Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Bigotry just part of the game?

I suspect that most people who watched Game Four of the NBA playoff series between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks the other night likely suspected that the team that deserved to move forward did. The mighty Lakers were not only embarrassed on the court, but several of their players displayed—as Magic Johnson lamented afterwards—a complete lack of class. While there are few people, like Mike Golic and Dave Miller, who say that Laker center Andrew Bynum’s hit on the Mavericks’ Jose “J.J.” Barea was “part of the game,” most thought it was clearly “dirty.” To recap, in the fourth quarter Barea—the little man who was running circles around the Lakers’ big men whenever he got off the bench—was taking the ball on a fast break to the hoop when Bynum lunged hard from below into his armpit in what was obviously not an effort merely to prevent a basket; the eventual winner of the game and the series was by then already a foregone conclusion. Barea felled hard to the floor and stayed there for several minutes.

If this act was not meant to alter the result of the game, then we have to conclude that the hit was either meant to hurt Barea, or to “send a message.” First of all, Bynum was perfectly aware that the hit would get him ejected from the game, and everyone else who saw it knew it too; no sooner than Barea landed on the floor, Bynum was walking toward the exit, ignoring the official who made the call. Thus Golic and Miller were wrong to say that it was “part of the game.” It is not “part of the game” for a starter to do something that he knew would get himself ejected. Bynum didn’t care if he stayed in the game; he had by then already quit, so as “part of the game” the hit was pointless as well as dirty. So the idea that he was “sending a message” is only relevant if we conclude that the “message” was an acting-out of personal malice.

That leaves us with the intention to hurt—or more likely, injure—Barea. One thing that most commentators have not discussed—but is important in understanding what may actually be in play here—is what happened in Game 2 of the series. Barea was dribbling the ball up-court when Ron Artest stepped in front of him and “close-lined” him—deliberately thrusting his arm out and striking Barea full in the face (for some reason, I am reminded of the incident involving hockey player Marty McSorley in 2000). Replays showed that Artest had literally pushed aside another Laker defender in order to do this. This move was so punk and without any “part of the game” rationale that not only was Artest ejected from the game, but he was suspended for Game Three, which of course was no help to the Lakers’ efforts to actually win the series. Artest’s “play” on Barea was probably even more “dirty” than Bynum’s, because it was clearly not a legitimate basketball play, but a deliberate attempt not just to hurt Barera—but to show contempt for him as a player, as if he didn't belong.

And this contempt is the crux of the matter. Barea is Puerto Rican, in a league where Latino players can be counted on one hand. Now, some people will jump in and say that his “ethnicity” was not a factor, but who knows what goes on in the heads of some players, especially under the influence of “frustration.” Artest’s actions showed that his personal animosity toward Barea completely clouded his judgment—particularly given the fact that Barea hadn’t displayed any physical or verbal aggression in kind to justify what he did. Artest’s current and otherwise bizarre explanation for his action does have one element of truth, in that he admitted he did it out of malice. After Bynum’s dirty play on Barea, who was it who greeted him after he was thrown out of the game? Artest. We may not know exactly what these two said about Barea in private, but their actions speak volumes.

While we’re on the subject of Latino athletes, I want to mention my disgust at some of the things I hear on the local sports radio stations. Now, the Seattle Mariners baseball team is clearly jinxed. The Toronto Blue Jays—who joined the AL the same year as the Mariners—have won two World Series. Recent entries like Tampa Bay, Florida, Colorado and Arizona have already been to the Series. Even the Brewers have one World Series appearance to their credit. The only team to share the Mariners futility is the Montreal/Washington D.C. franchise. This team has the bad fortune of trading away “mediocre” players who turn out to be stars for other teams, and trading or signing free agent “stars” who turn out to be mediocre. The fact is that while the Mariners have brought-up Hall of Fame material like Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Randy Johnson, they didn’t stay—while they were never able to attract any true free agent star to the team; even a rare gem acquired in a trade, Cliff Lee, was gone before you could bat an eye. They traded one of their top prospects, Adam Jones—who has been solid if not spectacular with the Orioles—for Eric Bedard, who for three years gave the Mariners absolutely nothing; that may yet extend to a fourth year. But while star players tend to avoid coming to Seattle if they can help it, isn't it heartwarming that other teams' cast-offs actually want to stay?

But what do you hear from local commentators? Jose Lopez—who gave the team four solid seasons, including a 191-hit year, and 96 RBIs another—was scapegoated and made the butt of jokes for all the failings of a 101-loss season last year. Carlos Silva was as recently as Monday remembered as “trash” and “garbage” despite have moderately successful seasons before he came to the Mariners—and after he left them; with the Cubs last year, he had a 10-6 record. Yuniesky Betancourt hit .279 with the Mariners, which didn’t prevent the locals from trashing him and having him run out of town; that .279 average has been looking mighty good these past two seasons. Nor did it take long for Freddy Garcia to lose favor with the local media, even though the team stunk his last season—a 3.20 ERA was only good enough to get him a 4-7 record. The season after his trade to the White Sox, Garcia pitched in and won the decisive Game Four of the World Series. This year, the Yankees thought enough of him to put him in their starting rotation.

Yes, Edgar Martinez, who spent his entire career with the Mariners, and Felix Hernandez for the past three years, have been in the good graces of the local blowhards. But they have been the exceptions to the rule; it seems that you have to be at least above average if you are a Latino player to avoid being characterized as "trash." Probably because of the heat generated by the immigration issue, heaping contempt and abuse on Latino players is tolerated. Think I’m making this up? Last season the Angels' Torii Hunter derided Latino players for being worth a "bag of chips," while Latino players of African descent were "imposters." Some people have derided the New York Mets as “Los Mets” in an effort to blame Latino players for the team’s failure to make the playoffs these past years.

On the other hand, the just released Milton Bradley was a known clubhouse character and particularly undependable on the field when he came to Seattle, but the locals kept giving him a mulligan nearly to the very end. Ryan Langerhans (a white guy) hitting around .160 and who also just released, was never referred to as “trash” and “garbage.” In fact, his parting was lamented because he was a “nice” guy. Pu-lease. Michael Saunders (another white guy) is awful, but the “trash” label has evaded him so far. And the horrible Jack Cust supposedly has too much “upside” to be called “trash” or “garbage;” I suppose it is just expected that this white guy should have twice as many strike-outs as hits. But then again, it is too much to expect that Mariner management would have realized, as Oakland did in time, that he was a bust in the making.

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