On Racism And Baseball

I like to think I’m not naive. I realize that when people call David Eckstein a “gamer” they really just mean “white.” I understand that when the NBA pushed Steve Nash to a two-time MVP for a couple of years they were appealing to a lost fan base. I understand when that audience says they don’t watch the NBA anymore because of “that element and culture” they really just don’t like the scary dark kids. So when Willie Randolph asks if there’s an element of racism in the fan’s sudden rejection of him, I’d like to at least step back and think about it.

Now, don’t get me wrong… I’m sure Willie Randolph knows racism when he sees it. The man was born in South Carolina in 1954. Between that and playing minor league ball in 1972 (less than three decades from Jackie Robinson’s debut) I’m sure Willie has dealt with more than his fair share of idiots. By idiot I mean anyone who judged him based on stupid things and expected him to act one way because of it.

You know, like expecting a manager to go out and kick dirt and throw bases at people to get calls overturned… even though calls never get overturned.

Met fans are little bit of a crazy group. I understand this. They are fickle, over-sensitive, and turn on people quicker than wrestlers. Nothing illustrates this better than last season’s Lastings Milledge saga. When Milledge came up, he was a hero. He got a standing ovation the first time he took the field. By the end of the season he was traded. The media (and the Mets) framed it as “addition by subtraction.” Milledge was a diva and he was black.

Racism or a young player’s bad attitude? Who knows. We know it’s not unprecedented for the Mets to trade away young guys who exhibit diva tendencies. Supposedly that’s one of the reasons I have to watch Scott Kazmir mow through the AL East.

The thing is I’m more apt to listen to Willie Randolph’s views on racism in baseball because he lived it. We don’t know how many Ty Cobbs there were in baseball in the 70s. We don’t know what kind of segregation Willie had to deal with. We don’t know what kind of awfulness he faced in the Carolinas in the 50s and 60s. The problem I have with his statement is this — in his quote to the Bergen Record he says:

Asked directly if he believes black managers are held to different standards than their white counterparts, Randolph said: “I don’t know how to put my finger on it, but I think there’s something there. Herman Edwards did pretty well here and he won a couple of playoff [games], and they were pretty hard on Herm. Isiah [Thomas] didn’t do a great job, but they beat up Isiah pretty good. … I don’t know if people are used to a certain figurehead. There’s something weird about it.

“I think it’s very important … that I handle myself in a way that the [African-American managers] coming behind me will get the opportunities, too … .”

Emphasis mine.

This is the problem I have: if Willie wanted to make a point that African American team leaders are held to a different standard than their white counter-parts; he has to do better than Isiah Thomas and Herm Edwards. Isiah was in charge of one of the biggest disasters in basketball history. He built up a $100 million payroll in a league with a salary cap and ruined the franchise so badly that they won’t recover from his five year tenure for another four years. The team never cleared .500 with him as the GM or the head coach. And Herm? I won’t argue that Herm was treated fairly here; but I don’t think that it had anything to do with race. New York Jet fans are a special breed of crazy and treat EVERYONE unfairly. That’s what they do. People are already calling for Eric Mangini’s head after one bad season. They want to jettison Chad Pennington who’s never done anything but turn in over .500 seasons for them. Herm also can’t manage a football clock to save his life and might still be wanted in New Jersey for the murder of Curtis Martin’s knees. Herm also asked to get out of here because he wanted to coach the Chiefs and add LJ’s knees to his swath of carnage. New York fans don’t care about race. We care about winning. Does Willie think that New York Giants fans treated Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning fairly at the beginning of the 2007 season? There were more articles than I care to count about how the Giants needed to fire Coughlin and trade Manning for someone else. In their first two seasons, Manning and Coughlin went 11-5 (with an NFC East title) and 8-8 with consecutive playoff appearances. They wanted these two guys run out of town because Eli didn’t win a playoff game by HIS SECOND YEAR IN THE LEAGUE. This is what the New York media does. They’re hyperbolic and, when they can’t think of anything reasonable to fix a team, they call for new managers.

Randolph’s treatment has been no different than any other coach’s or manager’s treatment in New York. Fans, especially New York fans, don’t care about race. We don’t. Race is a really stupid distinction in a city of eight million people. We care about 2 things in our sports figures: honesty and winning. If you win enough the honesty doesn’t really matter. There isn’t a person on the planet that New York fans won’t give a chance. We love Darryl Strawberry. If 45-year-old, drug-clouded Doc Gooden came out of prison tomorrow and struck out ten per game we’d love him. One of the reasons A-Rod found it so hard to be accepted here is because he wasn’t honest. For his first couple seasons here he tried to always say the “right thing” and ran everything through a PR filter. That might have flown in Seattle and Texas. Here we’re assaulted with a constant stream of media BS and can smell it a mile away. Two A-Rod stories come to mind. In 2004 he was caught at an illegal poker club and couldn’t apologize enough and made it a point to tell everyone how bad gambling is and that he’d never do it again. It reeked of PR nonsense. Last year, A-Rod relaxed, said what was on his mind, let himself get photographed with manly-looking hookers in Toronto and said “yeah, whatever”, and the fans almost immediately started liking him more. That’s how we work. Be honest or be awesome and lie… either way gets you in.

Another problem:

Randolph excluded Ozzie Guillen from the conversation, but wanted to know why the traits often admired in the calm, cool and collected likes of Joe Torre are portrayed as flaws in Torre’s former third base coach.

Because Torre never did anything but win. Torre was run out of town because the Yankees are owned by an insane man and his two children. Look, Joe Torre is not a firey guy. In fact, there’s a pretty solid chance that he’s sound asleep in the dugout every time he’s wearing sunglasses — but whatever he was doing worked for the Yankees. The Met fans insistence that the team’s problems are part-and-parcel of Willie’s stark refusal to rave like a lunatic at an umpire is dumb. His point is valid: Torre never did it and Torre won a lot. But that’s the difference — Torre won a lot. If Joe Torre, before he won any championships as Yankee manager, blew the division like Randolph’s Mets blew the division last year is there a remote chance he’s still the manager the next year? Overturning blown calls doesn’t get you wins. Motivating your players behind the scenes gets you wins. The Mets are playing unmotivated, sloppy baseball right now. If you don’t put that on the manager… who do you put it on?

Here’s the disconnect between fans and players/managers: players forget losses. They have to. If Aaron Heilman held on to the Yadier Molina home run, he’d be Brad Lidge. Fans don’t let go that easily. For Randolph (and I’m sure for a lot of the players) they’ve turned in decent years in 2006 and 2007… they’re 290-241 as of 05/23/2008. That’s pretty good. In New York, though, your 50 games over .500 record doesn’t matter because the last two years have ended in heartbreaking fashion. We live in a city where we’re conditioned to only care about results. As a group, most of us are even OK with the way 2006 ended. It sucked, but it was a good season. Last year, however, was unforgivable and no one on the team seems to get that. The players and the manager are looking forward, as they’re conditioned to do, while fans are looking at all the same warning signs that cost them 2007: a shaky bullpen, starters that can’t go 7, sloppy defense, the complete inability to collect timely hits, a mentally broken Jose Reyes, a David Wright who’s beginning to realize that his team cost him the MVP last year, a Carlos Delgado who is standoffish to the media’s questions about him falling apart even though he’s actually falling apart, and a Carlos Beltran that disintegrates under pressure like Trevor Hoffman. Met fans don’t about the 2006 season anymore. They’re concerned about watching the same team that fell apart in 2007. They desperately want proof that they’re not.

The difference is completely outlined in this quote:

“My track record speaks for itself,” Randolph said. “We had a horrible meltdown last year, but prior to that we were the best team in baseball.”

There’s not a Met fan in the world that cares about how the team was really really good until September 15th. This has nothing to do with race. The resurrected zombie corpse of Connie Mack could have been in charge of the Mets last year and neither his preceding 3,700 wins nor the miracle of his resurrected zombie corpse would have mattered. The fans are not over last season as evidenced by Shea Stadium’s poisonous environment. The fans are on edge. They’re sensitive to failure. They’re paying record prices to go out and watch a $140 million payroll lose. This is not an indictment of Randolph’s race; it’s an indictment of an underachieving roster coupled with a touchy fanbase.

It’s reached the point where I don’t know if the relationship is fixable. The way for Randolph to address the fans would have been something along the lines of “Yes, I know we are getting off to a slow start, we just need fans to remember it’s a long season and we’re going to be in it all the way. Everything will settle down eventually.” Joe Torre had to do this on WFAN and YES for the last three years. Randolph’s (and all the Mets’, for that matter) bull-headed insistence that nothing is wrong has fueled the problem. Part of being a good manager is properly massaging your fans via the media. Randolph hasn’t done that; instead he laid down the one gauntlet that’s really hard to pick back up. The Wilpons have backed away from him. Minaya has backed away from him. And now following a terrible performance against the Nationals, followed by a four-game sweep at Atlanta, and now travel to a ballpark in Colorado that has been terrible for them (22-37) since its opening — things aren’t looking good for Randolph’s future here… especially with Lee Mazzilli sitting in the SNY studio with nothing to do but slide in.

It’s too bad, really. I like Randolph. But he seems over-sensitive this season to the scrutiny of the New York media. You’d think he’d understand it; he’s been in New York his entire career. He had to understand that the only option the fans would accept this season was a strong performance out of the gate. And that’s not to say that the Mets’ start was unacceptable. It’s not. One game under .500 and 3 games back before Memorial Day is completely OK. He should be saying that things will probably be better when Pedro comes back. He should mention that Johan Santana carries a 4.02 ERA in April and May but a 2.63 ERA in June. He should be talking up the fact that Johnny Maine is throwing the team on his back after losses and pitching 8 inning gems. It would be completely reasonable for him to tell people to settle down and, honestly, most of us would probably be OK with that.

I’m still hoping Randolph can recover from this and turn it all around. I stuck with Tom Coughlin through the media nonsense and was rewarded. But in my privileged white opinion, the fan’s treatment of Randolph has very little to do with race. It has to do with watching a .500 team that should be a .600 team play sloppy baseball.

Fix that and you could be purple.