TORONTO – As part of a symbolic stand with the Black community, Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins joined his fellow baseball operations leaders, the 30 team owners and Major League Baseball in making a donation to organizations fighting for racial justice.
In the United States, his contribution went to the Equal Justice Initiative, a body working to end mass incarceration along with racial and economic injustice. Here in Canada, he selected Tropicana Community, which supports youth, newcomers and people of Black and Caribbean heritage with health and well-being programs, from a list of possibilities provided by JaysCare, the club’s philanthropic arm.
“My wife and I spent time reading about their initiatives,” said Atkins. “It resonated with Christine and I.”
JaysCare and team president and CEO Mark Shapiro each matched his donation, and all support for the pursuit of racial equality and justice is important — especially in light of George Floyd’s senseless death beneath a white police officer’s knee.
Horrifying and infuriating video captured at the scene helped trigger widespread protests across the continent, with many in the sports world taking part in the activism. The movement has the feel of a pivotal inflection point.
Officials like Atkins standing with “Black Lives Matter, United for Change” placards during the draft added an influential push from Major League Baseball, which was late in reacting and is now playing catchup. He described the pursuit of racial justice as “a very emotional and sensitive topic” that is “often-times not talked about, which is a significant part of the issue.”
Still, the continuing homogeneity of the sport’s executive class is a longstanding problem, with Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein admitting on a conference call this week that most of his hires have shared his background and skin tone, and that “I need to ask myself why, I need to question my own assumptions, my own attitudes.”
For his part, Atkins said “we have worked very hard on trying to correct for that,” while conceding that more needs to be done.
“Major League Baseball has a great fellowship program that has helped, but it has clearly not been enough,” said Atkins. “What we’re doing today, and weeks behind us and weeks ahead of us, is learning and trying to do everything in our power to listen and come up with a strategy coming out of this that can make a significant impact.”
The task, of course, is to match actions to those words.
The Blue Jays are far from alone on this front, but their most influential decision-makers in baseball operations, outside of international scouting and player-development director Gil Kim, remain overwhelmingly white.
The coaching staffs throughout the organization — led at the big-league level by manager Charlie Montoyo of Puerto Rico — are more diverse, with a significant Latin American influence. And in December 2017, they made Nikki Huffman the second woman to serve as head athletic trainer in the majors.
But beyond Tim Raines, a player development special assistant, and triple-A Buffalo position coach Devon White, the lack of Black leaders in the organization is representative of a wider problem in the game — and a larger issue in society.
“I was taking accountability and ownership of that,” said Atkins. “The fellowship program has helped. It is a part of our process. It is at the forefront. Mark Shapiro is as passionate about it as I am, and as any other leader in baseball that I have been around.
“And we just haven’t done enough. So now we’re talking about how we can do more, and learn more, and listen more. But (the) question is a fair one. (The) point’s a fair one. We’re going to continue to try to be better.”
MLB’s Diversity Fellowship Program is certainly helping create new pathways into the industry, providing candidates with an 18-24-month entry-level position in a front office or baseball operations role.
But that’s a beginning, rather than an end, and the acknowledgement of society’s inequalities should ideally spur the game’s executives to identify blind spots and find ways to hire outside their comfort zones.
“I have always thought in the past that sport created a place to break down barriers, potentially more than certain other environments, but obviously, we’re not doing enough. And what we’ve been doing in sport is not enough,” said Atkins. “But I, one person, do feel that we can do more and the platforms that we have are powerful and that we should do everything we can to help.
“I’ve been really encouraged by the dialogue that we’ve had in our front office, the dialogue we’ve had among our coaches, the dialogue we’ve had amongst our players that are all talking about similar things, and all asking similar questions. The solutions are what we don’t have. I don’t expect us to have one of those in the coming days. But we’re focused on just how we can help and what we can do better.”