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Padecky: With Georgia, baseball makes a bold statement

The meetings last week on what to do with this year’s All-Star Game were private, of course. Had to be. The image of Major League Baseball was on the line and MLB protects its image unlike any other sport in this country. Think of taking the cubs away from a mountain lion. That kind of protection.

The case can be made MLB has been living off Jackie Robinson since 1947. Jackie became the first Black in the sport and the Dodgers justifiably earned the hosannas. Branch Rickey showed courage, fairness, a vision that the color of a man’s skin is as relevant to hitting a baseball as having fish tacos for lunch.

Yet, in baseball’s shiniest moment, the sport still had to be convinced that being color blind was not a defect of character but rather an asset. It would be 12 years and 96 days after Jackie before the last of the 16 MLB teams integrated, when Pumpsie Green joined the Boston Red Sox.

Think of it this way: Beginning in 1519, it took three years for the first circumnavigation of the globe.

A ship powered only by the wind circled the globe four times faster than it took for all of baseball to decide to integrate.

Glaciers melt faster.

So it should have come as no surprise last year when MLB was the last of the four major American pro sports to make a statement about the killing of George Floyd on May 25. MLB waited nine days to give its opinion, four days after the NFL made theirs and three days after the NBA and NHL made theirs.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp listens to a question during a news conference at the State Capitol on Saturday, April 3, 2021, in Atlanta, about Major League Baseball's decision to pull the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta over the league's objection to a new Georgia voting law. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp listens to a question during a news conference at the State Capitol on Saturday, April 3, 2021, in Atlanta, about Major League Baseball's decision to pull the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta over the league's objection to a new Georgia voting law. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Some of the sport’s harshest critics claim the game on the field moves as slow as the thought processes in the owner’s box.

MLB has had little reason to follow this oft-quoted trope: Be the change that you wish to see in the world. In 2019, on opening day rosters, only 68 of the 882 players were Black. Eleven of the 30 teams had no more than one Black player on a roster.

For years MLB assumed that Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Bob Gibson, Ernie Banks, Rickey Henderson, Derek Jeter, Ken Griffey Jr. would inspire Black kids to come to the sport. As MLB sat on that assumption, the NFL and the NBA filled the void with big money and quicker access to it. Don’t have to toil in the minors in those sports.

Baseball has a conscience? MLB only takes a knee if there’s a torn ACL.

Friday, MLB changed all that. They went big. They went loud. To those who opposed removing the All-Star Game from Atlanta, it sounded like an air raid siren. To those who approved the decision, it sounded like a love song, the love for social justice.

The announcement was clear and left little room for interpretation. No gray area here. No middle ground to debate. Made all the more cataclysmic because the All-Star Game was to honor the greatest Atlanta player of all-time, Aaron.

It was so unlike baseball, to be so obvious. The game operates in the footnotes, and when it chooses to emerge from the margins it looks so goofy. Being bold to MLB means announcing it wants to quicken games by starting the 10th inning with a runner on second base. They want to shorten games. Terrific. Why not start with the bases loaded? The idea is as silly as it is stupid. A sign of an industry in panic.

MLB’s announcement is more than symbolic, a publicity stunt, a desperate grab at attention. It’s from a sport that has lived comfortably in the background for the last 74 years. Even when it felt threatened, MLB has shrugged mightily. The steroid scandal hit and baseball squirmed and it waited patiently for the screaming and the trials to stop. The biggest scandal since Jackie is now another baseball footnote. Has all the immediacy of the Black Sox scandal. The reputations and legacies of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire will be sacrificed. Oh well. The game goes on.

That’s why Friday should be treated so differently. MLB didn’t have to do a thing. Have the All-Star Game in Atlanta. Honor Aaron. Send out a press release decrying the voter suppression laws instituted by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and the game supports fair elections and everyone has the right to vote and blah, blah, blah.

That’s baseball’s way of doing things. Their tradition, you might say. Shrug and move on. Past voter issues. Past steroids, corked bats, the Astros banging on cans, drums, helmets, tomato cans. Baseball has depended on the short attention span by those who love it.

Not this time. MLB has taken a lot of heat for its decision and it has come from its conservative fan base. That, you might think, could have given them a serious moment of pause. Owners love the sport’s history but not as much as they love their money.

Will fans show their disgust and walk away? Baseball only has to look at the NFL to find the answer to that question.

The NFL is the league of arms interlocking, of Colin Kaepernick kneeling. It is the league that has “IT TAKES ALL OF US” and “END RACISM” painted in end zones. Helmets had those words as well as “BLACK LIVES MATTER.” The NFL has been very clear on what they thought of systemic racism.

The pushback was just as obvious, especially from the former president. He wouldn’t watch pro football if there’s kneeling, that the league needs “to get those SOBs off the field!” who kneel and that “people need to stop watching.”

The impact? On March 19 the NFL signed the biggest television contract in history -- $113 billion through 2033. No fewer than seven networks will televise or stream NFL games. There was a 7 percent decline in viewship during the 2020 season but billion-dollar companies thought it a momentary dip, more attributable to the pandemic than personal disgust.

So last Friday was not a meaningless blowing in the wind. It was the quiet kid in the back of the class who suddenly spoke up, who demanded to be heard. All the kids turned around and stared, especially the loud ones. The kid has a voice after all. Must be pretty important for him to come out of his shell. It was. And is.

To comment write to bobpadecky@gmail.com.

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