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Renée Tirado is confident she can both open baseball up to the world and help your team win a championship

Picture a night club, but instead of revelry playing out in a darkened room, it’s taking place on the streets in broad daylight. Floats rigged with powerful sound systems roll through, creating layers of sound. One set of speakers plays Top 40, the noise bouncing off surrounding buildings and crashing into jubilant participants. The next plays reggaetón. The next, soca and dancehall. It’s the perfect soundtrack to the sweltering summer day and you can bet people are dressed for the weather.

It’s late June 2017 and the New York City Pride March is living up to its reputation as one of the premier LGBT events on the globe. There’s a feeling of safety, freedom and protection emanating from the crowd, along with joy and exuberance. Everyone is down to party, including the spectators bombarded by colour and sound.

One party-goer is Renée Tirado. Attending the NYC Pride March has been a tradition of hers ever since childhood, when her mother would take her by a friend’s bar in the village to watch. This particular visit is a personal one, the continuation of that history, but as Major League Baseball’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, there are times when she simply can’t stop the wheels from turning in her mind.

Tirado watches as a float put together by the NBA passes accompanied by nearly 400 league employees. Commissioner Adam Silver is stationed aboard, tossing towels to the crowd. The NHL also has a presence in the march, and seeing that participation stirs something in Tirado. She pulls out her phone and sends the pictures she’s taken of the NBA and NHL entries to MLB deputy commissioner Dan Halem. “We should be ashamed of ourselves,” Tirado tells Halem. “We need to be here.” The response comes quickly: “Yeah, you’re right. What do you need?”

The exchange offers a telling look at a key part of what Tirado does through her work — she identifies blind spots and works to see them brought into the light and addressed. Of course, she’s also dedicated to solving the obvious and oft-discussed diversity issues that plague the sport up to its highest levels. All of which means that, since she took the job in late 2016, her challenge has been simple to describe but tough to carry out: Alter the culture of baseball.

Sure, there are plenty of people of colour on major-league diamonds — 41 per cent of players on 2019 opening day rosters, to be precise. However, the same can’t be said of the staff behind the scenes or the managerial ranks. There are just five managers of colour working across MLB’s 30 teams and it’s no secret that influential senior positions on those clubs are overwhelmingly male and white. Tirado’s job is to change that, in addition to introducing qualified, diverse talent to MLB’s HQ, which has the lowest percentage of female employees (30.8 per cent) of any of the league offices rated in the Racial and Gender Report Cards released by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES).

It’s a monumental undertaking and one with a purpose that extends far beyond simply doing the right thing. The trickle-down effects of adding different perspectives to the decision-making ranks could be far-reaching for what’s been dubbed a “white man’s sport” — one facing a crisis of dwindling African-American participation and struggling to attract a diverse fanbase.

“Diversity is a business imperative.”

“Diversity is a business imperative,” says Richard Lapchick, founder and director of TIDES. “Women and people of colour are a [hugely important] market for MLB. Leadership starts at the top. Team leadership is responsible for gaining the trust of their communities through direct and inclusive interaction with the community. People in these communities, especially in the underrepresented communities, want leaders that share their background and culture. They also want leadership that shows a commitment to the community. The community will reciprocate with their time and money, but more importantly, they open the doors to an enduring partnership that extends the viability of the sport and team.”

Essentially, Tirado is the person tasked with opening the inner doors of baseball to the world. This is the story of the woman who’s trying to help a sport that has plenty to lose if it doesn’t adapt.

Afterman notes there are no quick fixes when it comes to changing baseball's culture. She expects Tirado's work to "bear fruit in five or 10 years."

Elizabeth Robles, Tirado’s mother, kept a tradition while raising her daughter as a single parent in Brooklyn’s Hoyt Street Projects. Once a year, she would take Tirado to a Broadway show and a fancy restaurant with white table linens and sterling silver cutlery. Money was tight and Robles worked several jobs, but she saw to it that her daughter never wanted for a meal, clothing, shoes or a roof over her head, and always managed to find the extra cash needed for their annual excursions.

“Elizabeth did want to expose Renée to the other side to show her that it isn’t all about struggle,” says James Robles, Tirado’s uncle. “There is some brightness here. You can prepare yourself to be closer to that bright rather than this daily grind. You have options. Elizabeth was determined to show Renée that there are multiple paths and you can choose the one that’s best for you.”

Tirado’s maternal grandfather, Ernesto, moved to New York from Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, during the migration wave of the 1950s. His wife, Cecilia, arrived shortly after and the two built a life in the city for their seven children. Their place on Hoyt St. was the emotional centre for the close-knit family through the years.

Cecilia was illiterate, yet managed to become the go-to Avon representative in her area, selling the beauty products to neighbours and friends. Elizabeth was just as ambitious and industrious, always seeking more; Ernesto would often comment that his daughter displayed caracter fuerte — if she set her mind to something, she was dogged about attaining it. Elizabeth had a government job in housing and urban development, but also took on seasonal work at Macy’s to afford Christmas gifts for the family and served at a bar near the Gowanus Expressway owned by her best friend, Alfred, bringing along five-year-old Renée to wash glasses behind the counter.

Alfred was loud, warm and gregarious. He was the also first gay man Tirado knew. He owned another bar in the village and Elizabeth took Tirado there frequently, the building offering a prime viewing spot when the pride march passed by each year. “These are things that now I look at as an adult and, considering the profession I’m in, they were touch points throughout [my life],” says Tirado. “When I look back, I’m like, ‘Oh, okay, that makes more sense.’ The exposure that my mom gave me very early, I think, prepared me for this in a lot of ways.”

Preparation of a sort also came through the experience of racial discrimination. When Tirado was nine, Robles married her longtime partner, Robert Oates, and the family moved to the mostly Italian neighbourhood of Canarsie. They now had a car and their new surroundings were deemed safe enough for Tirado to walk back and forth to school alone, but she was the lone Puerto Rican on the schoolyard and her classmates weren’t shy about letting her know that made her different. “I knew what the word spic was, but it was the first time I had it directed to me by my peers, not an adult. To have kids, who were nine, 10, 11 using that language too, it’s like, ‘Whoa,’” Tirado recalls. “It was definitely the first time I felt being an ‘other.’”

Tirado draws on her personal history to both fuel and inform her work

Chat with Halem, MLB’s deputy commissioner, and he’ll immediately tell you Tirado was a slam-dunk candidate when he interviewed her in 2016 — she was poised, articulate, likeable and passionate. And, in her early 40s, she already possessed an impressive resumé, having advocated for former athletes with the National Basketball Retired Players Association and worked in diversity and inclusion roles with the United States Tennis Association and insurance giant AIG, where she led the company’s diversity conversation for Central and South America, eventually growing her profile to include 22 countries, each with separate agendas and strategies to foster inclusion within the company and its customer base.

Tirado was initially hired to work in recruitment for MLB, but had been on the job less than a year when the league’s previous diversity head, Wendy Lewis, left for a role with McDonald’s. Tirado was named her replacement. “She had a lot of ideas and a lot of experience in terms of programs and specific steps to take to improve our diversity,” Halem says. “It’s one thing talking about it — it’s another thing actually going out and getting results, and she has a very practical, hands-on approach to improving the diversity of the sport each year.”

Lewis had been with MLB nearly 30 years and her inclusion strategy was largely premised on supplier diversity, ensuring the league forged strong ties with minority-owned businesses, in which it invested $2 billion over the past two decades. That was great, but MLB wanted Tirado to answer a pressing question: How can we make baseball the sport and employer of choice for a much broader audience than it has been historically?

One of her first major strokes was to establish employee support groups at the office of the commissioner. Today eight are in place, each catering to different demographics within the league headquarters, such as female, LGBT or Asian employees. The groups hold workshops, invite guest speakers and host events that not only shine a light on the heritage of their participants but also offer those participants individual exposure to senior leadership.

“Brilliance comes in all shapes and sizes and genders and orientations. So are you looking for brilliant, or are you just looking for the guy you are comfortable with?”

While Tirado works closely with the MLB department designed to foster diversity at the youth baseball level, her primary focus is off the field. She maintains direct relationships with all 30 front offices, visiting on occasion to promote her initiatives or ask for feedback. She’s careful not to issue mandates, preferring clubs organically opt in to the work of her department. “When you force this agenda down anybody’s throat and you make it a requirement, it will fail because it will build resentment and it becomes a check-the-box versus a ‘Yeah, I get it and I want this for my organization, because I know it’s better for our group,’” says Tirado.

Asked if Tirado has the freedom to mandate policies if she chose to do so, Halem says this: “The way it typically works is she’ll come up with a bunch of initiatives that she would like to do. She talks about it with me, we figure out the best way to approach it. I bring in others in MLB to the extent we need to. I get it cleared by the commissioner — and in some cases we run it by our owner committee focused on diversity — and then we implement it.”

Though that may seem like a lot of cooks in the kitchen, Tirado has managed to get some impressive initiatives off the ground. Early in her tenure, she instituted the first Women in Baseball Networking Reception, which is now held annually at the league’s winter meetings. MLB received a C grade for its gender hiring practices in the 2019 TIDES report and the report’s author, Lapchick, identifies the area as a key deficiency if MLB is serious about working toward equal representation. As its name indicates, the Women in Baseball event brings all the women who work in the game together in one place — and turnout has swelled from 40 attendees at 2016’s inaugural reception to more than 120 this past December. Tirado also created a separate event, Take the Field, which offers guidance to women pursuing jobs in the game, while giving them face time with team representatives.

Tirado is also in charge of MLB’s Diversity Pipeline Program, which helps land women, people of colour and LGBTQ candidates in baseball operations departments across the league. Under the umbrella of the Pipeline is the Diversity Fellowship Program (DFP), created by Tirado to provide entry-level opportunities that place candidates on a path toward future leadership positions in front offices.

The DFP produced its inaugural class last year, with its 20 fellows placed at 18 different clubs and two landing in the commissioner’s office. Salaries are competitive and each individual’s placement lasts 18 months to two years. “The whole purpose of the program is to give non-traditional talent — for lack of a better word to describe them — a stage where they can showcase their skills in front of audiences that have traditionally not looked at them as an option,” says Tirado. “Brilliance comes in all shapes and sizes and genders and orientations. So are you [as a front office] looking for brilliant, or are you just looking for the guy you are comfortable with? If you’re looking for brilliant, I can find you brilliant. If you’re just looking for the guy you are comfortable with, then you don’t need me.”

Overall, Tirado views the DFP’s first go as a success. But 12 clubs still chose not to participate, so clearly there’s work left to do. “I’m okay with it being 18 and not 30, because if the culture of the other 12 teams is not ready for it or if they might just be going through different transitions, I would rather these kids be in clubs that are saying, ‘We want you here, we’re ready for you here and we’re going to invest in making sure you do well here,’” says Tirado. “And that’s what the 18 are doing.”

“She’s got that edge that I think is a difference-maker. It’s pretty evident how much this means to her.”

The fellowship program has Tirado’s “blood sweat and tears” all over it, says one team executive. Tirado worked closely with MLB clubs to create the requirements for candidates and then personally visited colleges across the country looking to attract as wide a range of recruits as possible, from black business students to women who code. She and her department pored over 1,000 applications to find the best fits, and among those was Cristian Perez. The Miami native of Panamanian and Puerto Rican descent became a fellow in the league economics and operations department at the commissioner’s office, focusing on international amateur players and Asian transfers, in addition to helping coordinate MLB’s international drug and safety programs.

Perez says the fellowship program offered a sort of master’s degree in baseball because of its emphasis on education. “It allowed me to explore multiple different paths and I saw it as an opportunity to figure out what I liked and didn’t like and maybe get exposed to everything along the way,” says Perez, who played college baseball at Duke and the University of Southern California, where he earned a Master of Science in digital social media.

Just nine months into Perez’s tenure at the commissioner’s office, the Cincinnati Reds asked him to interview him for an opening on new manager David Bell’s coaching staff. The team was attracted to his unique profile: Perez had experience in the league office; was a former college catcher; had spent 10 months as a baseball ops intern with the Arizona Diamondbacks; and was fluent in Spanish. He was hired as assistant bullpen/advance scouting coach in late January and describes the role as equal parts behind the plate and behind the computer.

The 23-year-old is a shining success story for the DFP. During his last conversation with Tirado before leaving for Cincinnati, the two chatted about what Perez’s new life could look like and about the program. “You can sense her passion when you talk to her,” says Perez. “She’s got that edge that I think is a difference-maker. In every conversation that I’ve had with her or heard her speak in front of a group, it’s pretty evident how much this means to her.”

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Jean Afterman, senior VP and assistant GM with the New York Yankees, worked to help identify a fellow for her club and also sits on a diversity committee fronted by Tirado. Afterman notes a challenge the diversity and inclusion chief faces is the fact that her progress can’t be measured in a year or two. “A lot of times, it may seem as if the work that she’s doing is going unheralded because a lot of the work is behind the scenes,” Afterman says. “You may not actually be aware of the change. Things that Renée is working on now, maybe will bear fruit in five years or 10 years.”

The Yankees exec currently profiles as the highest-ranking woman in an MLB baseball ops role. She’s an exemplar to many in the fellowship program and says organizations can sometimes chafe against the idea of going against hiring practices that have worked in the past. “The pipeline was established because front office execs don’t spring fully formed out of the waves like Aphrodite. It takes a long time for somebody to be qualified to be a front office executive,” she says. “Front offices work their assess off 365 days a year, so [before they] carve out time to actually address these issues, they may say, ‘Wait a minute, is this going to help me win a World Series?’ Renée will have to focus somebody on the bigger prize: Winning the World Series is a great prize, but the bigger prize is making sure this is a sport that is diverse. And from that diversity comes the World Series, because different points of view are always important.”

Adds Tirado: “I’m trying to get you to the ring, too. What I’m telling you is that you’re leaving potential opportunities to get you the ring faster on the table, because you’re only doing things in a certain way and you’re staying in this box. And while you’re staying in this box, there’s a plethora of things happening around that box that could potentially get you closer to your promised land. But you have to be willing to colour outside the lines.”

MLB's presence in the 2018 NYC Pride March was one of the more visible payoffs of Tirado's work

MLB took part in the NYC Pride March for the very first time in 2018. Halem and Tirado were among the league reps to ride on the DJ-equipped float, while well over 100 employees marched alongside, tossing soft baseballs to the crowd and wearing white T-shirts emblazoned with a rainbow-striped MLB logo.

All along the parade route, people sporadically approached to say they were thankful baseball was showing support, Tirado recalls. “You really see the power that a sports league has, because people love baseball and love the game,” Halem says, noting MLB will definitely take part again this year. “That’s the power that we have to create positive social messaging when we participate in events like that.”

According to Tirado, the league office’s investment in the march also spurred action from teams that didn’t previously offer LGBT awareness programming during Pride Month. Now, all 30 clubs have committed to such events in June.

Tirado spent the majority of her time on the float dancing under the blaring sun and enjoying herself. This was certainly a day to soak up the sights and the sounds, and she did just that. But two blocks away from 7th Avenue, Tirado paused and took a break. The float was approaching the spot where Alfred’s bar used to stand.

Tirado tried her best to be mindful of the moment as the float crept forward. She thought about a picture she still keeps at home of herself at five years old standing beside her mom and pointing at the wave of parade goers around them. She thought about Alfred and wondered if he ever imagined she would be back in such a meaningful capacity. Then, her thoughts drifted to her mother, who died in 2014 of breast cancer.

Robles made countless sacrifices for her daughter, whether it was working hard as a single parent to send her away to university or, years later, concealing the severity of her illness so that Tirado would leave New York to pursue her job at AIG, a rare career opportunity based in Miami. According to Tirado’s uncle, James, there’s a common thread that runs through the generations of women in his family. It’s a pure sense of resoluteness; the resolve necessary to set their minds to something and lower their shoulders until they get it done.

As the float approached Alfred’s bar, Tirado thought about those sacrifices and the exposure her mother gave her to a wide and vibrant array of people. “Ay mami, remember?” she asked out loud. Then she took a moment to appreciate the full circle her life has taken. “Who would have known that early touchpoint for me — I won’t say it was a guide into my career or drove me to my career, but it definitely prepared me for this journey I didn’t know I was ever going to take,” Tirado says. “I’m doing something right. I’m not perfect, but I’m doing something right.”

Diamondbacks veteran Adam Jones has been vocal about the challenges of being a black player in MLB and in calling for better representation

One reason baseball’s front offices consist predominantly of white males isn’t really that complicated if you think about it, says TIDES report author Richard Lapchick: They are simply a mirror of societal institutions. “Segregation allowed whites, especially white men, to obtain dominant social, political and economic status,” he says. “It has been almost 65 years since segregation was declared unconstitutional and we still see segregation in our communities. This is making it exponentially more difficult for minorities to obtain the same social, political and economic status.”

TIDES gave MLB an A- for its racial hiring practices in 2019 — up from a B+ the previous year — which trailed the NBA (A+) and MLS (A), and tied the NFL. Baseball did receive an A+ for diversity initiatives for the fourth straight year, which can be taken as a nod of confidence for Tirado’s work. “Renée is a great asset for MLB,” says Lapchick. “I expect we will see measurable progress resulting from her leadership within the next few years.”

Tirado is keenly aware of the obstacles that stand in the way of that progress, and of the need to convince many people that the game is still for them. In that sense, she is selling the sport when she travels around the U.S. visiting college campuses. “It’s about rebranding baseball as a sport of choice for these particular demographics who have not been engaged with our brand as much as we would like in the last 20 years,” she says. “It’s really about getting out there and explaining to people who and what baseball is and why we should be on their shortlist for job opportunities.”

“I’m not perfect, but I’m doing something right.”

Says Anthony D. Wilbon, associate dean of academic affairs at Howard University’s school of business, where Tirado has been a regular visitor: “She’s very confident in her position and what she brings to the table and very secure in the fact that she knows what she’s doing. She knows how to get things done and she’s not afraid to push the envelope to move Major League Baseball out of its comfort zone.”

In both that sales job and the push for equal representation, the game’s rich tradition can also be its Achilles Heel. There has always been a struggle within the sport to stay true to its customs, while keeping pace with society. For proof of that, just think about the reaction to Jose Bautista’s famous bat flip, which served as a clear delineator between some of the cultures represented on the diamond.

More recently, the disconnect between the league and players of colour has been stressed by the suspension of White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson. Anderson, who is black, was slapped with a one-game ban for his conduct during a bench-clearing brawl against Kansas City. Hit by Royals hurler Brad Keller after flipping his bat in an earlier plate appearance, Anderson called Keller the N-word, among other things. Speaking to Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times, veteran Diamondbacks outfielder Adam Jones, who in 2016 bravely spoke out about the challenges of being a black player in baseball, called MLB’s handling of Anderson “absolutely hilarious” and pointed out that “most people who speak on black issues aren’t black, which is even more frustrating. Super frustrating for us.”

Anderson spoke out this week in an interview with Sports Illustrated, comparing himself to Jackie Robinson and criticizing the diversity at the upper levels of the league office — “I don’t think there’s a black guy that’s up that high in baseball that they could drag in and be like, ‘Hey, what do you think we should do to this guy?’”

MLB told SI that the expertise of diverse executives is relied on during situations like this. Tirado is one of those executives, but even she and her team of five face resistance within baseball. As disruptors, they are never the popular kids in the cafeteria, she will say. But Tirado does have a group of “champions at baseball that help me carry the water,” whether it’s key people in senior leadership roles or some in lower levels.

“You cannot boil an ocean,” she says of the immense task in front of her. “But I can definitely simmer a river if you give me the tools and the time and the opportunity. And I do believe I have that at Major League Baseball.”

That’s good, because she needs any and all support she can get. After all, she’s up against a central facet of human nature. “It’s this general and natural human resistance to change,” she says. “It is natural for people to want to do what has always worked well for them. It is natural for people to lean into other people who look like them or come from similar backgrounds and neighbourhoods. And it’s natural for people to get into autopilot, especially in this business, because it’s moving so quickly. ‘Let’s just go with the first hire that I find that works for me best and that’s it, we’re good to go.’

“The theme of change remains the constant rub. That’s not easy.”

Designed by Sasha Barkans. Edited by Evan Rosser.

Photo Credits

Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos; Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images; Rhona Wise/MLB Photos via Getty Images; Eve Kilsheimer/MLB Photos via Getty Images (2); Christian Petersen/Getty Images.