BY ANDY MARTINO APRIL 12, 2013 9:29 AM
If your primary association with Jimmy Rollins is still that “team to beat” business, it’s time to update your perception. The Phillies shortstop is among the sharpest and most thoughtful athletes today, willing at times to dive into politics and controversy.
Covering Rollins on the beat, as I did in 2009, can be frustrating — he has a lot to say, but often holds it in, doling out insights only when he chooses. The announcement this week that Major League Baseball formed a committee to address the decline of African-Americans in the sport (it’s down to less than eight percent) presented an occasion to ask Rollins for his views.
This time, he went for it, and strayed far from the MLB company line on an array of topics, from the on-field diversity committee to marketing to Derek Jeter.
As Rollins sees it, race, ethnicity and skin color remain major underlying issues in baseball, as in society. “When they see me, they see brown skin out of the gate, before they see anything,” Rollins said.
Who, I asked him, was “they?”
“Whoever. Other players, fans, it doesn’t matter. ‘They’ is anyone other than myself. You are ‘they.’”
The shortstop went on to present two theories for why black youth gravitates away from baseball: Single-parent homes, and marketing. On the first point, he says, “baseball is a game usually introduced by the father to the son, or to the daughter.”
On the marketing issue, his words are pointed. “I won MVP in 2007, and I wasn’t on anybody’s cover. No one’s. I’m not sure if CC (Sabathia) was on a cover, and he was Cy Young.”
Challenged on the notion of MLB’s marketing of black athletes — Jeter is the face of baseball, after all — Rollins presented a nuanced view of the Yankee shortstop.
Agree or disagree with Rollins’ theories and points, they will make you think, and remind you that sports is no escape from the issues that define the broader culture. Here’s our chat:
AM: Do you think this committee can help?
JR: (shrugs). We’ve done it before. We did it years ago in the offseason. I was part of it. It was maybe ‘06-’07.
AM: This is asked every year around this time, but I’ll ask again: Why so few African-Americans in the sport?
JR: There are a number of factors. First of all, it starts at home. If you’re growing up in single- parent homes, it makes it that much tougher to go play baseball. Baseball is a game usually introduced by the father to the son, or to the daughter. But if you only have one parent, who has to work, you could have love for the game, but you just don’t have time for it. And a kid can’t play baseball by himself.
That would probably be number one. But for the kids who do grow up with both parents, they have the choice, and baseball is not a glamor sport. You don’t see high school baseball teams on TV. You don’t see college baseball games on TV. They did a good job with televising the draft, for kids that are interested in baseball and already playing, but that is not going to make kids go play.
You get drafted, and you go to the jungle. The other sports, you get drafted and you’re going to the league the next year. In baseball, there is more service time. So a lot of things that aren’t sexy about baseball are contributing factors.
AM: Also, it’s a conservative game, isn’t it?
JR: That’s all part of it. You go see any kid of color, they want to look showtime. Very seldom do you see a white kid out there getting a little showtime. Just culturally, we’re different, and that’s the way it is. Music videos. Listen to the type of cars, and what we do to cars. That goes across every race, of course, but a guy gets a Buick Skylark and puts 24-inch rims on it. And that’s his way of expressing his style.
In baseball, your style is actually suppressed a lot. So there are a number of factors.
AM: What could a committee like this accomplish?
You know what has to be done? It’s not the committee, it’s the marketing. You have to market the black players. You have to market those aspects of the game — the glam, things of that nature. Other than that, it is not going to matter. It really is not going to matter.
I mean, for example I won MVP in 2007, and I wasn’t on anybody’s cover. No one’s. I’m not sure if CC was on a cover, and he was Cy Young. But I’ll tell you what. Prior and post MVPs or Cy Youngs are always on someone’s cover. Or a commercial.
AM: And why do you think that is?
JR: I don’t know. But I said it’s marketing. There was no marketing with that. See what I’m saying?
AM: You’re saying that they had a ready-made African American sports hero who they could have promoted, and they didn’t?
JR: There you go. It’s marketing. Besides the family matters and the glam, nothing succeeds without marketing. Nothing. We’ve said that. When we had that meeting, it was about marketing, but that hasn’t changed. Not one iota. At all.
They’ll tell you marketing is great, and it is great. But it’s not going to change that number (of African-Americans in baseball), because you’re not marketing the black players. The black players that are good in this game, you don’t market. There is none.
AM: Do you think that Jeter has been an exception to this, the way he has been marketed over the years? An African-American player who has been heavily marketed by baseball?
JR: Oh, yeah, he has been marketed as the face of baseball. There is no doubt about it. But when you go, we’ll say to the streets, and you see Derek Jeter, he’s kind of like just baseball. He doesn’t represent black or white, just himself. And that’s all he has ever wanted to be. The face of baseball.
AM: And not necessarily of black culture?
JR: Exactly. I’ve met Jeter. Know Jeter. I mean, he’s black. But when you look at him on the field, he’s just Derek Jeter. But when they see a darker-skinned person — when I was younger, I thought Ruben Sierra was black, for all those years. I just thought he had a weird name. Because you see the skin color. That’s the first thing you identify with.
Like anything, color has something to do with it. Ethnicity. Because it’s what you see. It doesn’t matter what you know. What you see: That’s the first thing you’re going to identify with.
AM: Also, you had the dreadlocks for a while, you have a more expressive style of play. Jeter falls in more with that conservative style of play that’s traditional in baseball.
JR: Right. And truthfully, playing for the Yankees you have to. Everybody has to shave their face. That’s for him. For me, I had my braids, had the cornrows. Now I’m clean. But when they see me, they see brown skin, out of the gate, before they see anything.
AM: ‘They’ being what, fans?
JR: Whoever. Other players, fans, it doesn’t matter. ‘They’ is anyone other than myself. You are ‘they.’
AM: I am. Can’t deny it.
JR: Exactly. But that’s the only way to do it. If you want black kids to play, you have to market to the black kids. In Latin American countries, they have academies there, so it’s right there full time. So they know, ‘this is a shot for me to get out.’
AM: Here they have RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, an MLB initiative).
JR: RBI. Whatever.
AM: Why is that not helpful?
JR: Because it’s not. It’s really not. It’s a good initiative, and I think it started good, to put on camps. But where do you hear RBI?
AM: It’s not a big thing?
JR: Exactly. For kids — I mean, don’t get me wrong. Some kids only have RBI. But we’re talking about in the big scheme of things, to get the numbers up, everything helps but marketing is going to be number one. Once you get outside the family issues, without marketing it doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t matter.