On Anderson, Robinson, Donaldson, and jokes

Tim Anderson

Tim Anderson has to be restrained by teammates including Jose Abreu, and plate umpire Nick Mahrley, after Josh Donaldson took what he calls a joke too far Saturday.

That’d teach him. Three years ago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson gave Sports Illustrated reporter Stephanie Apstein an interview in which he likened himself to Jackie Robinson. Not as a race pioneer, but as the kind of pioneer looking to break down another barrier, the barrier against having plain fun and letting it show while you play baseball.

Anderson didn’t kid himself. He as much as said he didn’t and probably wouldn’t face the kind of obstacles Robinson faced. What he did say, in language as plain as the plays he makes at shortstop or the hits he nails at the plate, was that he didn’t care two figs what you thought of him having fun playing, you know, a game.

The impetus for the interview was his then-recent suspension for hollering an insult back at Kansas City pitcher Brad Keller, after Keller hit him on the rump roast with the first pitch, two innings after Anderson demolished a Keller pitch for a two-run homer, looked to his dugout, and nailed a delicious bat-flip as he proceeded up the first base line.

“I kind of feel like today’s Jackie Robinson,” Anderson told Apstein then. “That’s huge to say. But it’s cool, man, because he changed the game, and I feel like I’m getting to a point to where I need to change the game.” In other words, Anderson planned to have his fun while he played. Oh. The hor-ror.

“Anderson’s point is more nuanced than it might sound,” Apstein wrote.

Robinson remains an American hero, and Anderson will never face the Jim Crow horrors Robinson and the first generation of black major leaguers endured. Also, plenty of players, white and nonwhite alike, have had fun while playing the game.

But, as a rule, baseball does not encourage individualism. As other sports have evolved to showcase their stars’ personalities, the baseball old guard has held tight to its principles. Run out ground balls. Keep your mouth shut. Gently place your bat near home plate—a player should react to a home run just as he would react to the news that an acquaintance filed his taxes on time.

Yankee third baseman Josh Donaldson remembered Anderson’s “I kind of feel like today’s Jackie Robinson” only too well. On Saturday, the Yankees and the White Sox had a dustup on the field over it, a few innings after Anderson says Donaldson greeted him with an apparent “What’s up, Jackie?”

A few innings later, as Donaldson approached the plate with the Yankees up 6-3, White Sox catcher Yasmani Grandal engaged him in a little chat. It didn’t look like anything drastic at first—from the outside. The next thing anyone knew, plate umpire Nick Mahrley was moving between the pair and the benches and bullpens emptied. With White Sox teammates moving Anderson back to the dugout before any serious damage could be done.

Nobody other than the immediate participants had any clue until White Sox manager Tony La Russa spoke to reporters following the 7-5 Yankee win. “He made a racist comment, Donaldson, and that’s all I’m gonna say,” La Russa said. It took Anderson himself to elaborate.

“He just made a disrespectful comment,” the shortstop said of Donaldson. “Basically was trying to call me Jackie Robinson, like ‘what’s up Jackie?’ I don’t play like that. I don’t really play at all. I wasn’t really gonna bother nobody today. But he made the comment, and it was disrespectful. I don’t think it was called for.”

Donaldson didn’t deny calling Anderson “Jackie,” but he did say the motive had nothing to do with race and everything to do with Anderson telling SI he felt like the Robinson of defunding baseball’s Fun Police.

“All right, so first inning I called him Jackie,” Donaldson told reporters post-game.

He’s gonna bring back fun to the game. [In] 2019 when I played for Atlanta, we actually joked about that on the game.

I don’t know what’s changed — and I’ve said it to him in year’s past. Not in any manner than just joking around for the fact that he called himself Jackie Robinson. If something has changed from that, my meaning of that — has not any term trying to be racist by any fact of the matter. It was just off of an interview of what he called himself.”

Donaldson may have lacked racial intent but his timing Saturday was a terrible look. “The very simple problem with Josh Donaldson calling Tim Anderson ‘Jackie’,” tweeted Business Insider writer Bradford William Davis, “is that he perverted honour into mockery.”

Could there have been those thinking Anderson, who’s normally as unpretentious as the morning sun, did likewise when he suggested himself as the Jackie Robinson of letting the kids play? Robinson broke barriers far more severe and grave than those between ballplayers letting joy in accomplishment show and ballplayers still artery-hardened enough to continue thinking you should play a game as though you’re wearing a three-piece suit in the board room.

And I for one have long tired of the hypocrisy saying one moment that you need to play professional baseball like a business but saying the next—as in, contract talks, free agency markets, or collective bargaining agreement skirmishes—that you need to remember you’re only playing a kids’ game, dammit.

Maybe Anderson was being just a little grandiose in 2019, while his heart was clearly enough in the right place. Maybe Donaldson chose the absolute wrong conversational weapon to send a message that baseball’s Fun Police aren’t about to be defunded without a fight.

Or, giving him the benefit of the doubt about the exchange he cited from 2019, maybe Donaldson doesn’t get that a joke has a finite shelf life. As in, immediately after he and Anderson laughed about it the first time. Cracking it three years past that expiration date doesn’t mean a laugh or a tension dissipator but a nasty cut to the heart and soul.

“This game went through a period in time where a lot of those comments were meant,” said Grandal post-game, after telling reporters they didn’t want him to tell them what he actually said to Donaldson behind the plate. “And I think we’re way past that. And it’s just unacceptable. I just thought it was a low blow and I want to make sure I’ve got my team’s back. There’s no way that you’re allowed to say something like that.”

Baseball government told Anderson with a suspension that there’s no way he’s allowed to call Keller, who’s white, “a weak-assed [N-word]” after he got drilled in 2019. Let’s see if baseball government tells Donaldson the same way that there’s no way he’s allowed to call a black player “Jackie” even as a joke, three years after the joke’s shelf life expired.