First of all, Happy Jackie Robinson Day!
Here are just a couple of the many things one could accurately say in tribute to the man who was, undeniably, the most important player in baseball history:
1.) Jackie Robinson was a tremendously skilled athlete whose success as a baseball player also depended on his ability to gain and maintain the respect of his teammates, many of whom viewed him with extraordinary skepticism.
2.) Jackie Robinson was never afraid to tackle the difficult and uncomfortable issue of race and when he did, his answers, though often impassioned and sometimes unpopular, were always reasoned and articulate.
As it happens, although there is a difference in the degree of both their athletic skills and the acumen of their thoughts, both those statements could also be used to describe Torii Hunter and Orlando Hudson.
Neither Hudson nor Hunter is probably headed toward baseball immortality, but both are All-Star players who, like Robinson, have built their reputations not only with sheer talent, but also hustle, heart, and humility. Even those who are narrow-minded and reductive enough to depend on such a cliche have to admit that these are guys who "play the game right."
Both Hunter and Hudson have recently and rather mildly expressed concern regarding the position of African-American players in the game 63 years after Jackie Robinson began its integration.
Their outspokenness, however mediated, has spurred an eruption of message board malice and twittering ignorance. Surprise, surprise.
Reading and responding to the hateful verbiage being spilled on Orlando recently, even by major media outlets, will only lead to ranting and rage, which to some extent dignifies patently the undignified opinions.
I will merely point out, however, that both Hunter and Hudson are thoughtful, good-natured players, who have been popular, even beloved, on every team they've played for and seem to be regarded favorably even by their opponents. Those who seek to characterize them as "angry brothers" and lump them together with Milton Bradley, Elijah Dukes, and other temperamental black athletes, even as they petulantly protest claims of racism, practice it. They reveal their bigotry in a particularly insidious and ugly fashion. Of such commenters I will say only this, in the words of Samuel L., "Yes they deserve to die and I hope they burn in hell."
The more intelligent and earnest men, like Rob Neyer and Tom Tango, who have sought to grapple with Hudson's statements by actually testing their validity, I offer some kudos. I am persuaded, certainly, that many older players, including perhaps Jermaine Dye (who was Hudson's primary subject), bring with them a combination of injury risk, defensive inefficiency, positional inflexibility, and expense which make them an unwise investment for many teams.
I am all for general managers getting smarter, which I think they're doing, generally. However, I'm not convinced that getting smarter always and necessarily requires closing the door on long productive (and, in some cases, legendary) players. Certainly, one can understand how Orlando Hudson might wonder, what is it that Jim Edmonds and Jason Giambi possess that Jermaine Dye and Gary Sheffield don't?
When Rob Neyer notes (citing Peter Hjort) that black players make more money per WAR (Wins Above Replacement) than Hispanic players, he implies that it discredits Hudson's accusation. In those statistics I see, however, a different set of implications.
1.) African-American stars are still and will always be in demand (as all stars are), but when it comes to more middle-of-road or fringe major-league talent, teams seem tempted to go in a different direction, which explains why there were only five contracts given to African-American players during the past offseason, while 18 went to Hispanics and 33 to Caucasians. Ever since the 1960s there has been the impression - voiced by many black players, including Curt Flood and Jackie Robinson - that the guys at the end of the bench or the back of the bullpen are predominantly white because management likes it that way.
2.) Hispanic players are not getting paid enough. This aspect of Torii Hunter's statements was widely suppressed during the hoopla following his "imposters" interview. Facing worse poverty and with fewer bargaining chips that American citizens, Latin American players, especially those who are very young or are fringe talents sign for, as Hunter puts it, "a bag of chips." One of the reasons why there are people calling for an international draft and for greater regulation of the international free agent market is to fix this imbalance, which would work both to help Latino players get paid on the level with their domestic counterparts and allow more Americans who are borderline professional talents compete on an even playing field with their Dominican or Venezuelan equivalents.
We need to remember that their is nothing evil about "getting paid." To establish, understand, and demand a wage equal to one's market value is part of being a responsible citizen in a free market economy. African-Americans in all fields are often more sensitive to this as both responsibility and pressure because a.) they were denied access to it until relatively recently, b.) it is at the foundation of much classic civil rights rhetoric, and c.) it remains at the forefront of their cultural aesthetic (Floyd Mayweather, Barack Obama, and Jay-Z would never sign a contract for less than they're worth. Why should Gary Sheffield?).
So, with all that in mind, here are two reasons Orlando Hudson has to be suspicious. I won't hazard a guess as to when exactly a conspiracy of coincidences becomes a trend, but here are the facts:
Let's start with what can't help but be foremost in Hudson's mind: his own experience. Over the previous four seasons Orlando has an 803 OPS (106 OPS+), 10.7 WAR, three Gold Gloves, and two All-Star appearances. He is 32-years-old. During that same exact same timespan, Placido Polanco has a 762 OPS (98 OPS+), 12.5 WAR, two Gold Gloves, and one All-Star appearance. He is 34-years-old.
Although you may prefer one to the other, you must admit they are pretty similar players. Yet Polanco got 3 yr./$18 Million deal (plus an option) this past offseason and has made upwards of $50 Million for his career, while Hudson has had to settle for consecutive one-year deals of $5 Million or less and has earned just about $20 Million for his career. Setting aside whatever explanations and preferences you might have, ask yourself simply, is Placido Polanco more than twice as good as Orlando Hudson?
Let's also look past this years crop of unemployed black thirty- and forty-somethings. This is not the first set of former All-Stars who have been unceremoniously and unwillingly ushered into retirement. The list also includes, in just the two previous offseasons, Barry Bonds, Tony Clark, Royce Clayton, Ray Durham, Cliff Floyd, Tom Gordon, Kenny Lofton, Dave Roberts, Reggie Sanders, Shannon Stewart, Frank Thomas, Rondell White, and Preston Wilson. I'm certainly not claiming that all of these players are/were still good enough to contribute, but that's a lot of players with a lot of history being told to hang up their spikes before they're ready. Many of them - Bonds, Durham, Lofton, Sanders, etc. - were coming off season in which they had proven they could still be quite productive.
Hopefully, you can begin to see what Orlando might understandably construe as a pattern. I am certainly not ready to accuse MLB of "collusion" in the case of Jermaine Dye or Gary Sheffield, nor do I think that is what O-Dog is suggesting. However, the kneejerk urge to discredit his statements and the lack of imagination regarding how he and Hunter arrived at their conclusions reveals a racial taboo still ingrained deep within the sport. Our national past-time has since Jackie Robinson (and even before, to be honest) provided an insightful synecdoche into the most tortured and the most definitive aspect of our nation: or racial heteronomy. Their has been a growing inclination since the election of our first black president to believe we are entering a so-called "post-racial" America. All O-Dog is requesting is that you look closer.