Friday, April 11, 2008

Racism rears its ugly head

Express Staff Writer

Major League Baseball is now a multi-national sport, but the Grand Old Game has a long and turbulent history when it comes to integration. Dodger great Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play in MLB in the modern age, endured hatred, racial epithets and scorn, not only from opposing players and their fans, but his own teammates as well.

In the 61 years since Robinson and manager Branch Rickey broke the color barrier, tremendous strides in many aspects of equality have been made, but ghosts of days past that should be long gone by now, raised their ugly heads in a Wood River junior varsity baseball game at Blackfoot Saturday.

During the first game, the Wood River first baseman pulled off the hidden ball trick and tagged out the Blackfoot runner. The play was apparently so upsetting to a man in the stands and the Blackfoot first base coach, that they unleashed a torrent of vile garbage at the player that most decent people would have been ashamed for thinking let alone vocalizing.

Complicit as well was the home plate umpire who called a third out on the same Wolverine player when he was up to bat, saying the pitcher had caught the ball on the fly, when even the pitcher said he had not.

The fact that a 15-year-old boy playing baseball had to wonder why complete strangers would hurl racial slurs and act in such a hateful manner toward him, instead of thinking about the next play or driver's Ed or girls, is repugnant.

The racial issue is far-reaching, insidious and incomprehensible at times. What is and should be understood is there is no room for it in our multi-cultural world, especially in the games our children play: Our children. Your child. My child. Games.

People play sports for many reasons: to fulfill competitive desire, recreation, fun, and camaraderie. Robinson was an elite four-sport star at UCLA, and by every account was a ferocious competitor. But he was a champion of civil rights and used baseball as a vehicle to drive home the point that on or off the field we are the same and deserving of the equal treatment.

When does taunting, yelling or rooting against the opposing team cross the line? Always. As spectators, fans or parents at a game, we are there as onlookers, to support and cheer, but we are not part of the game, nor should we be. The athletes play inside the lines. We are outside the lines and that is where we belong: physically and verbally.

The man in the stands, the assistant coach for Blackfoot (since suspended for the season) that spewed the indignities, and the umpires that allowed the unfettered abuse of a Wood River player and even participated in it, crossed the line on Saturday. The Blackfoot administration and coaches recognized the grievous errors that were committed and took steps to rectify them by driving over on Tuesday and apologizing to the Wood River player, his family and the team. The gesture was good and will most likely go a long way toward rectifying the incident, but what of the long-term repercussions? Once the seeds of hate have been sewn who is forced to reap the crop?

The father of the boy remarked, "It is the first experience my son has had in regard to racism. I wonder if some fear and discontent will develop at some later point because racism exists and it exists toward him. But it does not only exist here. It's everyplace. And unless it's dealt with in the correct fashion there is going to be a lot more of it."

Do our children need to duel more than one opponent on the playing field? Didn't Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Roy Campenella, Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente and a long line of others already do that for us?

More than 40 years ago, Robinson said, "The right for every American is first-class citizenship at all times. It is the most important issue of our times."

Apparently, it still is.

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