Sixty-eight years after Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play in the modern Major Leagues, baseball faces a new color line. Unlike Jackie's struggle, this color line is not fueled by hostile intent. Nobody is actively trying to keep African-Americans and Latinos out of the game, but its effects are no less disheartening and potentially devastating.
There's a serious danger that Major League Baseball will have no African-American managers on Opening Day for the first time since 1988. In April of that year, the Orioles lost their first six games and replaced Cal Ripken Sr. with Frank Robinson (the very first African-American manager in 1976), who would go on to manage the club for another three seasons. Since then, there has been at least one African-American manager in the league every year.
It's not that Baseball, as an institution, thinks that minority managers can't handle the position. The problem is that they prefer a different kind of candidate.
It mostly comes down to who is being hired as a General Manager today, and, frankly, the stathead community is in part to blame for this. Statheads won the revolution in Major League Baseball, carving out an important role for themselves as some of the game's biggest decision makers. This, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. The game is better, and teams are healthier, with guys like Theo Epstein, Andrew Friedman, and Jeff Lunhow in charge than with Ed Wade, Jim Hendry, or Ned Colletti. So when the Phillies announce that all three of their finalists for the job are "Ivy Leaguers in [their] 30s with analytics base," we see that as a positive development.
Again, that is not a problem in and of itself. But we have come to realize over the years that the best way to get involved in the game's front offices is through unpaid internships. And, as my friend Kate Morrison explained, that is a systematic advantage for individuals from a well-to-do background whose parents can afford to support them throughout the length of that internship. And frankly, that is a system that is set up specifically to help white dudes, especially since, as of February 2014, MLB had the most male-heavy fan base among the major sports, and just 18 percent of fans identified as either black or Latino. While MLB's hiring practices are still given relatively high marks overall by an independent report out of the University of Central Florida, the percentage of women and minorities working in MLB administration has dropped for four straight years.
So how does this manifest itself in the search for managers?
Look at how Scott Servais was just hired by the Seattle Mariners. Shannon Drayer, of 710 ESPN Seattle, writes that "Servais was Dipoto's first hire as GM of the Angels and the two have worked closely together since. The communication, trust and shared philosophy are already there and clearly this was a priority for Dipoto, more so than managerial experience." At one point Drayer points out that "Dipoto and Servais speak the same language." While it was not meant that way, that can also be taken literally. The point is that Dipoto hired someone with whom he was already comfortable.
Or look at what the Brewers did when they hired Craig Counsell last year. Counsell, who grew up in Wisconsin, had been in the Brewers organization for years in the front office, and had been specifically groomed to eventually take over the position. Both the level of comfort that former GM Doug Melvin and owner Mark Attanasio had in Counsell played an important role in the decision to turn the club over to Counsell without interviewing anyone else, but so did the optics of having a local kid make good.
Again, this puts minority candidates at a systematic disadvantage, and is a major reason why, if Dusty Baker is not hired by the Nationals, we will have just one manager who is a racial minority in a league that is more than 40 percent non-white. This is not a problem isolated to Major League Baseball. This is a nationwide issue encapsulated and on display in MLB dugouts, and we should be ashamed of it. As Ken Rosenthal pointed out over the weekend while writing about the disadvantage experienced managers seem to face in the hiring process, the problem is not necessarily that unqualified people are being hired, which they totally are. Guys like Matt Williams, or Walt Weiss, or Dan Jennings had no business being in a Major League dugout. The problem is that clearly qualified people are not. This is a trend that we need Baseball to consciously work to change, because the league is stronger when a variety of perspectives are represented.
How? Start by paying interns a living wage. If teams refuse to do it, Major League Baseball itself has enough money to start a scholarship program to provide support for front office candidates it has a clear interest in cultivating. Provide group housing for interns who have had to move to a new city to start their careers. Help newly hired executives pay off their student debts. Make sure that the first step to being involved in the game isn't over a hurdle that prevents these qualified candidates from participating. Hopefully, then, the GMs of our future will speak many languages (figuratively and/or literally) and hire candidates who reflect the makeup of the game as a whole.