As our nation continues to grapple with how to combat systemic racism, four of the 10 African-American players on the Seattle Mariners 40 Man Roster sat down with broadcaster Dave Sims for a virtual panel discussion about their experiences as Black men in life and in baseball.
The panel will premiere on the Mariners YouTube channel at 11:00am Friday, which is Juneteenth, the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States.
Participating in the panel were infielders Dee Gordon, J.P. Crawford, Shed Long Jr., and outfielder Kyle Lewis. The panel was moderated by Mariners broadcaster Dave Sims, one of only two African-American play-by-play broadcasters in Major League Baseball. Panelists spoke frankly about their experiences living in a racist society, their hopes for what we as a nation can be, and their apprehension about speaking up.
“We’re scared to say this. We’re nervous. The reason we’re nervous is we’ve been told our whole life and our whole careers to don’t say anything. Don’t ruffle any feathers. Don’t, pretty much stand up for yourself as a man and for your family’s name,” said Gordon.
Growing up the son of a Major League pitcher, Gordon said he didn’t play organized baseball until high school because there weren’t any other Black kids who played. The numbers haven’t improved much. Out of 882 players on Major League rosters last opening day, only 68 were African American.
“You know, it’s been tough. Being a Black baseball player isn’t easy. At all,” said Gordon.
If they manage to beat the odds and make it into professional baseball, Black players face obstacles that aren’t in the path of their white teammates. Outfielder Kyle Lewis recalled being the target of a racist act during one minor league season when he had been playing especially well.
“There’s a ball in my locker that says, ‘learn to swim.’ Nobody said anything. Everybody was sitting around tight-lipped. I wasn’t really getting a lot of support from my teammates, as if none of them supposedly knew what happened and somehow nobody had any idea. The only people that would have had access that deep into the locker room would have been probably a teammate. That stung pretty good,” said Lewis.
Crawford says he learned early on that getting by, let alone succeeding, required meeting some mythical standard of excellence.
“You always have to be one step better, one step ahead all the time because you know, you make one little mistake and you’re done. it’s sad to say. But we don’t get the chances, all the other stuff that people get. My dad taught us always stay ready, always stay sharp, don’t let this opportunity slip away, at all, because you get one chance. You get one chance. You’re already down two strikes, this is your last strike. It’s just tough man, said Crawford.
The players all say they’re encouraged by the national reckoning that seems to be occurring after still more killings of African-Americans by police officers, and they’re thankful for the support they’ve received from other Mariners players.
“If you want to stand with us, then stand. But we fought for so long we know how to fight it. So we’re going to fight and stand up for ourselves regardless whether you stand with us or not,” said Long.
The fact that the Mariners have 10 African-American players on the 40 Man Roster, by far the highest number in Major League Baseball, has helped them find a sense of community on the field and in the clubhouse.
“We definitely don’t take this for granted. It’s probably something that’s never been done since the Negro Leagues. I’m proud to be a part of this. I’m proud to be playing alongside each and every one of my teammates right now. Coming up we were one of the two brothers on the team, if that, so being a part of this has been something special,” said Crawford.
Gordon is hopeful that the protests and the nascent efforts toward reforms will continue and lead to lasting change around racial justice and equity.
“If we’re the grownups that change the world? It will be like Jackie Robinson and what he did all over again,” said Gordon. “I think it’s time for that.”