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WASHINGTON — Though it was the novel coronavirus that delayed Major League Baseball’s Opening Day by nearly four months, the social reckoning that occurred along the way could not be ignored before it was time to play ball.
In a coordinated gesture between the reigning World Series champion Washington Nationals and New York Yankees before the first major league game played this year Thursday night, players clutched a black cloth that winded from the Nationals’ first base line around to the Yankees on the third-base line.
Then, before a pre-recorded rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, every player and coach out for pregame introductions took a knee on the grass, for about 20 seconds.
With no fans in the stands as baseball re-starts while mitigating the risks and worries of COVID-19, the park was particularly silent for the moment, which comes nearly two months after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. The subsequent protests that galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement and precipitated a global racial awakening of sorts found its way to baseball.
As the Yankees took batting practice Thursday, a majority of the players and manager Aaron Boone wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts, a maneuver that months ago would have been viewed in a far more radical light.
It was the work of millions of protestors – and perhaps the time of reflection created by COVID-19 – that made the gesture feel safe, almost rote, even, though still steeped in meaning.
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In the wake of Floyd’s killing, the sport of Jackie Robinson, which has seen its Black player population dwindle to around 8%, saw a coalition of current and former Black players come together and form the Players’ Alliance, with Yankee stars Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge both prominent members.
Thursday night, a Players’ Alliance video narrated by Morgan Freeman played on the video board at Nationals Park as a black cloth lined the grass. After the video, players clutched the cloth and then, silently, knelt for about 25 seconds before rising, in the moments before local favorite D.C. Washington’s rendition of the national anthem played.
“To have everyone kneel at the same time, it was to give hope to any overall reason you want to do it,” said Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton after the Yankees’ 4-1 victory. “For me, it’s for the racial injustice and Black lives in general. And a lot of other things going on. We all have individual reasons to do so.
“I believe with everything we did beforehand, wearing the Black Lives Matter T-shirts, the patches and the unity ceremony before, that’s what was decided.”
Thursday’s action was the result of numerous team meetings, both Wednesday and throughout the coronavirus-induced shutdown.
Nationals closer Sean Doolittle said the concept of teams clutching a black ribbon – the Dodgers and Giants did the same hours later – was discussed among the MLB Players’ Association and MLB. The dual team kneeling, he said, was a concept hatched among the Nationals and Yankees in recent days; the Nationals held a pregame meeting Thursday to smooth out the final details of the action.
“It was emotional. I thought it was powerful,” says Doolittle. “It was important for us and for the Yankees that everybody bought in. Holding the ribbon and kneeling. To show support for athletes that have done it in other sports, and so far in baseball.
‘To show support for the movement about Black Lives Matter and ending police brutality and racism and injustice.”
Said Yankees manager Aaron Boone: “I thought it was a great way of demonstrating while being mindful of other peoples’ beliefs. The unity part for our team was important.”
And so the 50-plus players and coaches did not join their peers from the San Francisco Giants and Cincinnati Reds who protested systemic racism and police brutality by kneeling during the anthem before recent exhibition games; later Thursday, the Giants were joined by Los Angeles Dodgers superstar Mookie Betts in kneeling during the anthem.
Those actions come in a far different environment that greeted Bruce Maxwell, the former Oakland Athletics catcher who in September 2017 became the first baseball player to kneel during the anthem.
He was alone then in his highly public support of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick; like Kaepernick, Maxwell largely sacrificed his career for his gesture.
Now, baseball at large is ready to take up the cause, sensing a safer environment and, above all, greater unity and communication among its Black players.
“I think this is definitely the first step,” says Judge. “I know Bruce Maxwell took a knee during the anthem, and we just didn’t have the support yet. I think now, having these conversations with these teammates, having these uncomfortable talks, is how you start this. Once you have those talks as a team, then you can take it to the league.
“I don’t have all the answers now, but I like where we’re going with this.”