Twenty-five years ago this week, Cito Gaston became the first African-American manager to win a World Series title with the 1992 Toronto Blue Jays. Seventy years ago, in the 1947 Major League season, Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in the uniform of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Now another Dodger stands on the cusp of history. And while Dave Roberts hasn’t exactly used the World Series as a bully pulpit to hammer the point home, he is well aware that he could become the first African-American manager to win a World Series since Gaston took the Blue Jays to their second of back-to-back titles in 1993. Not only that: As a native of Okinawa, Japan, (born to a Japanese mother and father who is a U.S. serviceman), Roberts is already the first Asian-born manager to take a team to the World Series.
“I take it in the best way possible, in the sense that I represent a lot of people,” Roberts told reporters ahead of Game 1. “And so as we expect to win four games … and to bring a championship back to Los Angeles, I think at that point in time there will be a lot of emotions, because of those reasons.”
And this is why it’s so splendid – some would say timely – that the Dodgers are at centre stage in October. They were the organization that broke the colour barrier; the organization that started focusing on scouting in Latin America; the organization that opened the door for Asian-born players to make the jump from Japan or Korea. The lustre has been off the Dodgers since their last title in 1988 – they became a symbol of stodgy profligacy, a multimillion-dollar mom and pop shop that became a laughing stock under the ownership of Frank McCourt and ultimately the backdrop for an unseemly divorce and then morphed into classic post-season chokers. Hell, the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs won World Series during that time; even the Tampa Bay Rays at least made the World Series once.
Roberts’ World Series appearance comes at a time when one of the signature African-American personalities in the game, Dusty Baker, is out of work after being fired by the Washington Nationals. It comes in Donald Trump’s America, and you wonder when Roberts gets asked that question. And it comes at a time when the simple, unfortunate truth is that the lack of visible minorities in managerial and front office jobs in Major League Baseball seems to have become less of a hobby horse for the game’s opinion-makers. Used to be a time when every hiring was an opportunity to tie into power brokers for a lack of sensitivity. It’s not even paid lip service for the most part, any more.
Yet here we are: the last pre-expansion MLB team to integrate, Boston, has just hired a native of Puerto Rico, Houston Astros bench coach Alex Cora, as its manager and that’s a move with deep historical significance. Meanwhile, Roberts has 195 wins and 129 losses through his first two seasons as a major-league manager, and when he goes into his third season in 2018 only four men will have more wins in their first two seasons: the Cubs’ Frank Chance, who was 223-81 in 1906-07; the Baltimore Orioles‘ Earl Weaver, who was 217-107 (1969-70); Ralph Houk of the 1961-62 New York Yankees, who was 205-119; and Billy Southworth of the 1941-42 St. Louis Browns, who had a 203-104 record.
In Game 2 Wednesday night, Roberts put Joc Pederson in the lineup because he liked the matchup against Justin Verlander, and the .212 hitter clubbed his first homer in three months. Corey Seager got moved up to the No. 2 spot and he homered off Verlander. Oh yeah, Roberts is a man for his time. A man for any time.
PLAYING THE ADVANTAGE
Mitch Marner understood the importance of the six power plays the Toronto Maple Leafs received in their 3-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Monday. Not just because of the opportunities presented; but what the penalties represented.
“That’s a good game for us,” Marner said, after the Kings had been whistled for six minors – giving the Leafs just two less man advantages than they’d enjoyed in their previous four games. “I mean, I think two or three of the power plays were off our line changes. I think we did a good job getting guys out there and maybe tiring their lines a little bit. That’s something we’re aware of in this dressing room, something we need to do to be successful.”
The Kings’ Anze Kopitar seconded that opinion. The Leafs have so much offensive talent, he said, that’s it easy to get left in their wake. “Part of it might have been we weren’t moving our feet but, yeah, when they move the puck like that they’re going to draw penalties.”
It’s the same thing as a basketball team that sees its best player draw fouls or a soccer team with a forward who is a going concern in the other team’s box, and one of the reasons possession’s so important in a game of flow. Get the ball or puck onto the stick or in the hands or at the feet of your most talented players enough, and officials have to focus on those situations. The young Leafs’ reputation precedes them; might as well take advantage of it.
QUIBBLES AND BITS:
• The good thing about today’s off-day is it gives us even more time to dig into the texture of Wednesday’s remarkable World Series Game 2. Among the statistical notes from our friends at Elias: Kike Hernandez’s two-out single in the bottom of the 10th inning was the Dodgers’ first non-home run hit of the game, the latest ever in a post-season game that any team produced its first non-homer hit. It was another Dodgers player who held that honour before Hernandez: Cookie Lavagetto of the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers, who had a two-run, walkoff double in the ninth inning of Game 4 of that series off the Yankees’ Bill Blevens. Blevens was working on a no-hitter.
• DeMar DeRozan will appear in his 600th career game for the Toronto Raptors Friday night against the Los Angeles Lakers and only 10 other active players have appeared in as many games with their current team: Dirk Nowitzki (Dallas Mavericks); Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili (San Antonio Spurs); Russell Westbrook and Nick Collison (Oklahoma City Thunder); Udonis Haslem (Miami Heat); LeBron James (Cleveland Cavaliers); Mike Conley and Marc Gasol (Memphis Grizzlies); DeAndre Jordan (Los Angeles Clippers).
• Alex Bregman’s third-inning single Wednesday night ended a string of early-game, post-season futility for the Astros, who had gone eight post-season games without scoring a run in the first three innings of any of those games. The Astros had scored 11 runs combined in the first three innings through 12 games going into Game 2 of the World Series; four of those first-inning runs came in Games 1 and 2 of their American League Division Series against the Red Sox, when they opened up 2-0 first-inning leads in both games.
If you play in the American League East, you worry about the Yankees. In addition to the youth they have at the big-league level, they are embarrassingly deep in the minor leagues, too. National League folks get to worry about the Dodgers, because in addition to the Cody Bellingers and Seagers, they too, are loaded. MLB Pipeline rates their system 10th, and their affiliates’ winning percentage (.562) was the best among NL clubs and third-best in the majors. Six of eight affiliates made the playoffs, and in a nod to their past the Dodgers won the Dominican Summer League title. They were also the runners-up, since the Dodgers field two teams in that league and they met in the final.
Jeff Blair hosts The Jeff Blair Show from 9 a.m.-noon ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan