What Gary Sheffield Really Said

You know how you can tell when it’s more important to kill the message a person is trying to get across, especially a black person, especially a black person talking about racism; especially a black person talking about racism who is generally disliked by the press; especially a black athlete who dares speak out about any race issues?

Quote him literally:

“When you see a black face on TV and they start talking, English comes out. That’s what I said. I ain’t taking a shot at them or nothing. I’m just telling it like it is.

“So there are a lot of factors involved you look at. I’m not saying you can tell them what to do and it’ll be ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir.’ I’m just saying from a grand scheme of things.”

When I read Gary Sheffield’s quotes, poor grammar and all, I knew there was a problem. And don’t give me the bullshit about editorial accuracy. Lots of athletes say ain’t when speaking, many athletes’ grammar leaves something to be desired. If every athlete was quoted exactly as the words exited their mouths, we’d spend as much time attempting to decipher their words as trying to understand what they were attempting to relate to the interviewer.

If I had a dollar for every “ain’t”, “you know”, stutter and stammer, “dis and dat”, “I mean like”, ad nauseum, I’d be a millionaire. I’ve probably heard it a ten thousand times from Peyton Manning, Jeff Kent, Brad Miller, Chipper Jones, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.–well, most NASCAR drivers, crew chiefs, and NASCAR-affiliated folks.

But do you read it in your newspaper or in a national magazine each time they speak?

Of course not.

Do you read, “I see Ozzie face an’ he say, oh that was good pitch how can dee guy heeet dee fasball?”

Of course not.

Quoting Gary Sheffield word-for-word is an attempt to paint Sheffield’s remark in such a way that his message will be lost in the morass of grammar.

MLB vice president dismissed Sheffield’s remarks with a comment so unprofessional that it makes me want to puke:

“Consider the source.”

That was Richard Levin’s response, in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, to recent comments by the veteran Tigers slugger, who thinks MLB wants more Latino and fewer black players in their ranks.

I’ll use the same standards to parse Levin’s utterance which most mainstream sports writers, sports talk show hosts, and Internet shock bloggers are holding Sheffield.

By saying, “consider the source,” in response to Gary Sheffield’s quotes in GQ, Richard Levin, one of MLB’s vice presidents, has taken a shot at all black baseball players. A crass and racist statement made by an executive of a major sport cannot be tolerated by Americans of any color.

If Levin was an athlete we’d call him out, demean him, decry him, poke fun at his inability to express himself in a meaningful manner, and otherwise criticize Major League Baseball for failing to check the background of a potential executive for prior racist remarks. Levin should be summarily dismissed from his position and never be allowed to work in or around MLB in any fashion.

Sound all right with you? Of course not.

In Sheffield’s case, though, the larger context of his statements go right out the window when there is the ability to cloud the issue. Though Sheffield is being roundly panned, the Associated Press article I linked to quietly contextualized Sheffield’s quote:

Last season, only 8.4 percent of major league baseball players were black, the lowest level in at least two decades, according to an annual report by the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports. The report showed that 29.4 percent of players last season were Latino.

Sheffield’s comments Tuesday were similar to those in the magazine, when he expressed his long-held belief.

In expanding on his comment about control, Sheffield said Tuesday, “They have more to lose than we do. You can send them back across the island. You can’t send us back. We’re already here.”

“So there are a lot of factors involved you look at. I’m not saying you can tell them what to do and it’ll be ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir.’ I’m just saying from a grand scheme of things.”

So Gary Sheffield’s remarks have a basis in fact. What?! That can’t be! It can’t be if you listen to almost the entire sports world.

So, why aren’t there more black baseball players?

The paucity of black baseball players is blamed on –black baseball players!

Just today, on ESPN’s radio-television simulcast, Mike and Mike in the Morning, baseball writer Jayson Stark surmised that one of the main reasons there are dwindling numbers of black baseball players is because there are so few, when compared with football and basketball, black role models in baseball. Stark is far from the only member of the media to say this, just the latest.

But there’s something deeper here -­ like money. Some time back an ESPN series on baseball in the Dominican outlined the very problems that lead to there being so few black baseball players. Consider this:

The Pittsburgh Pirates are considering building a new training academy in the Dominican Republic in an effort to attract more of the country’s top prospects.

The team’s owners and general manager Dave Littlefield ended a four-day visit to the country on Tuesday, saying they want to increase their presence there.

“We are investing more money in signing prospects because we want to achieve more here in the Dominican Republic,” team chairman Bob Nutting told The Associated Press.

The Pirates currently boast several Dominican players, including third baseman Jose Bautista.

But it is a small share of the talent produced by this developing country of 9.2 million. Many of those players rise up through major league-owned baseball academies that line the south coast.

The Pirates operate training facilities in the country, but they are badly outshined by many other clubs. While the Pittsburgh crew was visiting an isolated practice field Tuesday, the New York Mets were breaking ground on a new $7.5 million academy just a few miles to the south in the beach resort of Boca Chica.

Oh really?! See, that $7.5 million spent “down there” for access to 9.2 million people will go a lot farther than the $5 to $20 million it costs to buy a minor league team. After buying a team, there are all the overhead costs itinerant with running a baseball team. By the time a season is over, a Major League team might spend up to $30 million dollars to buy and maintain a team where most of the players will not play one second in the bigs.

What will the players receive? A three-year lease on their baseball lives:

A Dominican signed to his contract has no more than three years to make it to the next level, the U.S. minor leagues, sometimes far less than that. The training ground is an academy of a Major League Baseball team, most of which are scattered on the outskirts of the capitol, Santo Domingo. The players in these academies participate in the Dominican Summer League.

Starting every January, signed Dominicans will play baseball seven days a week, all day long, seldom venturing outside the grounds of a Major League Baseball academy. Call it baseball boarding school. The prospects not only learn the fundamentals; they also learn how to take care of themselves–and to eat.

What teams do now, instead of investing in a system built through the minors in the U.S., is enter into the murky world of treating players like human chattel akin to horse trading or worse yet, slavery. MLB teams throw money at teams in Mexico, Central America, the Dominican Republic, and South America and in return procure the inside track on players of their choice. When the players are “bought” the teams they played for receive a “commission” that comes out of the players’ reported bonus money from MLB teams in return for holding on to the player.

The Dominican Republic is ravaged by human trading. According to an ESPN investigative report by Nicole Noren and Pedro Gomez, not only are there the MLB money for player scams, the notorious middlemen who receive up to 75% of a players’ bonus money as a “finder’s fee” for that player, but there are “pay for marriage scams” involving Dominican players and worldwide prostitution rings:

An official at the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo confirmed to ESPN that a marriage-for-visa fraud was thwarted at the U.S. Consulate in early 2005. While it is State Department policy not to release the names of visa applicants, the official confirmed that at least 15 minor league players and their alleged wives all had their visa privileges permanently revoked on grounds of attempting to smuggle aliens into the United States.

This type of immigration fraud is common in a country where abject poverty leads people to take drastic measures to get to America. But a more sinister motivation is often behind some of these scams, particularly in the Dominican Republic, where human trafficking, particularly the trafficking of women for prostitution and forced labor, is a common problem. According to a 2006 U.S. State Department report, international human rights organizations estimate that approximately 50,000 Dominican women work in prostitution throughout the world, and one-third of them are victims of trafficking.

The official went on say that while the State Department takes accusations of human trafficking very seriously, “The visa applicants themselves are the ones who attempted to smuggle women into the U.S. through sham marriages bear the consequences of their fraudulent actions.”

In 2001, the Arizona Diamondbacks had a “working agreement” with the Monterrey Sultans in Mexico. Working agreement? Check out how their “working agreement” with the Sultans was being used relative to pitcher Jorge De La Rosa:

The organization had negotiated a three-year working agreement with Monterrey, but that contract expired after the 2000 season. Looking to save the approximately $300,000 it cost to maintain the relationship, the club allowed their agreement to lapse. When the Monterrey ownership learned of the decision, they promised Arizona that De La Rosa would be returned and then proceeded to auction him to the highest bidder as soon as he was deemed under their control.

The Dodgers, Rockies, Giants, Braves, and Yankees were all aggressive in their pursuit, but it was the Red Sox who came out on top with a Mexican League-record offer of $1.9 million. It was three times the next highest bid, but General Manager Dan Duquette was pleased with the acquisition.

Under the terms of the agreement, Monterrey received 60 percent of the signing bonus while De La Rosa received the remaining $760,000. It was an ironic price, nearly identical to the one Monterrey charged the Diamondbacks in December of 1998 for first-baseman Erubiel Durazo, and it proved an embarrassment to the Arizona front office.

Sounds like what it is, a players for dollars scam.

This under-the-table collusion with Latin-speaking countries and their baseball teams is what black players as far back as Richie Allen in the 1960s spoke out against. For four decades black baseball has seen this day coming. It is not rocket science to watch what were once city parks become exclusive housing tracts, condominium complexes, and shopping centers. It doesn’t take a genius to see entire neighborhoods bought for pennies on the dollar and turned into massive gentrification projects.

Many people attempting to blame the dearth of black baseball players on basketball and football or lack of MLB role models, forget that the same parks that housed baseball fields were also football fields–so why aren’t we seeing dwindling numbers of black football players in the NFL? The “land” issue is a ruse; the role model issue is an excuse. The main culprit is the ruination of black neighborhoods.

Black players in the 60s were the first to witness the devastating effects of forced integration on black neighborhoods. These players grew up in the segregation era when black people owned businesses that fed, clothed, and rented and sold homes exclusively to other black people. Neighborhood schools were all black: black students, black teachers, and black principals.

In these segregated black areas, children played baseball in parks on all-black baseball teams funded by black businessmen and the neighborhood, in general. Through the mid-to-late 1950s through 1966 when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, minor league scouts tapped black talent from these neighborhoods; from black baseball leagues that were the equivalent of the Little League and the Babe Ruth league.

After 1966 and forced integration, these black players who became major leaguers watched city governments turn their backs on inner-city neighborhoods and watch state governments turn their attention to ensuring that there is a place outside of the city core for middle-class whites to flee from black people. They watched local and state governments combine with the federal government to fail to provide funding for black-owned businesses, for the restructuring of the public school system, and for the acquisition of rural land from rural black people who had their land sold and appropriated from under their feet; to have then unceremoniously shunted into inner cities.

Sure the number of parks dwindled, but more importantly, without the ability to build and maintain the infrastructure for an above-board economy, urban black people actively turned to what every immigrant group which came to this country turned to for survival: an underground economy based on the selling of drugs and people. As a result, there were no more safe stoops on which to throw and catch balls, no more safe streets for stickball.

These same players watched industries like the auto industry, the steel industry and the aviation industry which were worked mainly by black people, pick up and leave, rendering entire urban black areas that were self-sufficient just months before, destitute. Players like Allen, Lou Brock, Curt Flood, Joe Morgan, and Bob Gibson lived through this entire era. And in the era immediately after came Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Tony Gwynn, and Rickey Henderson, which bled into Barry Bonds, Gary Sheffield, and Ken Griffey, Jr.

Sure Bonds and Griffey grew up around baseball and with some money–but they grew up black and in baseball and with some money. They watched how their fathers were treated. They heard “nigger” being tossed out like chew in locker rooms; just like they saw the amphetamines used to play games mixed with alcohol after games, and chew spit out and replaced by cigarettes.

All of the aforementioned players watched the corporation to which they belong follow the paths of so many other big businesses, which was finally made palatable for the public through NAFTA–they outsourced. Major League Baseball owners looked and looked at what it takes to keep baseball in the U.S. on their dime and said, whoa! Let’s cut out most of our minor league product, put the onus of responsibility for developing young U.S. talent on the NCAA, and get the rest of our talent from outside the U.S.

Just like seeing the ruination of a modern peoples isn’t rocket science, particularly if it’s happening to you, it’s not rocket science to understand how to save money and keep your product afloat–especially if the checks are being written by you.

This is Gary Sheffield’s world. He is from a place where he watched and still hears black people publicly called, nigger, colored, black, and African American. He knows, conversely that, push come to shove white people are Americans first, then white Americans, and then identified by their country of origin. He knows that being labeled as an “African” American implies that black people in the U.S. are somehow not to be afforded all the inalienable rights promised by the country’s founding fathers.

After all, if he was, why would Gary Sheffield need to be African before he’s American?

D. K. WILSON writes for the dynamic sports site The Starting Five.