Why here, Jesse? Cameras or racism

KEN ROSENTHAL

April 05, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

It's so nice of Jesse Jackson to join the fight against discrimination in baseball. We all should be grateful for the circumstances that led him to protest outside Camden Yards today.

Jesse wouldn't be here if Marge Schott hadn't created a national furor with her overt racism. He wouldn't be here if President Clinton were attending a season opener in another city. And, heaven knows, he wouldn't be here if he were busy running for president himself.

But here he is, pointing his finger, botching the facts, even smearing the wrong team. Baseball deserves the indictment it's getting from Jackson. The problem is, he's such a polarizing figure, the message gets lost.

The message -- that baseball is a long way from racial balance -- rings as true today as it did when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier almost 50 years ago. But when the messenger is a self-serving politician, he becomes as much the issue as the problem.

Yet, no one can dispute that Jackson is on the right track. There are now a record six minority managers, but still no black or Hispanic general managers. Scouts still judge players by racial stereotypes. Managers and coaches still view Latin players with distrust.

The problem existed before Marge Schott, before Al Campanis, yes, before even Jesse Jackson. In a sense, Jackson is just what the sport needs, someone to shame the owners into action. But too many people -- white people, mostly -- don't want to hear it. They're tired of Jackson.

No, this fight won't be won by Jackson riding into Baltimore waving a list of Orioles employees broken down by race. It will be won by men like Don Baylor and Frank Robinson, men whose skills are so evident, baseball can't stop them from knocking down its lily-white door.

There was a time in the fall of 1991 when Baylor was interviewed on a radio talk show in Baltimore. He had just been turned down for two managing jobs, and was explaining that the Seattle Mariners offered one set of excuses, and the Milwaukee Brewers another.

The dynamics of the old-boy network were so obviously working against Baylor, a woman who said she wasn't even a baseball fan called the show in disgust. "I can't believe what I'm hearing," she said. "It's unbelievable. It's outrageous."

Baylor, now manager of the Colorado Rockies, isn't a born orator, but he was far more persuasive that day than Jackson ever will be in this forum. Jackson's passion wears thin when his credibility is in question. But here comes Jesse, providing all the answers, complete with inaccuracies and omissions.

His list of Orioles employees is almost comical. It cites only one minority among 14 "power positions," but fails to include Robinson, the team's black assistant general manager. Robinson surely will be delighted to learn he now ranks behind scouting director Gary Nickels.

If you're making an accusation, you'd better get it right. The Orioles are guilty of many things, but when it comes to minority hiring, they're an industry leader. No one says they're perfect, or above scrutiny. But don't make them out to be the Cincinnati Reds.

Jackson probably isn't even aware that late Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams charged his own front office with racism when he fired general manager Hank Peters in 1987. Much has changed since then, and club president Larry Lucchino has proved a worthy heir to Williams' legacy.

This is a necessary fight, an important fight, a fight based on an argument so strong, the average person can't help but be convinced. But here comes Jesse, carrying his own political baggage. Here comes Jesse, waving his list.

What will he see when he pickets outside Camden Yards today? An overwhelming sea of white faces. Many minorities are turned off by a game that won't even market in their communities, much less hire their best and brightest.

Jackson will succeed today in making people uncomfortable and disrupting the normal order. But he won't influence anyone's thinking, because his protest targets the very people who distrust him most -- the white fans and white owners.

Unfortunately, the game's black and Hispanic stars prefer Jackson to do their dirty work, lest they bite the hand that feeds them. "It's not my place to fight it," Barry Bonds told Sports Illustrated. "That's why we have a Jesse Jackson."

Then again, if enough players like Bonds spoke out, they wouldn't need a Jesse Jackson. The idea is to focus on the message, not the messenger. With Jackson, you always get too little of the former, and too much of the latter.

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