MLB’s Cultural Divide

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Yuli Gurriel

MLB has long had a problem connecting with Black Americans, but it hasn’t often conceded it also has difficulty in getting all its other various constituencies to get along with each other. However that problem was brought front and center last week through an ugly gesture made in the dugout during the ongoing World Series between the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers.

Astros’ first baseman Yuli Gurriel made a slant-eyed gesture towards Dodgers’ pitcher Yu Darvish. He also uttered the word “chinito,” which is a Spanish derisive term that roughly translates into “little Chinese guy.” An almost immediate furor erupted via social media, with calls for MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred to immediately suspend him for the remainder of the Series.

There were also a lot of backdrops to this that many missed. First, while Gurriel’s apologists were quick to point out that he was from Cuba and had only been in America for a year and a half, they omitted the fact that Gurriel played for 62 games with the Yokohama Bay Stars, a team in the Japanese league. Second, Darvish isn’t Chinese. Third, that term is universally regarded as a slur in both Spanish and English. Fourth, Gurriel later admitted he knew it was improper to refer to any Asians using that word.

But Darvish, to his credit, didn’t emulate Gurriel’s behavior. Instead, he responded this way in a tweet, saying “I believe we should put our effort into learning rather than to accuse him. If we can take something from this, that is a giant step for mankind.” Unfortunately, some of his teammates apparently failed to recognize the severity of Gurriel’s actions. “Nobody thought this would turn into such a big deal, but the reality is Yuli’s a great guy who gets along with everybody on the team,” said Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, a native of Puerto Rico. “He has nothing but friends. Yuli is the humblest person you could ever meet. It’s sad this is happening, but we’re his teammates and we’re behind him.”

Manfred’s final ruling was that Gurriel would be suspended without pay for five games NEXT season, and would also undergo sensitivity training. But he would be free to continue playing in the World Series, which at press time the Astros were leading 3-2 after an astonishing 13-12 10-inning win Sunday night. Manfred said he took into consideration the fact that things are different in Cuba than America in regards to what’s socially acceptable, and that the sensitivity treatment should address the issue. He also acknowledged not wanting to adversely affect the World Series, and also said that the action took place off the field. Plus, he was aware the MLB Players Union would appeal any immediate suspension anyhow, and that by the time it was heard the Series would be over.

“Knowing Yuli, knowing what he will do to convince everyone that this incident was not in his heart will be key,” added Astros manager A.J. Hinch. But moving forward, this is hardly the kind of thing that makes MLB look good, nor makes their continued attempts at an image of globalization and being welcoming to all cultures look valid. If a player who’s actually played overseas in an Asian league is still willing to make that kind of vulgar gesture it really makes one wonder about the atmosphere and attitude in a number of clubhouses.

Baseball has a record number now of Latino and Asian players, even as the percentage of American Blacks stands at its lowest since the early ‘70s. MLB officials have already acknowledged a major perception problem as regards African-Americans. Now it seems like they may also have a lingering one with Asians. When USA Today’s Jorge L. Ortiz consulted one Japanese colleague for his response to Manfred’s decision he got this response. That reporter said he was “surprised, offended and saddened” by the incident, and called the decision to suspend Gurriel but delay it until the 2018 season “B.S.”

That in many ways has been the accurate manner to describe a lot of MLB’s decisions and actions when it comes issues and matters of social justice and fairness.

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