We’ve spent the last few months trying to make sense of the weirdest baseball season any of us have ever seen. We’ve wondered how history will look back at this 60-game, coronavirus-plagued sprint and asked whether winning a World Series is legit or hitting .400 counts.
All the while, the thing that the 2020 MLB season will truly be remembered for had been in front of us the whole time. As MLB players showed once again Wednesday night, this season will be remembered for something greater than records and trophies — 2020 is the year that MLB players found their voice and made it heard.
As the Milwaukee Brewers followed the lead of the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA, walking out of Wednesday’s game in protest of the shooting by police of Jacob Blake, this quickly became more than just an MLB team showing solidarity to the NBA team it shares a city with. The Reds supported the Brewers’ decision. The Mariners, the MLB team with the most Black players, walked out too. The Giants and Dodgers — yes, those bitter rivals — came together and decided not to play. The Dodgers deferred to star outfielder Mookie Betts. Around the league, Black players like Dexter Fowler, Jason Heyward, Jack Flaherty and Matt Kemp didn’t play either.
What followed was supportive messages from non-Black MLB stars, like Clayton Kershaw saying the Dodgers would play again when Mookie wanted to play. And like Cubs star Anthony Rizzo — one of MLB’s most kind-hearted humanitarians — unfurling a frustrated, profanity-laced rant. He said: “S--- doesn’t change. And it’s just the fact of the matter. Politicians really don’t give a f--- about us. All they care about is their own agenda.”
This all might sound like the norm for the NBA, where all of Wednesday’s games were eventually postponed. Or even the NFL. But for baseball — a sport defined by conformity — this was yet another example of an awakening of players.
Baseball, for all these years, has never really been about individuality. It’s a rank-and-file sport. It’s tradition. It’s the type of ladder-climbing game that sucks the personality out of its stars, either through its buttoned-up culture or through teams spending months and months together. The game, as they say, has always been bigger than its players.
Modern players are changing that.
At first, baseball grappled with the bat flips and celebrations and colorful cleats. We heard ad campaigns flouting baseball’s “unwritten rules” — the code that calls for the conformity — saying “let the kids play.”
It was cute and catchy, but maybe the kids didn’t want to just play. Maybe they wanted to be heard too.
In 2020 alone, we’ve seen players wage a very public labor fight against ownership leading up to the MLB season. What would normally be behind-the-scenes came right to us via players tweets and candid comments to the media. The keep-it-in-the-clubhouse stuff wasn’t so private anymore — players were standing up to ownership, not backing down to threats and making their voices heard.
Then we saw an MLB season materialize in front of a background of sweeping national protests about police brutality and social justice. This time, it wasn’t just Black NBA and NFL players. Baseball players joined in too — whether it was Betts taking a knee during the national anthem or Gabe Kapler becoming the first MLB manager to take a knee.
Beyond just the protests on the field, more than 100 black MLB players, past and present, came together to form The Players Alliance. Curtis Granderson is the president. CC Sabathia is the vice president. Dee Gordon, Tim Anderson, Fowler, Heyward and others are on the active players advisory board. The Alliance’s mission, it says, is to increase opportunities for Black players within baseball and to bring racial equality and greater opportunity to the Black community outside of baseball.
As troubling as it is on some levels, even players like Heyward, Flaherty, Fowler and Kemp walking out while their teammates played games showed that many baseball players just won’t be quiet anymore. They walked away in protest — even if their entire teams weren’t joining them, proof that baseball’s rules on conformity are no longer totally rigid. A next step here, by the way, would be for more players who don’t feel directly impacted by racial injustice to realize that lending their voice in support of their teammates is also meaningful.
Think of it like this: While a large cross-section of baseball fans spent years arguing about bat flips and the unwritten rules and other age-old baseball traditions designed to stifle individuality, something entirely different was happening in clubhouses.
MLB players were finding their voice — as citizens of the larger world around them and as influential protesters in the social justice movement happening outside the walls of their stadiums.
And that, when it’s all said and done, will have a greater impact on the world than a bat flip or a 60-game season.
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