Everything is on the table, America. Shut down the seasons, protest, speak up. Whatever we can do to address real pain felt by Americans then it should be considered.
But for the moment, let’s just listen.
I had a fantastic talk with Jason Heyward recently. It went over a great many things, his recent investment and work with Turn2 Equity Partners, a collaboration that is both uplifting and empowering not only for Heyward but other baseball players that can benefit from things that will come shortly.
We talked about his life as a professional baseball player. His opinion on the entertaining spark coming from a youth movement headlined by Fernando Tatis Jr. We even talked puppies. It was a revelatory and inspiring discussion. And we will get to that very soon, I promise.
But it’s hard for me to hit publish on that story when it’s more pertinent to talk about pain and loss and protest. It’s about this moment. It’s about Wednesday night.
He remains one of very few African-American players in one of America’s most beloved sport. And on Wednesday, the sports world again paused.
Heyward spoke to me for our interview on Aug. 13. On Wednesday, Aug. 26, American sports stopped. This time it wasn’t because of a global pandemic, still very much raging across this nation. It was because another Black man had his life altered at the hands of police officials.
Our discussion obviously didn’t include any mention of Jacob Blake, a Black man from Kenosha Wis. who was left paralyzed after an officer involved shooting.
But it did touch a great deal on race, that subject always just in the background of our national discourse, has been thrust to the forefront, standing defiantly next to a COVID outbreak as things this country must consider on a daily basis.
On Wednesday, Heyward joined NBA teams and other athletes in preferring not to play his sport, sitting it out in protest, in anguish, in emotional exhaustion.
An Instagram post of Heyward sporting a Black Lives Matter shirt is all we saw of him until later in the night.
Heyward addressed his decision to sit out Wednesday’s game against the Tigers, an eventual 7-6 loss in Detroit.
“There were multiple guys saying they weren’t comfortable going out there and playing if I wasn’t going to go out there,” Heyward told media on Wednesday night. “They didn’t want to leave me hanging. I let them know, encouraged them, you know, go play the game. I don’t think the game should be canceled but I think I have to do what I have to do.”
He joined Dexter Fowler, Jack Flaherty, Matt Kemp and the players on the Mariners, Padres, Dodgers and Giants, all of whom postponed their games.
The Mets’ Dominic Smith, tears in his eyes, said on Wednesday, “I think the most difficult part is to see people still don’t care. …Being a Black man in America is not easy.”
Dodgers star Mookie Betts decided to sit out Wednesday, a decision that prompted the entire team to protest the game.
The NBA and WNBA largely shuttered on Wednesday. But in MLB, African-American players affected on a deep personal level by the incessant and public displays of systemic racism in this country are often alone in the clubhouse.
As far as baseball is concerned, there is no question there needs to be better outreach into Black communities. The Cubs outfielder admits that there have been discussions in the locker room on this very topic.
“We’ve talked about a big topic of things here of late, even as a team, systemic racism or whatever you want to call it,” he said in our previous interview. “There are no baseball fields in certain areas. There are no sports facilities. There are no basketball courts or anything in certain areas.”
With that lack of access, young Black America is instead choosing sports that do offer those opportunities.
In 2019, Opening Day saw ballclubs welcome 68 African-American players to the field out of 882 players, that’s 7.7% of the game.
When it comes to the Cubs, there is no doubt in my mind that a dialogue is taking place, and it’s taking place with Heyward speaking and other players listening intently.
Prior to the season, the Cubs did have an open conversation about the Black Lives Matter movement and where someone like Heyward might be coming from.
“And I just try to let (my) teammates know and everyone know that we’re not saying we’re the only ones, as Black people, that struggle, that go through things,” Heyward told En Fuego earlier in the month. “We’re not saying everyone is perfect. But in a work environment, in the sport of baseball, you don’t see a lot of us around. … I’ve been at my own home field and in Atlanta, I’ve been called ‘Boy’ by somebody because they want me to come over there and sign something for the kid.”
Heyward has discussed these types of things before, addressing the kind of environment a Black ballplayer might have to contend with that another might not.
“I played for the Atlanta Braves. I was drafted by my hometown team,” Heyward told ESPN in July. “Long story short, hometown team, drafted in the first round, and playing for the Rome Braves in Savannah, Georgia — against the Mets, that was their minor league affiliate at the time — and I was talking to Freddie Freeman after the game, and he had tears in his eyes. [He said], ‘Jay, did you hear the stuff people were saying to you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I heard it, bro.’ And he replied, ‘I’ve never seen that before.’”
At this point, it’s not even about speaking up. I feel complicit just watching sports. The joy has been sucked out of pastimes that used to bring us all such peace.
NBA and WNBA athletes are in bubbles, isolated from their families. MLB players are risking their health, traveling around the country to play the game they love.
All the while the country smolders, the embers of hate never die, never extinguish. And so, like a horribly plotted drama, we are back at it again, attempting to figure out a problem so obvious, scrambling for a solution that remains elusive for a section of the country that is tragically large.
“The big step because in the game of baseball, it’s always been, you’re afraid to speak out on things like that,” Heyward said. “You’re afraid to speak on anything but baseball, especially as an African-American.”
Wednesday showed that MLB is willing to listen.
Sure, teams like the Chicago Cubs played their game. But don’t get it twisted, these guys are a family.
On Wednesday, Anthony Rizzo spoke to reporters as well.
“There’s things in this country that are not right, right now,” Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. “[If] we start acknowledging it and moving forward instead of sweeping it under the rug and moving on to the next story, that’s a start.”
This Cubs team is tight, largely consisting of players from previous seasons. Rizzo made the group engage in regular Zoom calls during the initial MLB shutdown and Heyward was a vocal point of contact as the team considered and talked about race and the tumult of a most chaotic year.
Heyward explained to me that the Cubs have had speakers come in to address the clubhouse specifically on these subjects. The healing starts with outstretched arms and the Cubs are a very open organization.
“I’ve never felt any bit of racism or anything like that in this organization,” Heyward told me.
If you are looking for a model that can help this country get to whatever is next, whatever stage the follows this era of tumult, we should be more like this group of brothers.
Heyward is here to teach. His teammates have shown a willingness to listen, learn and support. It’s that simple. It’s that profound.
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