At the Ballpark: Race, Community and MLB

Race, racism and sports have been at the top of the news cycle for several weeks, thanks to Donald Sterling. But if you look deep enough, they’re in the news cycle every day.

The undercurrent bubbled to the surface among baseball writers this week, when San Francisco Giants beat writer Andrew Baggarly of Comcast SportsNet Bay Area penned a column lamenting the Atlanta Braves’ decision to leave 20-year-old Turner Field in downtown Atlanta at the end of the 2016 season for a shiny new ballpark to built at considerable taxpayer expense in Cobb County, a suburb just north of the city limits. Baggarly didn’t pull punches.

If the grading and construction and everything else goes to schedule, the Braves will make their white-flight move – and yes, that’s precisely what it is — in 2017.

This is outrageous. I don’t live within 2,000 miles of Atlanta and I am outraged.

….

Why are the Braves moving? Braves president John Schuerholz, in a taped statement that sounded thoroughly vetted and polished, cited difficulty with fan access at Turner Field along with lease that is expiring in three years and explained how millions in upgrades wouldn’t have come close to “improving the fan experience.”

“We wanted to find a location that is great for our fans, makes getting to and from the stadium much easier, and provides a first rate experience in and around our stadium,” he said.

I’ll leave you to wonder which fans they care about.

….

The Braves’ new ballpark might make financial sense. It might be too sweetheart to turn down. But every baseball ownership group should see itself as stewards for the franchise and the community, both those who are economically important and those who are less so. And that’s what makes this wasteful flight to Cobb County such a disappointment. It just feels wrong.

Strong words from an outsider, albeit one with some family ties to Georgia, as Baggarly explains, but not an unreasonable take.  The Braves are the only MLB franchise in the Old South, and with a broadcast area that covers all of Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, most of Alabama and part of North Carolina and Tennessee as you can see on this map.

The Braves say they recognize the importance of Atlanta to the Civil Rights Movement and of baseball in advancing the cause of racial equality. That’s why the team now holds it’s own Heritage Weekend — separate from the MLB’s annual Civil Rights Game — which includes seminars and clinics for local youth featuring Braves players. The team celebrated Heritage Weekend last weekend with the Giants in town, and the teams wore throwback uniforms honoring the teams from the Negro Leagues.

Still, while players wore the uniforms, the Braves public address system pumped in the music for the Tomahawk Chop, the faux “war chant” Braves fans make with a chopping arm motion when the team has done or is about to do something good on the field. And as much as the Braves celebrate their connection to the Civil Rights Movement, they embrace the Tomahawk Chop.

There’s not a hint of irony in that video, not even a recognition that the Tomahawk Chop is seen and felt as racially insensitive by many Native Americans, as a caricatured imitation of a culturally and ethnically important part of their history. Look closely at the video, and you’ll see white fans dressed in the kind of Native American “costumes” that used to be popular on Halloween. Today, in 2014, we’re much more sensitive to the pain such “war paint” and “war chants” cause our fellow citizens — and yet, they persist. We only have to look as far as Cleveland on Opening Day of the Indians season, when this photo made the rounds on Twitter:

Several readers have probably skipped to the comments by now to lambaste me for calling the Braves a racist organization. I do not believe Braves executives or the owner — the media conglomerate Liberty Media — have acted with intent to harm African-Americans or to exclude them from the Braves community.  But there’s a question of whether the Braves’ move to Cobb County will have that effect, unintended or otherwise.

Craig Calcaterra of NBC’s HardballTalk had his take on Andrew Baggarly’s column and, while sympathetic to Baggarly’s view, concluded that the Braves were like any other sports franchise in following the money trail.

Beyond that, though, what the Braves are doing is remarkably similar to that which other teams have done and will always do, the San Francisco Giants (which Baggarly covers) included: they have gone to where the money is. Or, at the very least, to where the people with the money are. And where those people happen to be and what those people happen to look like are a function of forces far more powerful than that which any one baseball team can muster or control.

That’s true to a point, if you accept that a team has done all in its marketing and outreach power to build fanbase that reflects the racial, ethnic and socio-economic diversity of its surrounding communities. Maybe the Braves have done that. Maybe they haven’t.

And it’s not entirely true that the San Francisco Giants “went where the money was” when they moved from Candlestick Park to AT&T Park in 2000. Calcaterra claims the Giants moved to SOMA (South of Market) just as the first tech boom was bringing young people with cash to that part of the city. In reality, the Giants identified the site for AT&T Park in 1994 and announced their intention to build a ballpark there at the end of 1995, according to Staci Slaughter, the Giants’ senior vice president of communications and senior adviser to the CEO. Netscape Communications — the company behind the first publicly available web browser — had just gone public. The commercialization of the web — which became known as the Dot Com Boom — hadn’t yet materialized, certainly not in Mission Bay, the neighborhood surrounding the AT&T Park site. When the Giants broke ground on the park, that part of the city was still largely undeveloped, post-industrial property.

The Giants chose that location for a variety of reasons, not the least of which included several failed attempts to move to Santa Clara County, a move voters rejected multiple times. But once the team decided to stay in San Francisco, Slaughter says, they wanted a location that would be easily accessible via public transportation for their entire ethnically- and racially-diverse fan base, something Candlestick Park never offered.

Did the area surrounding AT&T Park blossom into a high-tech corridor? Yes, for a period of time, during the Dot Com Boom, and again with what folks here called 2.0, with the Dot Com Bust and the Great Recession sandwiched in between. But the Giants didn’t chase money that was already there. Arguably, they brought at least some of the money to the neighborhood when they built the ballpark without much in the way of government funds or help.

This is not a post to criticize the Braves and applaud the Giants or to set those two franchises on opposite ends of a racial-sensitivity spectrum. The Giants are in the business to make money and win championships as much as the Braves are. And in pursuit of those goals, the Giants haven’t acted charitably toward their neighbors, the Oakland Athletics, as the two continue to fight over whether the A’s can move to San Jose. At the same time, the Braves showcase an outfield of three African-American players (Justin Upton, B.J. Upton and Jason Heyward) at a time of dwindling numbers of African-Americans in professional baseball. The Giants have no African-Americans on their roster, a noticeable absence for a team that has featured Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Barry Bonds.

Still, as the Donald Sterling situation highlights, there is an inter-connectedness between race, economics and sports. And it’s fair to question whether sports teams should take that inter-connectedness into account when making decisions that will significantly affect the franchise, the fans and the community.



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Wendy writes about sports and the business of sports. She's been published most recently by Vice Sports, Deadspin and NewYorker.com. You can find her work at wendythurm.pressfolios.com and follow her on Twitter @hangingsliders.


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