MLB’s Witch-Hunt Against Latino Ballplayers
By NAVID FARNIA
“But you fit all the models. You are from the Dominican Republic. You are an older player. Older players don’t get better. You’ve had injuries consistent with steroid use. You showed up on the list from 2003. You fit all the formulas.” Sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy uttered these words in May when he interviewed Boston Red Sox player David Ortiz. Ortiz’s hot start to the season was suspicious to Shaughnessy; this was his rationale for incessantly probing Ortiz about performance-enhancing drugs (PED’s).
The interview was essentially an interrogation. Shaughnessy justified his accusatory line of questions by claiming that it was better to ask Ortiz directly, because speculation inevitably arises when a player is outperforming expectations. In other words, he approached Ortiz seemingly presuming his guilt. “I’m a human being just like everyone else,” Ortiz responded.
Ortiz later indicated that he took offense to Shaughnessy’s racially loaded insinuation. And who can blame him? Today, the media exudes an unspoken expectation that Latino (and particularly Dominican) ballplayers are using PED’s.
The presumption of “cheating” surrounding Latino players reflects a recently established stereotype. The recent Biogenesis scandal and the subsequent onslaught of media coverage furthered this stereotype, as twelve of the thirteen suspended players are Latinos. But what is cheating? And why are players who use PED’s criminalized in the first place?
Despite the mainstream media’s propaganda, performance-enhancing drug use dates back to baseball’s infancy. Zev Chafets explains, “Since the dawn of baseball, players have used whatever substances they believed would help them perform better, heal faster or relax during a long and stressful season. As far back as 1889, the pitcher Pud Galvin ingested monkey testosterone.” Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle was injected with “a home-brew containing steroids and speed” during his playing days. And until recently, baseball writers were complicit in allowing such actions. According to Chafets:
For decades, baseball beat writers – the Hall of Fame’s designated electoral college – shielded the players from scrutiny. When the Internet (and exposés by two former ballplayers, Jim Bouton and Jose Canseco) allowed fans to see what was really happening, the baseball writers were revealed as dupes or stooges. In a rage, they formed a posse to drive the drug users out of the game.
While baseball writers certainly shape the current debate, the pursuit of modern-day PED users has greater meaning. Since Major League Baseball (MLB) began criminalizing PED use in 2004, 42 suspensions have been issued (this does not include minor league players, which would drastically boost the total). Latino players constituted 31 – or more than three-quarters – of these suspensions. Only six white players have been suspended (in addition to four African Americans and one Asian).
These numbers are particularly noteworthy when juxtaposed with MLB’s racial and ethnic demographics. Latino ballplayers consisted only 28.2 percent of opening-day rosters in 2013 (this is nonetheless, a substantial increase from over the past few decades). The disparity between players suspended and the league’s general racial and ethnic composition creates an unavoidable stigma that surrounds all Latino players.
A closer examination however, reveals that Latino players are by no means the only users. Many white players also use PED’s but have often found ways to evade punishment. Thus, the hunt for PED users is in actuality, a witch-hunt against Latino ballplayers that opposes their growing presence in MLB.
Baseball is widely regarded as “America’s pastime.” The mass media hysteria regarding PED use should therefore, be contextualized within this tradition. As America’s pastime, baseball has an entrenched historical relationship with whiteness that engenders racial exclusion. MLB banned Black players up until the mid-20th century. Segregation was undoubtedly a performance enhancer for white players during this period – some of whom are considered among the game’s all time greats. Comedian Chris Rock states that Babe Ruth had a record 714 affirmative action home runs in his career because he never had to play against Black players.
Racial exclusion is in the fiber of baseball history. Hence, given baseball’s historical relationship with race and the reality that PED use has an enduring legacy, today’s criminalization of PED users is not about “preserving the integrity of the game” as much as preserving its whiteness.
The recent immigration wave – which the media portray as a “crisis” – also translates to baseball, where Latino players are increasingly employed in the big leagues. In other words, baseball’s globalization and the resulting heightened competition has caused the influx of Latino players into MLB. The current PED hysteria in effect, reflects an ideological battle between winning at all costs and preserving the whiteness (code word: integrity) of the game.
Baseball writers are centrally implicated in these events. Writers are silent about the advantages white players were historically afforded through racial exclusion. And yet, many of these same writers repeatedly vilify suspected PED users and even refuse voting them into the Hall of Fame (unsurprisingly, Dan Shaughnessy is among these writers). PED use is perceived as a character issue, which is one criterion for voting players into the Hall. But writers never challenge the Hall’s inclusion of players like Ty Cobb, a purveyor of racial violence; Tris Speaker, a likely member of the Ku Klux Klan; and Cap Anson, a stalwart segregationist who refused to play against teams that fielded Black players.
These stories reinforce the notion that the Baseball Hall of Fame more closely resembles a great white shrine (with occasional shades of Black and Brown). For baseball writers, virulent racism is not a character issue; but PED use on the other hand, which predates even the Hall of Fame’s existence, is a moral stain.
Furthermore, the media also completely ignores blaming the primary enablers of PED use, team owners and MLB Commissioner Bud Selig. This consequently undermines the PED debate. Sportswriter Dave Zirin mentions how owners spend billions to find cheap talent in Latin American countries like the Dominican Republic, where poverty is rampant and children see baseball as their greatest hope for a better life. In the Dominican Republic, many steroids are actually legal and easily obtainable. Zirin further explains:
Baseball owners prey on this reality. They want to benefit from steroids in the development of talent, and then excoriate those same players when caught on U.S. shores. It’s a context that speaks to the imperial arrogance at the heart of the game. It’s a context right in front of our faces that we are asked not to see. Put simply, MLB owners want to have their anabolic cake and eat it too.
As for Selig, he was commissioner when steroid use peaked in the 1990’s. Selig knew widespread PED use would make for a more entertaining and competitive game in a time when MLB’s brand was struggling.
Thus, they are the real scapegoats of the so-called steroid era. And if punishment is handed out, the owners and commissioner should be the first to take accountability. However, we know this is an unrealistic proposition.
In reality, baseball should move to erase the hysteria by decriminalizing PED use, as Dave Zirin argues. The treacherous witch-hunt against Latino players ignores the context articulated by Zirin. It also overlooks the reality that Latinos are regarded as a threat to America’s pastime and its entrenched whiteness.
Latino players deserve much better, but so do the others. Barry Bonds deserved to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. And players like Chris Davis should not have to experience the public’s suspicion when they have career seasons. On the other hand, players like Mike Trout (who claimed that first-time PED offenders should be banned for life) should gain a better sense of baseball’s scandalously racist history before speaking on the issue.
Players do not commit the real crimes; rather, this is a matter of corporate transgression. In truth, Selig and the owners perpetuated baseball’s crisis by tacitly supporting PED use and then hypocritically turning around to criminalize the players, especially Latino players. It is regrettable that the influence of profitability and revenue is rarely mentioned in this debate, because therein lies baseball’s catch-22.
The dilemma is between winning at all costs and preserving the whiteness of America’s pastime. Latino ballplayers are the unfortunate victims, stuck between criminalization and exclusion.
Navid Farnia received his Master of Arts degree from the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University in New York. He is an Iranian American who was born and raised in Oklahoma.
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