Me and my big mouth. Well, keyboard.
Earlier today, writing about baseball game postponements in protest over the Jacob Blake police shooting, I referenced a 1968 trade involving pitcher Milt Pappas, who supported no games played during Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral. Pappas fumed when his Cincinnati Reds management may have strong-armed players into playing. In sort of a blink, he was then an Atlanta Brave.
That’ll teach me.
On Wednesday, when the Seattle Mariners and the San Diego Padres elected not to play, Mariners pitcher Taijuan Walker tweeted, “Glad to be apart of this organization and group of people!” Thank you for standing with us always!!” Come today, Thursday, Walker became a Buffalonto Blue Jay, traded for the proverbial player to be named later. He inprocesses with his new team Friday, when baseball is supposed to commemorate Jackie Robinson.
Pappas would never really know whether the Reds’ then general manager Bob Howsam told the truth when he insisted that 1968 trade was in the works before the Kennedy funeral issue. Walker at this writing may or may not really know soon, or even ever, if Marines general manager Jerry Dipoto had a deal in the works before the protest postponements, either.
In 1968, then-commissioner William D. (Spike) Eckert ordered no baseball to be played during Kennedy’s funeral. Washington’s notorious traffic issues delayed the procession, bumping the funeral to coincide with the start of the Reds’ scheduled game against the St. Louis Cardinals. Pappas supported not playing; the team voted 13-12 to play, possibly after pressure from Howsam and manager Dave Bristol. Three days later—Pappas was gone.
Major League Baseball’s official statement on the protest postponements said, “Given the pain in the communities of Wisconsin and beyond following the shooting of Jacob Blake, we respect the decisions of a number of players not to play tonight. Major League Baseball remains united for change in our society and we will be allies in the fight to end racism and injustice.” Walker tweeted his approval of his team’s protest postponement decision the same night they made it. One day later—gone.
If timing is everything, this timing looks more than a little out of time. It may not even pass the proverbial smell test.
Pappas, who died in 2016, was a white man born in Detroit of Greek parents. (His name at birth: Miltiades Stergios Papastergios.) Walker is a black man born in Shreveport, Louisiana; his father was black, his mother a Mexican-American woman who raised him alone. One dead pitcher and one living one can now hold hands as they say, plausibly enough, that baseball still has growing pains over intolerance not solely regarding a racial issue.
The game has never been entirely comfortable with players known to be outspoken on all sorts of matters. Once upon a time, the Chicago White Sox tried to compel the late pitcher/author Jim Brosnan to sign a contract enjoining him from writing for publication without prior team approval. The author of from-the-inside baseball classics The Long Season and Pennant Race elected to retire rather than allow the White Sox to decide what he could or couldn’t write.
When the then-Florida Marlins traded first baseman Carlos Delgado to the New York Mets after the 2005 season, Delgado—who’d sat in the dugout as a Blue Jay and a Marlin during seventh-inning-stretch playings of “God Bless America,” in protest the Iraq War and using his native Puerto Rico’s island of Vieques as a bombing practise spot—changed his protest tune, possibly under compulsion from the Mets’ front office.
“The Mets have a policy that everybody should stand for ‘God Bless America’,” Delgado said at the time, “and I will be there. I will not cause any distractions to the ballclub . . . Just call me Employee Number 21.” Said Mets chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon at the same time, “He’s going to have his own personal views, which he’s going to keep to himself.”
Delgado didn’t act during playings of “The Star Spangled Banner,” but on Wednesday Mets outfielder/first baseman/designated hitter Dominic Smith did. A young black man who’s a product of south central Los Angeles, Smith took a knee during the song’s pre-game playing to protest the Blake shooting.That contravened his stance in the George Floyd aftermath, when he said a knee wasn’t enough compared to teaching and learning.
There went that idea. Though his teammates had his back, too, refusing to criticise and some supporting him publicly (outfielder Michael Conforto in particular), Smith spoke for himself at a press conference. In tears. Asked by a reporter to describe the most difficult part of the past two months, Smith paused, then sighed, then said through a few sobs, “I think the most difficult part is to see people still don’t care . . . it just shows the hate in people’s hearts and, I mean, that just sucks.”
The Mets’ administration hasn’t said or done anything regarding Smith as I write. That can be considered good if we’re talking about dealing him out of town, post haste or otherwise, as the Mariners may or may not have dealt Walker over his comments. But that can be bad if we’re talking about whether Smith’s team above and beyond his clubhouse teammates will stand for his elementary right to speak his mind and heart.
I’ve said it before in these pages, but I’ll say it again: I have skin in the game of police lawlessness. I’m the paternal grandson of a New York police officer whom you could call both a true man’s man and yet one of the gentlest and most playful of men you’d ever meet in your life, especially with any and all of his eight grandchildren.
Grandpa Walter would have been as appalled at police officers behaving like the thugs they’re charged with apprehending as he would have been about people using police criminality as an excuse to break entire cities. If he’d been presented with the case for doing away with the “qualified immunity” that shields police officers from consequences for their crimes, I believe Grandpa would support its end, as I do.
But I think baseball fans and those who play and administer the game should want to know, for dead last certain, whether the Mariners traded Taijuan Walker—a serviceable, about-average major league pitcher—because it was an already-in-the-works trade on baseball grounds alone.
If they really did, they’re guilty perhaps of bad timing alone. If they didn’t, well, Lucy, they got some splainin’ to do. Did they deal Walker out of Dodge because the very thought that he spoke out proudly and unapologetically on behalf of his teammates postponing a game in protest of racism and police lawlessness offended them?