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RealView Sports – Torii Hunter: Racist or Righteous?

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 Torii Hunter swings and misses. Credit him for taking a good, hard hack.

“They’re not us, they’re imposters (emphasis added).”

In an extended comment about the place of African-Americans in Major League Baseball (MLB), Torii Hunter, left fielder for the inelegantly named Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, used the word “imposters” to label Latin American players of African descent who might otherwise be equated with African-Americans by the MLB. It was a controversial and otherwise thought-provoking comment, in which he pointed out that MLB was somehow complicit in the decline over the past twenty years of the percentage of African-American players in the league[1]. The outrage over this steep decline is attributable to, among other things, the emergence and popularity of Latin American players of African descent, such as David “Big Papi” Ortiz and Vladimir Guerrero, who have black appearances, but are not African-American.

More than anything, Hunter’s words were unfortunate. Not because they were erroneous (although, they were) but because they detracted from what was otherwise a compelling andd seemingly accurate statement. Hunter misspoke, but the overall content of his statement was apt. Unfortunately, his poor choice of words allowed the dominant media to deflect the criticism away from MLB and onto Hunter, already deemed a controversial figure for previous comments like these.

Torii Hunter pointed out in his comments that MLB targets Latin American players because they can be recruited ‘on the cheap.’ His exact words were:

“As African-American players, we have a theory that baseball (MLB) can go get an imitator and pass them off as us,” Hunter says. “It’s like they had to get some kind of dark faces, so they go to the Dominican or Venezuela because you can get them cheaper. It’s like, ‘Why should I get this kid from the South Side of Chicago and have Scott Boras represent him and pay him $5 million when you can get a Dominican guy for a bag of chips?”

Immediately upon issuing this statement, reactionary sport media editorialists at the dominant sport outlets (Yahoo! Sports, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and the like) rushed to defend MLB, defining Hunter as the real problem. Kevin Kaduk of Yahoo! Sports noted that black players represent some of the best black talent in the league, and are among the highest paid, and that Hunter’s argument was “illogical.” Patrick Hruby of ESPN’s Page 2, rather than address the substance of Hunter’s comments, chose to use Hunter’s choice of the words “bag of chips” and then equate the salaries of MLB’s highest paid Latino players to amounts of popular potato chip brands that could be purchased (e.g. Johan Santana, of the New York Mets, whose salary of $18.8 million could purchase 9.4 million canisters of Pringles Super Stack Potato Crisps). Other outlets such as Sports Illustrated, and blogs such as the user-generated forum The Bleacher Report, focused on Hunter’s “Imposter” comment in the headlines, drawing attention away from the content of his comment, which was made at a USA Today roundtable and Craig Calcaterra of NBCSports notes, was “seriously misquoted[2].”

And yet, in the margins of the American sports media, the content, not the unfortunate rhetorical choice, of Hunter’s statement, is being considered, and only here is a serious discussion about this intersection of race and professional sports being debated. ESPN.com buried two writers’ opinions that essentially defended Hunter. Noted sports columnist and Pulitzer Prize nominee Johnette Howard wrote in a special to ESPN.com that Hunter was wrong about who he blames, but right about the problem of declining numbers of African-Americans in MLB. Pedro Zayas of ESPNDeportes echoes this sentiment, that Dominicans and Venezuelans are not to blame, but also that in his home country of Puerto Rico, the numbers of professional players being recruited are declining, and that there may be an opportunity for intersecting interests between Puerto Ricans and African-Americans on this issue. And author Dave Zirin wrote presciently about this issue on his book Welcome to the Terrordome, which detailed the process by which young boys from Central American and Caribbean countries are enrolled in baseball camps at a young age, and as a result do not receive proper education, and come to the United States on the long shot that they can make it in the ‘bigs.’ When these young men are not successful in acquiring a big league contract, they are left to return tot heir home country without proper education, or, remain in America illegally and work odd jobs to make the ends meet. For every Pedro Martinez and Carlos Zambrano, there are thousands of young men who risk everything to find success in the MLB, including their personal health[3], because of the rampant poverty in which they grow up and live.

His words were portrayed as insulting. Latin American players of African descent are not masquerading as American blacks or acting like they share the cultural affinities of American blacks for political and social/cultural gain. They no doubt face many of the same struggles and obstacles that many young black men face every single day in this country. His words were portrayed as demeaning, incorrect, ignorant, perhaps. The fact that Latinos are good at the sport of baseball and from places like Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba is not their fault, nor should they be ashamed of it. Torii Hunter, by unfortunately choosing that one word, became the villain while attempting to point out the villainous practice of targeting the poorest countries of the world to find professional athletes in the most inexpensive ways possible.

African-Americans are disappearing from the sport of professional baseball in America. And a way that MLB deflects this criticism is by pointing out that players who are black, but not American, are among the most popular figures in the league. This does nothing to address the fact that the numbers of African-American players are dwindling, and that the MLB, as well as municipal and local governments bear the blame, as much of the private and public dollars that have been cut from funding sport programs and facilities in urban areas have resulted in the lowered number of blacks who are playing in MLB.

Instead of asking if Hunter’s statement accurate or unfortunate (it was both), one should hope that the media, should it further consider this matter (Torii Hunter has not apologized for his comment, rather, chose to apologize for using the word “imposter”) would focus on the subject matter rather than his rhetoric.

Torii Hunter said the right thing the wrong way. Let’s take the focus off of the one word that was off the mark and focus on the other words that actually raised an important issue.

[1] Down from 24% in the 1980’s to 8% in 2009, according to Terrence Moore, for FanHouse.com.
[2] http://hardballtalk.nbcsports.com/2010/03/torii-hunters-statement.html.php
[3] Chris Jenkins of USAToday notes that Latin-American players are increasingly the subject of steroid
investigations, one can assume, because they are exceedingly willing to risk using drugs in order to
acquire a professional contract.
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Written by demon53

March 16, 2010 at 5:26 am

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