Perhaps no team in Major League Baseball is better equipped to have a frank discussion about systemic racism, the Black Lives Matter movement and Black players’ representation in the game than the Mariners.
Entering 2020 the Mariners had 10 Black players on their 40-man roster — the most in baseball:
- J.P. Crawford
- Justin Dunn
- Carl Edwards Jr.
- Dee Gordon
- Kyle Lewis
- Shed Long
- Justus Sheffield
- Mallex Smith
- Taijuan Walker
- Art Warren
That number is striking, considering that only 7.7% of the 882 players on MLB’s opening-day rosters last year were Black. In 1990 that number was 17 percent.
“We definitely don’t take this for granted,” Crawford said. “It’s probably something that’s never been done since the Negro leagues. I’m proud to be a part of this. I’m proud to be playing alongside each and every one of my teammates right now. Coming up we were one of the two brothers on the team, if that, so being a part of this has been something special.”
In an effort to help spread knowledge and understanding, four of those Mariners players — Gordon, Crawford, Long and outfielder Kyle Lewis — joined Mariners broadcaster Dave Sims, one of only two Black play-by-play broadcasters in MLB, for a virtual panel discussion about their experiences as Black men in life and in baseball.
According to a Mariners statement Sims moderated the panel, getting the players to speak “frankly about their experiences living in a racist society, their hopes for what we as a nation can be and their apprehension about speaking up.”
The video of the panel will premiere on the Mariners’ YouTube channel at 11 a.m., Friday, which is Juneteenth, the commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States.
“We’re scared to say this,” Gordon said on the panel. “We’re nervous. The reason we’re nervous is we’ve been told our whole life and our whole careers to don’t say anything. Don’t ruffle any feathers. Don’t, pretty much, stand up for yourself as a man and for your family’s name.”
Despite his father Tom being a successful Major League Baseball player, Gordon avoided playing baseball until high school. He opted for basketball because there were so few Black kids playing baseball.
“You know, it’s been tough,” he said. “Being a Black baseball player isn’t easy at all.”
Lewis, the Mariners’ first-round draft pick in 2016 out of Mercer College, discussed an incident in the minor leagues when he was starting to excel on the field.
“There’s a ball in my locker that says, ‘Learn to swim,’ ” Lewis said. “Nobody said anything. Everybody was sitting around tight-lipped. I wasn’t really getting a lot of support from my teammates, as if none of them supposedly knew what happened and somehow nobody had any idea. The only people that would have had access that deep into the locker room would have been probably a teammate. That stung pretty good.”
Crawford said there’s a double standard for players of different races and backgrounds. And that for him and other Black players to succeed, the requirements and expectations are higher.
“You always have to be one step better, one step ahead all the time, because you know, you make one little mistake and you’re done,” he said. “It’s sad to say. But we don’t get the chances, all the other stuff that people get. My dad taught us always stay ready, always stay sharp, don’t let this opportunity slip away, at all, because you get one chance. You get one chance. You’re already down two strikes, this is your last strike. It’s just tough, man.”
Crawford and Long have become increasingly vocal on their Twitter and Instagram accounts, making statements, retweeting others and interacting with fans, who have praised and criticized their posts.
“If you want to stand with us, then stand,” Long said. “But we fought for so long we know how to fight it. So we’re going to fight and stand up for ourselves regardless whether you stand with us or not.”
From the protests following the police killing of George Floyd, the growing demand for a complete societal change, the coalition being formed among professional athletes of all races in all the major sports, the building public support, the players hope something real and lasting will come from this. The panel is just another part of that massive effort.
“If we’re the grown-ups that change the world? It will be like Jackie Robinson and what he did all over again,” Gordon said. “I think it’s time for that.”