by Glenn Nelson, contributing columnist
Major League Baseball (MLB) has a race problem. Its least accomplished member, the Seattle Mariners, has an even worse one. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most woeful franchise in all of professional sports also has a longstanding awkwardness — to put it kindly — with race.
I say this despite the Mariners having fielded the most Black players in baseball last season (10 on opening day, though Dee Gordon and Taijuan Walker have moved on). I say this despite the Mount Rushmore of Mariners’ history comprising Ken Griffey Jr. (Black), Ichiro (Asian), and Edgar Martinez (Brown). And I don’t just say this because Kevin Mather was forced to quit in disgrace as the team’s president and CEO after insensitive comments he made to the Bellevue Rotary Club surfaced publicly.
But Mather, who is white, did leave one helluva smoking gun. If he considered a Rotary breakfast as a safe space to say what he did, imagine what is being said behind closed doors in the Mariners organization. It’s difficult to argue that a man who served 25 years and rose to such heights did not either influence or reflect organizational attitudes.
Depending on whether you believe her (I do), Dr. Lorena Martin offered more smoke in 2018, using Instagram to accuse general manager Jerry Dipoto, manager Scott Servais, and player personnel director Andy McKay of making racially derogatory remarks about the Mariners’ Latinx players. She was fired, she said, after she took the complaints to — ahem — Mather and team chairman John Stanton. The Mariners handled her complaints and a wrongful-dismissal lawsuit by disparaging her behind the scenes, then, according to The Seattle Times, quietly settling the case at some undisclosed time and means.
Martin, who was hired in 2017 as high-performance director, said in her lawsuit that Latinx M’s players went to her to say they felt excluded. Martin said she took those and other complaints to Mariner human resources officials. One of them, Lisa Winsby, was the director at the time and has since been promoted to senior vice president of … yep … people and culture.
There also is the matter of sexual harassment complaints that the Times unearthed against Mather, then-team President Chuck Armstrong, and then-Executive Vice President Bob Aylward, made in 2009–10, before Mather became team president. Although not race-related, these complaints potentially reflect a similar disrespect for another class of human beings on the other side of power dynamics enjoyed by Mariners executives.
Players of Color have used a plantation analogy to describe the kind of diversity I referenced earlier. I’ll put it this way: The examples were of the workers (players) and not the owners, or even senior management. Since Hiroshi Yamauchi, the former Nintendo president, died in 2002, Mariners ownership has been white and male. Flipping through executive bios in the Mariners press guide is like walking through a blizzard; from the board of directors through the vice president level, the only executives with at least non-white-appearing surnames are Fred Rivera, executive vice president and general counsel, and Kevin Martinez, executive vice president, communications and marketing. Black and Asian Americans are conspicuously absent, the latter a real curiosity since the Mariners have had a Japanese-born player on their roster every year since Mac Suzuki’s second tenure with the team began in 1998.
The Mariners have an obligation to try harder.
That obligation begins with the withering whiteness of their sport. Baseball was the first professional league to break the unfortunately monikered “color barrier,” when Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947. But it is a far, far cry from there today. MLB and its pipeline have an issue with its missing Blackness. Its player ranks were 57.5% white during its last full season in 2019, according to Infogram, but just 7.7% Black. It makes a difference. Tim Anderson, the only Black player on the appropriately named White Sox, ignited controversy for tossing his bat after hitting his 50th home run of the 2019 season; a gifted player, he has been labeled as … what else … too flamboyant and outspoken. Asked why baseball players didn’t kneel for the national anthem, Adam Jones, a Black player who was traded away by the Mariners, told USA Today in 2016, “Baseball is a white man’s sport.”
The Mariners are obligated to try harder because, well, look at the neighborhood in which they are playing:
- The Seahawks have exuded national and community leadership on racial and social justice from their player ranks and have an influential organizational leader in Pete Carroll who nurtures and makes space for their expression. Russell Wilson just won the NFL’s most prestigious honor as Walter Payton Man of the Year, and former Hawks Doug Baldwin and Richard Sherman were influential national leaders and thinkers on race.
- The WNBA was arguably the next most “woke” professional sports league (the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick was the father of the struggle, after all). Storm stars Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart, though white, were national leaders in the league’s strong embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as helping engineer a Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate. In addition to helping defeat former Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, WNBA players pressured Loeffler to sell her majority stake in the Atlanta Dream after she objected in a letter to the league’s initiatives to advocate for racial justice and the Black Lives Matter movement.
- From the beginning, the Sounders have reflected the global influence and diversity of soccer, particularly that of Latin America. They also have had a meaningful presence in Communities of Color and their youth.
- Last, but only because they are the most surprising, given the Kraken haven’t even played an NHL match and represent a sport so historically white that folks used to say the only Blackness on the ice was the puck. That’s no longer completely true; the NHL players ranks now only is between 93% and 97% white, depending on your source. Its fan base is the whitest (77.1%) of any sport, according to one poll. Then there’s the Kraken, already heralded as the model for diversity in their new league. They will have the first full-time Black play-by-play announcer in NHL history, a Black team physician, two Black vice presidents, a workforce that is 50% female, and senior leadership is more than half female. The Kraken is trying to be diverse and inclusive.
Intentions of the heart and mind aside, the Kraken’s focus on diversity is shrewd business. The median age in Seattle keeps falling — to 35 years old, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — and median household income has breached $100,000. That means disposable income increasingly is in the hands of millennials, the most diverse generation in this country’s history, who value diversity and want their associations to count for something meaningful.
It’s hard to find anything meaningful about a franchise that has not sniffed the postseason for 19 straight years, the longest active drought in North American professional sports. It’s difficult to find diversity value in an organization that was led by someone who publicly employed such a tired Latinx trope, labeling promising prospect Julio Rodriguez as “loud.” Complimentary memo to Mr. Mather: That $75,000 annual expense for Hisashi Iwakuma would be considered a pittance for what a translator also does, which is provide another person in the organization that looks, speaks, and thinks like you.
For the longest time, I thought the Mariners were cursed and that it eventually would be revealed that their stadium was built on top of old Duwamish burial grounds. But, thanks to the past three days, we now know that the Mariners have been rotten because their culture is rotten. The common denominator during the team’s run of futility and mismanagement has been its ownership group. And the one thing we already know about white supremacist entities is that they almost certainly are incapable of self-correction. If this were the WNBA, we maybe could count on players to lead an insurrection that resulted in forced divestment. Absent that, the Mariners play in a publicly owned facility and are a civic embarrassment; can the citizenry or our elected officials force these clowns to sell?
Better yet that Major League Baseball step up and expunge this tainted leadership group from their ranks — and ours. It would be easier, cleaner. It also would be a positive baby step for a sport that has desperately fallen behind the burgeoning societal aspiration for a racially and socially just future.
Glenn Nelson, a contributing columnist, is a Japanese American journalist and lifetime South Seattle resident who founded trailposse.com and has won numerous national and regional awards for his writings about race. Follow him @trailposse on Twitter or @thetrailposse on Instagram.
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