Showing the colors, with Juan Marichal.

Photographer: Elsa/Getty Images

Pedro Martinez Strikes Out a Racial Myth

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
Read More.
a | A

Colin Cowherd's exit from ESPN was less than graceful, calling into question his future at Fox Sports. The longtime radio host hastened his departure from the Worldwide Leader by continuing to alienate minority fans and players, and drawing the ire of the Major League Baseball Players Association.

On Thursday, Cowherd started a rant about the backlash against the Miami Marlins' decision to have their general manager, Dan Jennings, manage the team, despite his lack of experience in the dugout. Cowherd was ostensibly trying to make a point about the tendency of baseball insiders to "fetishize" the game's complexity, as NBC Sports' Craig Calcaterra puts it.

Instead, he argued that baseball can't possibly be too complex if it's played by Dominicans. Cowherd's full comments, per Calcaterra:

It's too complex? I've never bought into that "baseball is too complex." Really? A third of the sport is from the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic has not been known in my lifetime as having world class academic abilities. A lot of those kids come from rough backgrounds and have not had opportunities academically that other kids from other countries have. Baseball is like any sport. It's mostly instincts. A sportswriter who covers baseball could go up to Tony La Russa and make an argument and Tony would listen and it would seem reasonable. There’s not a single NFL writer in the country who could diagram a play for Bill Belichick. You know, we get caught up in this whole "thinking-man's game." Is it in the same family? Most people could do it. It’s not being a concert pianist. It’s in the same family.

Ignoring the inherent racial implications of such a view, the assertion that baseball is "mostly instincts" is patently false. The in-game strategy and decision-making by managers and players is demonstrably complex, while batters and pitchers study troves of data to get the best of individual matchups.

As you can imagine, Cowherd's comments outraged many fans and players; there are currently 83 active MLB players from the Dominican Republic -- nearly 10 percent of the league -- and 26.5 percent of this season's rosters are foreign-born. Dominican players were quick to respond. Toronto Blue Jays star Jose Bautista was one of the first to condemn Cowherd, while former Boston Red Sox great Pedro Martinez dismissed the comments before his induction into Cooperstown this weekend, basically saying that addressing Cowherd directly was beneath him.

On Sunday, Martinez instead addressed the Dominican people, delivering part of his Hall of Fame speech in Spanish, urging his countrymen to see him not just as a baseball player but as a "signal of hope" for the Latino community. Translation courtesy of the Boston Globe:

From here on, I don’t want you to look at Pedro Martínez who got the numbers. I don’t want you to look at Pedro Martínez who entered the Hall of Fame and has a plaque. I want you to carry in your hearts the hope that I attained, what I was able to accomplish, that you see that in me, that each of you identify yourself every time you look at me, and when you look at me, you see a signal of hope, of faith, of determination, of strength, of a worthy job -- with dignity. I want all Dominicans to remember that.

Martinez's speech wasn't just a powerful message of dignity for Dominican fans at a time in which Latinos are routinely denigrated by xenophobic citizens and presidential candidates. It also highlighted how language is often used to impugn the intelligence of Spanish-speaking immigrants, including baseball players. Touting English fluency as a marker of intellect among non-native speakers is still pervasive, made no better by the dynamics in the league. MLB teams underemploy Spanish translators, and the expectation to be perfectly bilingual doesn't break both ways; as the Sporting News' Adrian Burgos Jr. notes, Americans who play abroad "are not derided for their inability to speak Spanish fluently." Furthermore, unlike most of the world, Americans are uniquely monolingual -- a serious limitation in an increasingly global economy.

Cowherd offered a feeble apology on Friday, attempting to cite education data to support his point about the quality of Dominican academics. But he again erroneously equated formal schooling with intelligence, a fallacy that attempts to make sweeping judgments on the innate abilities of an entire nation while ignoring the social and economic forces that drive many poor Dominicans to choose baseball in the first place.

Back in April, Bautista wrote in the Players' Tribune about the path baseball can provide out of extreme poverty, often at the expense of education. Talented preteen Dominicans are pulled out of school and recruited for baseball academies -- "more like baseball farms," as Bautista puts it. A 2013 Mother Jones investigation likened the academies to "sweatshops," with little regulation and substandard living conditions. The report also found that just 2.6 percent of players enrolled in academies in 2006 made it to the majors. For the vast majority of Dominican prospects, sacrificing school for baseball just continues the cycle of poverty.

Of course, none of those nuances made it into Cowherd's commentary, which was condemned by the union and the league. MLB wrote that Cowherd "owes our players of Dominican origin, and Dominican people generally, an apology." (MLB might want to start by reforming its academies and providing adequate translators to its players.) MLBPA executive director Tony Clark called the statements "ignorant" and "offensive," noting the work being done around baseball to improve the game's cultural diversity. "Baseball's partners and stakeholders should help such efforts, not undermine them," he said in a statement. 

Calling on "baseball's partners" was particularly effective, especially given an earlier report that the union was considering "withholding cooperation" with ESPN and Fox, MLB's national broadcast partners, if they didn't receive an appropriate response. ESPN wasted little time, announcing Friday that Cowherd "will no longer appear on ESPN."

Now the question turns to Fox Sports, where Cowherd is slated to start his new gig in August. Fox has much at stake in keeping MLB happy, holding the rights to national Saturday telecasts, the All-Star Game and the World Series. It's unclear just how the union would "withhold cooperation," but that could mean having its players refuse to conduct interviews with the network. Considering the amount of in-game filler and ancillary programming that accompanies those events, the players' silence would be even more conspicuous than Fox's, and on a much bigger stage.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net