By instinct, honed reflex and general contrarianism, I root for all “flashy” “showboats” who are “disgraces to the game.” It has been this way since I left Boston at age 10 to move to North Carolina, a state with no notable baseball team save the minor-league Durham Bulls, who, at least when I was growing up, seemed more a Hollywood relic than a ball club. Freed from having to like the Red Sox, I began to root for Rickey Henderson of the Oakland Athletics, mostly because I liked how deeply he squatted while taking a lead off first base. He seemed as if he were taunting the pitcher. As I grew older and started feeling alienated from my white classmates, I gravitated toward athletes who, in some way, flouted the white, stoic traditions of American sports — Allen Iverson, Ken Griffey Jr., Rasheed Wallace, Pedro Martinez. I felt as if this was a moral choice.
As this baseball season begins, I’ve been thinking about Henderson because of a problem that has been discussed ad nauseam in sports media: Whether we’re talking about Mike Trout, the young center fielder for the Los Angeles Angels whose beefy efficiency has already put him on track to become one of the greatest players of all time, or Clayton Kershaw, the tall Dodgers lefty with the knee-buckling curveball, or Giancarlo Stanton, the Miami Marlins slugger who signed a $325 million contract, baseball’s pool of young talent just doesn’t captivate fans like the stars of football and basketball.
From a financial point of view, of course, the sport is doing just fine. Overall ballpark attendance is up. According to Forbes, the average value of a major-league team jumped nearly 50 percent between 2014 and 2015, and last season the league’s annual overall revenue approached a record $9.5 billion.
But baseball’s cultural relevance has been in a steady decline. Doomsday prophets point to the NFL’s dominant TV ratings, the advancing age of baseball’s core fans — the median age of baseball’s TV audience is 56; basketball’s is 41 — and the hordes of young acolytes who bury their heads in their phones to watch Vines of Steph Curry’s nimble acrobatics. Social-media metrics aren’t gospel, of course, but baseball measures up badly on virtually every online barometer, whether Twitter trends, Facebook activity or Instagram posts. Aside from some New York-related blips, World Series ratings have been steadily decreasing for the last 20 years.
The source of baseball’s diminished hold on our imaginations runs much deeper than social-media strategy. The problem lies in the demographics of baseball’s rosters, and the shameful way in which the majority of its media has failed to pay anything approaching adequate attention to the Latino players who have entered the game over the last two decades.
Rather than embrace and promote its Spanish-speaking stars, baseball’s media have mostly ignored them.
Baseball used to be seen as a reflection of the country’s progress on race. Its 1947 integration, which predated the Civil Rights Act by 17 years, has been upheld as a sign of the sport’s essentially democratic spirit; generations of writers and thinkers, like Philip Roth, Don DeLillo and Chris Rock, found in baseball an embodiment of America’s great experiment, contradictions and all. But there was always a saccharine dimension to the idealism about the game: Baseball represented a very particular, buttoned-up version of American identity, and players who deviated from it were often subject to harsh criticism.
In 1994, Buck Showalter, then the manager of the Yankees, complained about the way the Seattle Mariners’ star player, Ken Griffey Jr., wore his hat backward and his “shirttails” untucked. Showalter said it showed a lack of “respect for the game.” For this, he was booed during a road trip to Seattle. Griffey told reporters that Showalter was “jealous because he doesn’t have a 24-year-old who can carry my jock.” Griffey became one of the most marketable stars in the league; two years later, Nike ran an advertising campaign premised on a Griffey run for president that prominently featured his backward hat.
The Griffey showdown was one in a long line of coded racial arguments, minor battles between two types: the “standard” white player and his nonwhite foil. The archetype of the white baseball player has always been a study in negative space. He does not flip his bat after home runs. He does not insult the hard-working fans with talk about politics. He never takes more than one day at a time. As a result, he cannot exist without a foil to embody all those “flashy” or “hot headed” or “provocative” things he is not. The foils, of course, have generally been black. But as the demographics of the sport have changed, so, too, has this dynamic.
Last year, black players made up just over 8 percent of big-league rosters, down more than 50 percent from 1981. Analysts have been searching for an explanation. Some argue that baseball’s retrograde culture and traditions no longer appeal to inner-city youth who have been mesmerized by the speed of basketball and football. Others focus, far more convincingly, on the rising expenses of youth baseball programs and the relative dearth of scholarships offered by college baseball programs: According to a report from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, black players made up only 2.9 percent of Division I college baseball teams in 2014-2015.
The decline in black faces in the Major Leagues coincided with a surge in Latino players, who made up roughly 30 percent of rosters last year. But rather than embrace and promote its Spanish-speaking stars, baseball’s media have mostly ignored them. Even the Latino players who were ultimately celebrated and enshrined in the Hall of Fame have had to go through humiliating acculturations to make them seem more American. For example, the press insisted on referring to Roberto Clemente as Bob or Bobby, something he hated. Vladimir Guerrero, the Clemente of the aughts, who hit and threw with a balletic violence, seemed to go through his entire career without a single memorable interview or profile.
Baseball still has the power to create the sorts of moments that turn rebellious kids into lifelong fans. This past October, José Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays emphatically flung his bat up the first base line after hitting a dramatic, late-inning home run in the playoffs, an outburst that shot into every corner of social media. Bautista almost seemed to be staking out new turf in what was considered acceptable — it was the most unapologetic bat flip I can recall seeing in the Major Leagues — and so, predictably, it generated controversy. Nearly five months later, Goose Gossage, the crotchety Hall of Fame closer, told an ESPN reporter that “Bautista is a [expletive] disgrace to the game. He’s embarrassing to all the Latin players, whoever played before him.”
In November, Bautista published an article titled “Are You Flipping Kidding Me?” on the website The Players’ Tribune, in which he wrote about the bad faith of the media toward Latino players, the fact that their celebrating was seen as unsportsmanlike and how the pressure to play by “country club” rules chafed. “Baseball is a metaphor for America,” Bautista wrote. “It’s a giant melting pot made up of people from all over the world and all walks of life. How can you expect everybody to be exactly the same? Act exactly the same? More importantly, why would you want them to?”
This year, for the first time ever, all 30 Major League ball clubs will be required to hire a full-time Spanish-language translator. That it took until 2016 for baseball to provide a bridge between Spanish-speaking players and the public shows just how little baseball has cared about any story that fell outside its usual archetypes. But such negligence is shortsighted. It’s hard to imagine the “Griffey in ’96” campaign without Showalter, or Reggie Jackson’s ’70s superstardom without the press boxes full of old men who bristled every time he spoke. These stories, and all the conflict, contradiction and excitement they bring, are the very catalysts of nationwide interest.
By Jay Caspian Kang is a writer at large for The New York Times Magazine.