC I outlined above doesn’t do anything to improve matters, either.

This is why when Rob Manfred announced on Wednesday that MLB plans to elevate the Negro Leagues to Major League status, I reacted with some distrust. What this means, practically speaking, is that all those players who played in the Negro Leagues are now considered MLB players. All of their stats will be included into the MLB record books. On its surface, this is a good thing; those players were competing at the same level as the major league teams of those eras, they deserve to be recognized that way. But I can’t help feeling that MLB isn’t doing it because it’s the right thing to do. It feels like a ploy to grab some points as Black Lives Matter protests continue around the country. It also feels a little like MLB is trying in some way to take credit for those players’ amazing feats.

On the one hand, guys like Satchel Paige deserve every honor anyone wants to bestow. On the other hand, why should MLB get to claim those statistics as their own? They had no part in their creation other than enabling the racist beliefs and behaviors that kept Paige and his contemporaries separate.

Make no mistake; MLB is doing a good thing here. But before you go out of your way to congratulate them too hard, don’t forget that they caused this division themselves. Don’t forget that the way that MLB brought black players into the league crashed the Negro Leagues. That meant that any black player who wasn’t a superstar - to say nothing of the black people who made up the front office and support staffs for those teams - found themselves unemployed and with no further baseball prospects. Don’t forget that while MLB cannot undo that damage, they have chosen to include racists in the Hall of Fame while excluding deserving black men such as Buck O’Neil. Don’t forget that MLB promised to be more diverse in its front office hiring this year but hired only white men to replace every white man who quit or was fired from a top executive position. Don’t forget that the current iteration of MLB has shown us time and time again that they aren’t interested in doing the right thing unless it somehow benefits the ultra-wealthy, predominantly-white owners.