Baseball needs Jesse Jackson's moral coaching

DAN RODRICKS

April 03, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

Major league baseball is getting a kick in the pants. So what if it comes from Jesse Jackson?

Since he announced that he and his supporters will demonstrate outside Oriole Park Monday to protest what they consider discriminatory policies in major league baseball, I have heard several people, all of them white, dismiss Jackson as a misguided, media-hungry egomaniac who has lost his appeal even among the blacks he claims to lead. They are annoyed that Jackson will spoil opening day by launching his campaign Monday in Baltimore, and they seem to regard the whole thing the way they would regard a forecast of rain.

But Jesse Jackson and the issue he presents are more than just a passing storm cloud. He has a lot to say. He makes people think. He inspires. He angers. That's what he does.

One day last year, after having heard Jackson deliver a sermon at a West Baltimore church, I was visiting a friend in Catonsville. Jackson's speech was the best of the six or so I'd heard him deliver. It was blessedly low on rhymes, but high on reason, intelligent concern and eloquence. When I started to tell my friend about all this, he cut me off.

"Wait a minute," this pal-of-mine said. "You like Jesse Jackson? He's a racist, isn't he?"

"Racist?"

"Yeah," he said. "He thinks blacks are superior to whites."

I had heard other friends knock Jackson but, when they did, they always raised the shameful "Hymietown" episode of the 1980s.

Still, I had never heard Jackson claim superiority over the white race generally, though he has, of course, devoted his career almost exclusively to the interests of blacks. A lot of people see men who crusade for minorities as heroes. Others see them as being anti-white, the fear being that when one group rises the other inevitably falls.

Anyway, the sermon Jackson delivered that Sunday was about people in need, a great number of whom happen to be black, especially in inner-city Baltimore. But what Jackson said could have applied to any race.

He talked about the way our society "wastes human capital." He talked about abused children, the homeless, the illiterate, teen-age boys in trouble, teen-age girls with babies. His sermon was about priorities, or the lack of them. "Why," he asked, "do so many young men consider jail a step up? Once in jail, they are no longer homeless. They have doctors in jail. They have libraries in jail. They have organized recreation in jail. They have everything in jail they should have had out here!"

He spoke of economic disparity, particularly as it affects the education of children.

"Last year, not one child from New Haven went to Yale," Jackson said. He mentioned a prison where the annual per-inmate cost was $36,000. "We spend twice more a year to go to jail than to go to Yale.

See RODRICKS, 3B

From 1B

We got to change our course!"

He sounded like Bill Clinton. So I was perplexed by my friend's view of Jackson as a racist. Pal-o-mine had, best I know, voted for Clinton.

For some people, Jackson is simply a professional troublemaker and a publicity hound.

No doubt he's a grandstander. Jackson is as upset about not being president as Sam Nunn or Ross Perot is. He sometimes trivializes and parodies himself (with the rhyming rhetoric and sound-bite potshots). But Jackson is far from irrelevant. He still rings bells among black Americans, as well as among many whites who appreciate the disparities and problems Jackson so frequently talks about.

He says things some people want to hear.

He says things even more people don't want to hear.

Now he's knocking at the gates of baseball.

Let's drop Jackson right here.

Consider the point he's raised -- especially in terms of its symbolism.

I'm with those who think baseball is something sacred. It's one of our last escapes from real life. It's where you go to get away from all the crud of modern society. When Mussina is pitching, or Devereaux is batting, I don't want to contemplate race in America.

But, think about it. When Jackie Robinson came into baseball and the color line was broken, the year was 1947. That act put major league baseball in the vanguard of civil rights progress -- whether it wanted to be there or not. The symbolism was stunning. The whole world was watching. However reluctantly, baseball sent a profound message to the rest of American society.

As more and more black athletes followed Robinson onto the field, someone somewhere probably said: "Next thing you know, they'll want to work in the front office."

That, it turned out, would be another generation's business. Here we are.

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