MLB’s Handling of Yuli Gurriel Incident Was a Weak and Inadequate Response to Racism

Yuli Gurriel of the Houston Astros reacts after hitting a solo home run during the second inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in game three of the 2017 World Series at Minute Maid Park on October 27, 2017. Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

It’s not news–fake or otherwise–to say that racial relations have become increasingly fraught throughout the country since the election of Donald Trump almost a year ago today. While many on the right blame sensitivity and “political correctness,” disproportionate arrests and distribution of wealth tell the same story as always: the US is still racist, and it’s only getting worse under the current administration. With arguments about what to do with confederate statues, a repeatedly-rejected travel ban, and the damn wall, it’s hard to miss how divided the country has become on issues of racism and discrimination.

Sports are generally seen as entertainment beyond political leanings or social issues, at least by those with no skin in the game. The “stick to sports” mantra became a standard call out for athletes or reporters who would touch on issues outside that of direct competition, but that mantra has been put through the ringer for years now, and especially since Colin Kaepernick first took a knee in 2016. Winning was supposed to be the end-all be-all of sports, but now, the outside world is barging its way into sporting discussion, and Houston sports fans have seen that first-hand this past week

Early on Friday, a report by ESPN quoted Houston Texans owner Bob McNair saying that “we can’t have the inmates running the prison” with regards to the national anthem protests going on throughout the league. The statement was immediately met with backlash, unsurprisingly. The Houston Texans almost walked out in protest at team practice, but instead chose to kneel as a team–with a few players abstaining–during the national anthem before the game against Seattle.

Later that day, Yuli Gurriel of the Houston Astros hit a massive home run off Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish to take the lead in Game 3 of the World Series. All fine and good, until the Cuban first baseman was caught in the dugout pulling a racist double whammy: first, he made an offensive gesture, before mouthing “chinito” to one of his teammates, all the while laughing.

Despite being arguably the most diverse city in the United States, Houston is not isolated from dealing with issues of racism, and neither are Houston sports in the clear from offensive remarks and gestures. While a fairly common figure of speech, McNair’s comments are indicative of how NFL owners perceive the employees that earn them millions of dollars playing a sport with significant life-altering consequences.

It’s also particularly tone deaf to allude to “inmates” when the protests themselves were initially about police brutality and racial inequality, including the fact that people of color are incarcerated at a much higher rate than whites in this country. McNair apologized for the comments with a typical “I was misunderstood, sorry if you were offended” statement in the aftermath, but the damage was done within his own team, as shown by the Texans’ kneeling on Sunday.

In a similar manner, Gurriel also apologized with the “sorry if you were offended” reply a day later: “I did not mean it to be offensive at any point,” Gurriel told reporters on Saturday. “Quite the opposite. I have always had a lot of respect [for Japanese people]. I’ve never had anything against Darvish. For me, he’s always been one of the best pitchers. I never had any luck against him. If I offended him, I apologize. It was not my intention.”

Even within his statement, there are problems that aren’t addressed. Not that racism of this sorts should be excused under any circumstance, but what makes Gurriel’s actions especially egregious is that he spent time playing baseball in Japan, and he has said that he knows Japanese players find the phrase offensive. There’s also the weak defense that Latinos supposedly use “chinito” in a non-offensive way; not only is that bullshit in a similar way Luis Suárez saying that him calling Patrice Evra “negrito” wasn’t racist, it also plays to the trope that Latinos can’t be racist. News flash: yes, they can:

Of course, all this could have been a form of education for MLB, using Gurriel’s actions to make a hard stance on racism by suspending him for any number of World Series games. That is not what happened. On Saturday, commissioner Rob Manfred met with Gurriel, and then suspended him for 5 games…during the 2018 MLB season. Many saw the punishment as toothless, with baseball seemingly choosing the bottom line during an exciting World Series over doing the right thing. Gurriel was, therefore, unsurprisingly booed heartily in his own home ballpark during games 4 and 5; Houston has one of the largest Asian-American populations in the United States.

The booing will likely get louder as the Series shifts back to Los Angeles for games 6 and 7, but that Gurriel is still playing in those games is a win for racism and a loss for common decency. And, in case you’re thinking that this is all overblown, in the two games since the gesture, cameras and social media have caught fans doing the similar gesture, with no punishment. Would a suspension for Gurriel have stopped that? Likely, no, but by allowing him to keep playing the World Series, MLB missed an opportunity to denounce racism in its community.

Before his suspension kicks in at the start of the 2018 season, many Astros fans might feel conflicted rooting for Gurriel; he almost hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth in Game 5, which would have surely turned the internet into a hot take mess. For any Houston fans who do feel a little dirty rooting for Gurriel, perhaps take Texas Monthly writer Dan Solomon’s advice; last year, while rooting for his beloved Chicago Cubs to win their first World Series in 108 years, Solomon was conflicted with rooting for reliever Aroldis Chapman, who had previously been accused of domestic violence. Solomon therefore had this advice to share with Astros fans:

Not bad advice, and a hell of a lot better reaction than MLB had to its highest-profile racism incident in years. Gurriel and the league might want to “stick to sports” until 2018, but for those watching, it would be better to take a moment to understand the problems that come with letting racism go lightly unpunished, if it’s punished at all.

UPDATE: Gurriel tipped his helmet as a sign of respect in his first at-bat against Darvish during Game 7.