Canadian Zaidi represents ultimate goal of MLB’s diversity program

Farhan Zaidi pictured in 2014. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

The San Francisco Giants’ decision to hire Farhan Zaidi last week was widely commended. The directionless franchise needed to shift its sails, while the Canadian executive has proven himself an astute baseball mind primed for his chance to captain a ship.

But there’s a deeper, perhaps overlooked, significance to Zaidi’s appointment as Giants president of baseball operations. It represents a progressive stride for the sport.

Zaidi, born in Sudbury, Ont., to Pakistani parents and raised in the Philippines, is only the second person of colour to carry his title among the 30 major-league clubs. (Michael Hill, Marlins president of baseball ops, is the other.)

Furthermore, Zaidi is the only Muslim. Given the current political climate in the United States, not to mention the old boys’ club that has traditionally reigned over baseball front offices, that shouldn’t go unmentioned.

At least it won’t by Renée Tirado, MLB vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer.

“That just shows exactly what we’ve always talked about when we discuss talent within the [diversity and inclusion] agenda,” Tirado says. “There are very smart, capable, highly qualified people in and outside of baseball that would be great for an organization. It doesn’t necessarily matter what they look like. They don’t have to look like what has been historically related to baseball — a very homogenous group.”

Tirado’s job is to modernize the culture of the sport and one of her key initiatives is the league’s diversity fellowship program, which officially began this past May. It’s designed to provide entry level opportunity to women and candidates of diverse backgrounds, including people of colour, placing them on a path toward future leadership positions in baseball front offices.

In that regard, Zaidi represents the ultimate goal for the 22 program members who were placed as fellows at the commissioner’s office or one of 18 MLB clubs, including the Toronto Blue Jays. Depending on their situation, the candidates — described as recent graduates, either just entering the workforce or still in the early phase of their careers — will spend 18 to 36 months learning the business side of the game and, hopefully, establish a foothold within its ecosystem. The next round of fellows will join the program in 2020.

“Ideally, the narrative is that 10 or 15 years from now, we will be able to say … ‘One of the fellows from the inaugural class is now the head of baseball ops or a president of an organization.’ That would be the beauty of all this,” says Tirado, who prior to working for MLB led global diversity and inclusion initiatives for financial services giant AIG.

“This is the long game; this is not just a one and done,” she adds. “We’re not going to change some of our challenges overnight … But we’re going to systemically have a process and approach to create a culture that will allow diverse talent to thrive in this game.”

Zaidi, who was GM of the Los Angeles Dodgers for four seasons before joining the Giants, has been an advocate for the program, working with Tirado to identify talent while offering his perspective. This past spring, she hosted a group of diverse students who were in Arizona for the SABR Analytics Conference and asked Zaidi to speak with them.

“He understands the aspirational component of it,” Tirado says. “He understands how important it is to model the behaviour and for these kids to see themselves in the game.”

The program is not an affirmative-action agenda, Tirado insists. Members were selected because they were qualified and their skills met specific criteria. Such is the case with Zaidi, says Billy Owens, Oakland Athletics assistant GM and director of player personnel.

Owens worked with Zaidi for 10 years in the A’s front office and came to respect the intellect of his friend who possessed a doctorate in economics from UC Berkeley.

“Farhan’s definitely been welcomed by the hierarchy in baseball,” says Owens, who also aided Tirado with the diversity program. “His background is unique. But he’s obviously very, very smart and creative. His record speaks for itself. He’s been to the playoffs seven straight years, from a front office perspective. He definitely deserves this honour.

“We’re progressing as an industry.”

In the week since he was announced as Giants president, Zaidi’s story has been covered extensively, both by national and Bay Area media. Pictures and video clips from his introductory press conference have made the rounds, while his quotes from the GM Meetings in Carlsbad, Calif., have flooded Twitter. For Tirado, that type of visibility, from the leader of an organization, is exactly what must happen for diversity to cast a sturdy anchor in baseball.

“At the end of the day, all of us are here to keep baseball alive and help the game grow and continue to stay relevant,” she says. “That really only works when you see yourself reflected in the game … It becomes something of an aspirational model for young people. It becomes an example of what’s possible, what can be.

“And most importantly, people can say, ‘You know what, it looks like it’s accessible now.’”

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