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JACKIE ROBINSON WOULD HAVE LOVED TIM ANDERSON’S RESPONSE
Shades of racism still lurk in baseball, 75 years after the color barrier was broken, and Josh Donaldson should be suspended as a message to other fools: Never, ever use a brave pioneer in mockery
Jackie Robinson never gave up, so society can’t buckle and abandon the fight against racism. Nor can Major League Baseball surrender to the toxin that seeps through this country interminably, no matter how vigorous the pushback and relentless the protests.
But when a fool such as Josh Donaldson disrespects the most sacred name in sports, which prompts the ignorant loons in the Yankee Stadium stands to do the same, well, the mission of combating hatred in America almost seems futile. All weekend in New York, which laughably thinks of itself as a cosmopolitan and forward-thinking capital, the scenes were disturbing and disgraceful, and just about sad enough to drain whatever reformist energy remains.
Fortunately for us all, Tim Anderson is inexhaustible. He is one of the rare Black stars in a culturally challenged, predominantly White sport that has lost nearly its entire pool of Black players the last four decades — the demographic represented only 7.2 percent of players this year on Opening Day rosters. Three years ago, Anderson proudly said in a Sports Illustrated profile, “I kind of feel like today’s Jackie Robinson.” It was his way of honoring the crusade of the pioneer who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947. That was 75 years ago, as MLB is commemorating this season, with players, managers and coaches from every team wearing No. 42 jerseys, in vivid Dodger blue, during games on Jackie Robinson Day last month. As commissioner Rob Manfred said, “Jackie Robinson took the field under incredibly challenging circumstances and unimaginable pressure. Yet through his courage, character, skill, and values, he brought well-needed change to our game and advanced the Civil Rights movement.”
One of the players wearing No. 42 was Donaldson, a former American League MVP who has bounced around to seven organizations. The jersey should have been ripped off his back, in retrospect, because on Saturday in the Bronx, he engaged Anderson in what only can be called a modern-day version of an intolerant Jackie Robinson moment. Carrying on a years-long personal drama with Anderson and a bigger one against the Chicago White Sox, Donaldson mocked his rival as “Jackie” in the first inning and did so later in the game. In today’s climate, given Robinson’s place in history, it was akin to dropping the n-word in attempting to goad him.
“Basically, he was trying to call me Jackie Robinson,” Anderson said. “He was like, ‘Hey, what’s up Jackie?’ I don’t play like that. I don’t really play at all. I wasn’t really going to bother nobody today, but he made the comment, and you know, it was disrespectful and I don’t think it was called for. It was unnecessary. And then it happened again. It’s just uncalled for.”
It was, in fact, unnecessary and undeniably racist, the sort of caustic comment that can’t be made in 2022 without repercussions. And blowback, there was — White Sox catcher Yasmani Grandal stuck up for his wounded teammate by jawing at Donaldson as he entered the batter’s box in the fifth inning, prompting Anderson to approach from shortstop and both dugouts to empty. Rightfully, Grandal told reporters later, “This game went through a period in time where a lot of those comments were meant, and I think we’re way past that. 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. Believe me, you don’t want me to tell you guys what I told him.”
The hostility was just beginning. Donaldson tried to claim he was having fun with Anderson — “joking around.” Jackie Robinson is not a subject to be joked about, taken in vain, unless the jester lives in a cave and doesn’t grasp the poison of racism. Those assumptions can be made of Donaldson, a rockhead who freely acknowledged referring to Anderson as “Jackie” and farcically tried to explain.
“So first inning, I called him ‘Jackie.’ Let me give you a little context of that,” he said. “In 2019, he came out with an interview, said that he’s the new Jackie Robinson of baseball and he’s going to bring back fun for the game, right? In 2019, when I played for Atlanta, we actually joked about that in the game. I don’t know what’s changed, and I’ve said it to him in years past. Not in any manner than just joking around for the fact that he called himself Jackie Robinson. So if something has changed from that — my meaning of that is not in any term trying to be racist by any fact of the matter. It was just off an interview.
“I thought that was a joke between (Anderson) and I, because we’ve talked about it before. As I said, let me mention again, he’s called himself Jackie Robinson. That’s why I thought it was funny between us.”
If Anderson didn’t think it was funny, IT WASN’T FUNNY. And Donaldson is hopelessly delusional, obviously, if he thinks they’re pals from way back who share jokes. As one of the few Blacks excelling in the major leagues well into the 21st century, Anderson’s self-comparison to Robinson is no stretch or gimmick. His presence is a vital reminder to African-American kids that a baseball diamond remains an option, that they don’t have to play football or basketball. He’s also a showman and outspoken figure in a sport that continues to lack entertainment pizzazz, blown away long ago by the NFL and NBA. Everyone in baseball should be thrilled that he commands attention and inspires conversation. Instead, he was dragged through a twisted controversy by Donaldson and Yankees fans who obeyed the 36-year-old third baseman like sheep, taunting Anderson during Sunday’s doubleheader with derisive “Jackie!” chants and boos.
This was their sick form of retaliation for how the White Sox rallied around Anderson. Manager Tony La Russa called it a “a racist comment,” adding, “I’m anxious to know what the Yankees will say, because MLB has been crystal clear for years about how they feel about something like that.” Team leader and closer Liam Hendriks went a step farther, referring to Donaldson’s explanation as “just straight delusional. Usually, you have inside jokes with people you get along with — not people who don’t get along at all. So that statement right there was complete bullshit.”
Like Robinson in the day, Anderson had no choice but to play through the harassment and vitriol. Reprisal would have to be won on the field. The White Sox won the first game, and in the eighth inning of the nightcap, he came to the plate with a chance to build on a 2-0 lead. If this was a movie — and it sounds like one — of course, he ripped a three-run homer, rounded the bases to more boos, stepped on the plate where the furor had begun the previous day, then looked out at the rowdies in the grandstand … and delivered the universal finger-to-mouth gesture that demands shushing.
Or, as he said, in a comment picked up by a mic on the ESPN broadcast, “Making motherf—ers shut the f— up.”
Most likely, Jackie Robinson wouldn’t have used that language, at least publicly. But Anderson’s response couldn’t have been more beautiful and perfect. With one swing of the bat, and by keeping his thoughts to himself afterward, he stayed above the racist fray. In the bumpy opening stretch of a season in which only a World Series appearance will be acceptable, the White Sox haven’t looked better. Were they united by Anderson’s ordeal? Will a rallying event in New York, against the team with MLB’s best record, turn around their season and calm critics who’ve called for the scalp of the ancient La Russa? In that sense, wouldn’t Anderson be a MVP candidate of remarkable strength under the most arduous adversity? His teammates are awed by him, every day.
“I think that was just one of the cooler things I’ve seen, watching an entire crowd showing low class towards him, booing him, calling him ‘Jackie’ and all that stuff — and then hitting a homer and putting us right back in a good position to win,” said winning pitcher Michael Kopech, who threw seven shutout innings in the second game. “I’ve got nothing but respect for him. Tim’s going to show up, every day, ready to play and lead this team.”
Said La Russa, who has seen plenty in his 34 seasons of major-league managing but never anything like this: “This guy, he’s as good as anybody playing at that position. He’s one of the best players in baseball. He deserves the recognition. And he deserves the respect. When somebody disrespects him, he should get upset. I know I would. Think about how special he is, think about the game he had under those circumstances. That made it special.”
By Sunday, even Yankees manager Aaron Boone was having difficulty mustering a Donaldson defense. “I don’t believe there was any malicious intent in that regard, but you know, this is — just in my opinion — somewhere he should not be going,” he said.
Despite a majors-best 29-12 start, the Yankees already are surrounded by storm clouds. Aaron Judge, who leads the majors with 15 home runs, appears ready to play out the season and enter free agency — in search of a $300 million-plus contract. Imagine if the maniacal spender across town, Mets owner Steve Cohen, poaches Judge with the richest bid and pulls off the ultimate pinstriped nightmare? Closer Aroldis Chapman is dealing with an Achilles issue, among other team injuries. The clubhouse was hit by COVID-19 over the weekend. And did I mention the Mets? They’re stealing headlines from the Yankees as they haven’t in eons and will battle the Dodgers for the National League pennant.
Oh, and remember how the Yankees insisted they never cheated in electronic sign-stealing schemes? Well, they did, if not as egregiously as the Houston Astros, according to a Manfred letter from 2017 that finally went public recently — and the Yankees should be ashamed. As radio play-by-play barker John Sterling might say now, “Theeeeeee Yankees cheat!’’ It didn’t stop general manager Brian Cashman from saying of his team’s 13-year championship-less drought: “The only thing that derailed us was a cheating circumstance that threw us off."
His comments angered Astros owner Jim Crane, who said, “I found his comments to be extremely strange. There's the letter, and you were doing it, too. You were there, dude. What are you talking about? If I was one of the teams, and I knew our team was doing it (cheating), I'd keep my mouth shut and just go about our business. But listen, I can only control what's going on here. I can't control what the other guys do.''
To which Cashman fired back: “I don't think anybody's going to dance to the tune he's singing. I’d say it's called deflection, him trying to equate ... an equivalent of a parking ticket to maybe 162 felonies. I don't think anybody equates it to what the Astros did except for Houston. That is the feedback from everybody in the industry, including Major League Baseball."
Meanwhile, Yankees fans continue to embarrass a legendary franchise and the city. Recently, the outfield hecklers were so wicked that Cleveland outfielder Myles Straw climbed the chain-link fence like Spider-Man to confront them face to face — before dodging bottles in a near-riot. These are the same sort of cretins who thinks it’s cool to mock Tim Anderson with “Jackie!” chants.
Manfred’s office continues to investigate. Anything less than a multiple-game suspension for Donaldson, the fool who instigated the furor, won’t be acceptable. More than any other precious element in its waning empire, baseball must protect Jackie Robinson from the racists who lurk.
Otherwise, we’re still stuck in 1947.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.