Almost a month ago, I wrote that Major League Baseball was facing a new color line; that the league was in danger of having just a single manager of color (Fredi Gonzalez) on its 30 teams. For a league in which 40 percent of the players are non-white, that was a fairly damning trend that I traced back to the people being hired as general managers, and how those general managers are conducting (or not conducting) their managerial searches.
To be clear, I wasn't accusing any teams of dismissing qualified candidates because of their ethnicity. It was clear to me that teams were comfortable with the idea of a manager of color, but were choosing candidates based on a criteria that put non-white managers at a distinct disadvantage. I didn't see exactly where we were headed, but all the indications were that Major League Baseball's teams were on the wrong road.
Since then, we've seen the Nationals turn the reins for their team over to Dusty Baker, perhaps the most accomplished African-American managers in baseball history and, today, we will see the Dodgers hire former Dodger, Red Sox, and Padres outfielder Dave Roberts as a rookie skipper. Roberts is of African-American and Japanese descent. These are both positive developments; there's no doubting Baker's qualifications and Roberts has extensive coaching experience and has been a finalist for several other big league jobs.
So that's it, right? Crisis abated? Nothing to see here?
It's easy to think that, especially for those of us who are inclined to see the best in Baseball. It's incredibly tempting, if you're a person who doesn't have to think about race every day, to look at these two managers, to decide that the crisis is over, and to pat yourself on the back for being so progressive. For being one of the relative few who recognized the problem and to have advocated for the solution.
Still, the number of managers of color in Major League Baseball remains near a 25 year low. Fredi Gonzalez's Braves are embarking on a rebuilding effort that he may not survive. And, as we've seen around the game, front offices remain interested in bringing in managers who "speak the same language" (in regards to team building and analytics) as the front office. There are only 30 of these jobs, and we should want to make sure that teams are taking care to find the right people to fill them, rather than just hand them over to the nearest white guy the GM is comfortable with (like the Mariners and the Brewers did). We simply can't assume that the hirings of Baker and Roberts represent a reversal of this incredibly depressing trend:
I wish there were an easy answer. I wish we could declare victory for fairness and equality and go home for the day. Unfortunately, the world is more complicated than that. The truth is that we are going to need to have this conversation next year as well. And probably the year after that. The turnover of MLB managers is a slow process, and we won't know if things have gotten better for non-white managers, and particularly Latino managers, for another couple of years. In the interim, we can look at who is being interviewed for each position, how long the process takes and how careful the eventual choice seems as a proxy to see if we're actually headed in the right direction again.
To that end, at least in these two cases, I'm fairly encouraged. The Nationals had an extensive interview process that also included Alex Cora, in which Baker emerged as the second choice. They turned to him when they couldn't reach a deal with Bud Black. The Dodgers interviewed nine candidates, including Dave Martinez, before settling on Roberts, who has embraced the analytical bent practiced by Los Angeles's braintrust.
These were robust processes, in which multiple non-white candidates were considered and emerged as leading contenders. They were exactly what we needed other teams, like the Mariners or the Brewers to engage in, rather than simply handing the reins over to some old friend of the GM. It's what we will need teams to do next year when they inevitably let their skippers go. It's only through this kind of rigorous process that we ensure that qualified candidates, from whatever ethnicity, get a fair shake and are allowed to rise in an incredibly restricted job market.