The Bottom Line: Sheffield Is Right to Speak Out
The quality that most sports journalists respect about Gary Sheffield — even if it makes us uncomfortable — is his candor. I learned long ago that if you don’t want to know the answer, you don’t ask Sheffield the question.
Sheffield, with a new team, the Detroit Tigers, and with a new book, “Inside Power,” is baseball’s bull in the china shop. This week, he put a controversial twist to the continuing issue of the African-American disappearing act in Major League Baseball.
He spent most of the week responding and not responding to comments he made in an article in GQ magazine to the effect that Latino players are more desirable to major league teams because they are easier to control than African-American players.
Sheffield’s choice of the word control was harsh. There is a malaise among athletes in general in terms of challenging the status quo. But at a time when immigration is a searing topic, Sheffield raised a crucial issue about a delicate subject: the competition for jobs between African-American and Latino players in Major League Baseball.
“Baseball has a choice of which black faces it wants representing baseball,” Sheffield said Thursday during a telephone interview. “They’re choosing Latinos. What I was saying is that they’re choosing them because they can sign them for $2,000 and if they don’t take it, what do they have to do? They got to go back to where they’re from and they got to eat hot dogs for dinner.”
Sheffield wasn’t being anti-Latino, but simply advocating nurturing homegrown talent. Major League Baseball has the resources to mine phenomenal players from South America and the Caribbean while developing African-American players.
Everybody knows the numbers by now: Only 8.4 percent of major league baseball players are African-American, 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.
Citing baseball’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program, Sheffield said it had “been around for years, but you see more kids coming out of the academies in the Dominican Republic and not out of R.B.I.”
This isn’t entirely correct. Since 1989, the program has produced a number of professional players. The program is in 165 communities serving 120,000 youths in urban America.
Jimmie Lee Solomon, Major League Baseball’s executive vice president for baseball operations, said that there were two academies in the United States — one in Compton, Calif., and the other in Atlanta. The academies, which are run by Major League Baseball, are geared toward inner-city youths.
But many major league teams have built academies in South America and the Caribbean. Solomon helped make Sheffield’s case that the popularity of Latino players is largely part of an economic imperative that makes them more appealing than African-American players.
“The reason that the academies were put there is basically economic,” Solomon said yesterday. When a major league team develops a player in Latin America, that player is not subject to baseball’s draft. “When a club builds an academy in the Dominican Republic and signs a bunch of players, those players belong to that club and they can sign all those players,” Solomon said.
They often are signed for less than their counterparts in the United States. Baseball’s draft, which began Thursday, gives American-born players — black and white — a higher price tag. Just about every player in the United States is going to have an agent, and every agent is going to know the economics of his clients’ draft position.
“We have choices,” Sheffield said, referring to African-American players. “We’re in the draft where you have to pay us, you don’t have to pay them — why do you think they sign them underage? It’s like, I’m going to find the cheapest worker.”
Again, Solomon doesn’t disagree. “When you go to Latin America, you can sign kids usually for a lot less, because they didn’t go through the draft process,” he said.
In fact, the journey to the major leagues for Latin American players, and the journey of aspiring African-American players, is a precarious one. While the aspiring young African-American player finds it extremely difficult to enter the baseball pipeline, large numbers of aspiring young Latino players learn the game in the sports academies operated by major league teams.
But, as Solomon points out, these baseball factories are rigorous, and it is a major accomplishment to make it out of the academy and reach the minor leagues.
For all the controversy surrounding Sheffield’s statement in GQ, the larger issue is that the Latino presence in baseball is 29 percent. Arturo Moreno, who owns the Los Angeles Angels, is the only Latino owner of a major sports franchise in the United States.
There is a critical mass that should begin making its presence felt in the dugout and in the front office. There should be collaboration, not competition, between Latino and African-American players. “Latin players go through the same thing as black players,” Sheffield said. “There’s no difference.”
Gary Sheffield, baseball’s bull in a china shop, has indelicately brought attention to a delicate subject.