The Bullet Proof Charge of Racism

added 8/12/2005 by Scott Barzilla

For the second time in a row I feel compelled to comment about something happening outside of Houston. However, I’m of the opinion that these issues have applicability everywhere, and it is particularly true in Houston. Those of you that have been paying attention to the news probably know I am talking about the Larry Krueger situation in San Francisco. If you haven’t been paying attention I’ll give you a play by play of the last week or so.

During a radio broadcast (similar to 610 AM or 790 AM in Houston) Krueger said that he hated watching the Giants play like this. He said “you have brain dead Caribbean hitters swinging at slop……Felipe Alou’s brain has turned into Cream of Wheat.” As usual, these comments caused an immediate stir among the Giants and the community. Krueger was suspended for a week and was forced to apologize to Alou and the Giants. If everything ended there this wouldn’t have been much of a story. Yet, Alou continued on calling Krueger a “messenger for Satan” and refused to do his radio show on that station. Of course, players like Edgardo Alfonzo, Omar Vizquel, and Moises Alou made strong statements as well. All mentioned the dreaded “R” word. Krueger didn’t even last the week as the station fired him.

Throughout all of this mess I’m still struggling to find the racism or ethnic slur. What I see are some stereotypes that no longer fit the entire group at large and a bad off-color statement about Alou. Perhaps I haven’t gone through enough sensitivity training in my life, but I don’t see the racism there. I do see comments that were out of line, but if you listen to these kinds of shows you hear something potentially out of line everyday. I see two problems with this situation as it pertains to racism. Both of them are very important for every sports team and society at large.

The first issue is whether we allow the offended party’s opinion to stand. This is a slippery slope that allows anyone to ward off criticism at every turn. If someone sends me a negative email in response to my column I can say that person is prejudiced against Sicilians and therefore their comments aren’t valid. I realize this is an extreme example, but everyone belongs to a group that some people hate for no rational reason. If we allow the offended party to dictate when racism (or prejudice) is present then prejudice will always be present and no one’s comments will be valid on their face.

Let’s look at the Astros in this regard. One of the major problems some people have with the Astros is that there are very few African Americans in the organization. This becomes a circular argument. The Astros are racists because they don’t have minority players on their team. With every Caucasian or Hispanic player that gets called up, it is another example of that racism. When an African American player or executive gets hired the hire is seen as tokenism. It’s the ultimate no-win situation.

If you continue to allow the offended party to be the only judge of racism then you become a slave to their whims. Your hiring practices and scouting practices stop being about merit and become about satisfying the desires of the offended group. When it isn’t about merit it stops being about winning. That’s what most of us want in the end anyway.

This brings us to the second problem with these charges: they remove shock value from real instances of racism. Listen, I’m not going to tell anyone that racism doesn’t exist. I’ve known enough people in my life that have been racist and have my own share of prejudices myself. The problem is that when you cry racism when racism doesn’t exist then it leads the lazy or naive among us to think racism really doesn’t exist. Believe me, that is a lot more dangerous than anything Larry Krueger said.

Should Larry Krueger have been fired? This is an impossible question to answer because I don’t have his employee file in front of him. I don’t know how many times he has been reprimanded for saying “insensitive” things on the air. I do know that the station didn’t intend to fire him. They suspended him for a week and it wasn’t until Alou kept hammering away that they decided to fire him. This is as important an issue as there in this country. Did the station fire him because they thought it was appropriate or did they fire him to get Alou and the rest of the Hispanic community off their back? I think we know the answer to that question. It’s a dangerous thing when a commentator has to worry about losing his/her job when they choose to criticize the team or manager.

Ortiz gets off a blast

If there is anything we’ve seen from reading the Chronicle over the last few years it is that Jose de Jesus Ortiz rarely makes his points with slight of hand. Yet, when he was commenting on the Krueger situation he slipped in a clandestine shot at Milo Hamilton. He said that when the Astros hire an announcer to do the road games next year they should look for someone that makes an effort to correctly pronounce names instead of “relying on nicknames”. He even made a joke that they could hire a former hockey announcer because “they are used to pronouncing names of players from many nationalities.”

Those that have read my past columns know that I’m not a big fan of Milo Hamilton. What’s interesting is that I recall vividly when Milo drew a lot of heat for suggesting that Harry Caray should get out of the business. Caray became a sad portrait when he announced names like “Jeff Bagley” and “Clark Biggio”. He once noted that “Danny Schaefer used to be a catcher in the Cardinals organization” in a game between the Cardinals and Cubs where Schaefer was catching for the Cardinals. Needless to say, he had lost a lot. So, I respect Milo for taking a step back before things get to that point.

However, it’s one thing to dislike someone’s style of using nicknames, but it’s another to assert that he uses nicknames because he “can’t” or “won’t” learn how to pronounce the names. After all, I suppose that Milo used “Bidge” and “Bags” over the years just to throw us off the scent. But you see, when the offended party gets to define racism there is no effort made to differentiate between honest mistakes and sinister intent.

Krueger’s mistake was accepting a long-standing stereotype (“you can’t walk off the island”) as fact without actually doing research on what players were actually doing. His criticism of Alou may or may not be fair, but there is never a need to use those terms. However, it would be offensive if it was spoken about Phil Garner, Dusty Baker, Bobby Cox, or Frank Robinson. Offensive is not the same as racist. Stereotype is not the same as racist. More importantly, style (which is essentially what Ortiz is railing against) is not the same as racist. It just means you’d prefer an announcer that calls players by their proper names. Guess what, so do I. It doesn’t make Milo a racist.

What can the organization do?

When you have issues like this the key thing to remember is that facts rarely ever have one cause. Yes, the Astros don’t have a lot of African American players on their roster. Yes, they have a reputation for being “lily white”. When you think about it, all of the prominent faces on the team are white. Yet, it is dangerous to assert that the team doesn’t want diversity simply because it doesn’t have it.

If people bothered to do their homework they would realize that African-American participation in baseball is down everywhere. So, instead of urging the Astros to simply trade for or sign minority players, there needs to be an effort to increase the pool of available players. The Astros hired Enos Cabell to help with those efforts. More importantly, a realization needs to be made that the Astros don’t exist in a bubble in this regard. A lot of teams are facing this same issue. It is a global problem and demands a global solution.

Ortiz wants the club to hire someone that can pronounce names. I’ve never heard Milo struggle with names too often, but he does use nicknames a lot. So, the issue is not pronunciation but style. Ortiz and I agree that we want someone a little more no nonsense. Making that observation in the guise of racism (or insensitivity to diversity) was extremely irresponsible on his part and its high time those of us on the other side of the fence stick up for ourselves when specious charges like this are levied.

Scott Barzilla is the author of “Checks and Imbalances” and “The State of Baseball Management.”