The news cycle has moved on, and the three teams advancing to the championship series and an impending Game 5 between the Dodgers and Giants should be the most important stories in Major League Baseball’s postseason. But over the past several days, I have found myself balancing my passion and my profession, sorting out the emotions of a moment that alienated a swath of baseball’s audience — including me.
During Game 2 of the American League Division Series between the Astros and White Sox, an on-air conversation between Jim Kaat and Buck Showalter went into territory that made me pause. In trying to explain White Sox infielder Yoan Moncada’s exceptional talent, Showalter — my former manager with the Rangers — shifted from glowing adjectives into Moncada’s value through the eyes of evaluators. This realm often takes us into objectification, which then takes us into property. And that is where Kaat jumped in. So in a cadence clearly meant to be complimentary of Moncada, Showalter asked, “Can we have one of those?” to which Kaat responded, “Get a 40-acre field full of them.”
From early on in the conversation, I had a bad feeling, but I didn’t see the punch line coming. When it came, it felt like it punched me in the face.
We could dive deep into history here, but, put simply, “40 acres” is a reference to a promise made during Reconstruction about granting “40 acres and a mule” to the “negroes now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States.”
It was made while Abraham Lincoln was president and reversed in one political cycle after Andrew Johnson took office. It’s a very specific, very historic number, one that first brought hope — reparations for the devastation of war and slavery on Black people — but later, after a promise not kept, unleashed the terror of Jim Crow America.
Faced with this reference during a baseball game, I found myself stuck on pause, wondering how we touched on reparations for slavery during the ALDS while discussing the value of a Latin player. At least, I hoped, it was done so unknowingly. For almost a week, I have grappled with whether I should say anything at all — whether the lessons from it are worth pursuing on a public scale, or if it’s just better to move on. I answered my internal debate by deciding I should at least try.
As a Black commentator in baseball, I have long experienced this quandary. When you are a professional but also representing a minority, you’re put in a tough position. It isn’t just about having to perform the autopsy of an uncomfortable moment like this one — and knowing that you’ll have to, either publicly or privately, because you can never guarantee that someone else will speak up on your behalf, given the risk involved. It’s also because — like we do so often in everyday life — you have to consider “what if.”
When I’m on air, these are the conversations I have with myself daily. During a broadcast, just as easily as I can tell a story about Jason Heyward’s defense, I could share a story about how he has worked to help with issues that disproportionately impact Black people. But would that be taken as playing the “race card”? Being political? I have to weigh that, because people so often conflate broadcasters bringing up race with politics, in an attempt to diminish the sincerity.
Often, I find other ways to engage because I believe in what we can learn from the intersection of sports and social issues — an opportunity that can elevate a game to something that can help us come together as people. This is not that much of a stretch, given how the game means more to us as fans than just what the scoreboard communicates.
So what if I were covering that game, with Showalter and Kaat, as the field reporter or a second analyst? What would I have done? What would I have said? It is an obligation sharply felt by the only Black voice in any room, let alone during a baseball game, where you are expecting to just talk baseball.
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As I see it, there are a few options in situations like this.
I could have responded indirectly. I could have hit the talkback button and taken my issue to the producers off-line, in order to go through the proper channels. From experience, I know that calling a game is hard. You have to talk for over three hours, and your brain is crammed with information. Data, analytics, interviews, inside information, you name it. And every so often, it just simply comes out wrong, or you react with your mouth before your mind. You don’t have time to dissect the nuance of what someone has said without the risk of making the same kind of generalizing mistake. Easier over balls and strikes, not so much over racial history.
Or I could have responded directly. I could have interjected on live television to express my consternation — even knowing how that might be taken. Would I be accusing an icon? Would I be bringing too much Blackness and making too many people uncomfortable? After all, how do you address it while upset, without coming off a certain way?
I know I would have felt compelled to address what was said. Through my own experiences in the game and in the booth, I have a unique understanding of what a comment like that can do.
I came up in baseball when it was much more acceptable to discuss a player like cattle. After all, players are literally depreciating assets for teams. The scouting side is more brash when they talk about a player’s body type or height, arm, leverage, all of the physical attributes that they project out to his potential for success. We are horses or bulldogs, stallions and studs.
These backhanded compliments can mask where they can take us — especially when addressing people who were actually owned in our nation, who are still working to be included every single day. At the voting booth, in housing policy, in education, in governance.
My other option, in responding in the moment on air: I could have stayed silent. I could have internalized it. There is an etiquette to broadcasting. You have to think long and hard about whether you are going to contradict someone or call them out, on Twitter or live during a game. It doesn’t have to be because of insensitive content — it could be about a mistake on a call or simply getting a player’s name wrong. The default is that you don’t do it. And if you do, you do it with care, smoothly, out of respect for your colleague.
So I wonder. Would I have had the courage to walk out of the booth midgame? Would I have been silent? Would my silence have helped the story die more than another anchor’s, because mine appears to excuse the comments on behalf of all Black people, an unfair burden that assumes we are monolithic?
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In this instance and in so many others, the intent behind the statement becomes beside the point. Kaat apologized for his “poor choice of words” four innings later, but by then, it felt too late — you don’t have to be malicious to negatively impact someone. In the end, if the comment has made headlines, if it stirred up controversy, no matter the agreed-upon intent — it’s a Black man in the middle. In this case, it’s one who calls games for a living, addressing hypotheticals and reviewing his many brushes with racism for context. The pressure is often on Black people to bury their feelings and carry on, for the greater good of the game — until we’re left wondering whether we are even on the playing field.
But this is part of who I am. I am a color analyst of color who brings his experience and weaves it into this space. All analysts can bring our personal stories around identity. They can be universal and educational, but it also can bring pain with that identity. We can brush off slavery or we can recognize the vestiges of it and how it still plays a role in our systems. Just last week, a petition to bring back slavery circulated through a school in Kansas City, so I am not talking about 1865.
When I was calling a Cubs game a couple of years ago, during a live hit, a Chicago fan made a symbol behind my head on camera. It could have been the circle game; it could have been a white supremacy sign. After a Cubs investigation, it led to an indefinite ban.
It was both, it was neither, but in the end, I was in the middle and had to address it. That ban doesn’t change the fact that I have to tap my experiences with racism throughout my life, that I have to educate about the speculation of what was meant even when I wasn’t the one who meant it, that I have to be accused of playing a race card on a hand that I never dealt, that I may not receive credit as a Black man to be able to patiently weigh the information and understand that words with racial undertones, even unintentionally, require a painful internal reckoning, whether an indictment follows or not.
We all need to be better and more aware, more educated about history so we don’t make bad analogies. Yet we also have to see how understanding is an evolutionary process and grant people the bandwidth to grow, including ourselves. I certainly would want to be extended the same courtesy.
But it is also important to understand that our words do not land in a vacuum. On air, the millions of viewers paying attention to our every word make nuance and context difficult. That may be an extra burden to broadcasters, but it does not make it less true. It also means that we have a responsibility to understand the true impact of our words — and realize that used loosely, they may devastate not just the millions of diverse fans impacted by what we say as commentators in every game, but also a person in your industry who is 1,000 miles from the game you are calling, who can see himself in the booth right next to you.
But understanding matters more.