It’s Juneteenth and Denard Span is sitting on the patio of his home in Tampa. His beard shows more gray flakes than when played in a Nationals uniform for three years, or even at the end of his time playing in 2018.
There’s a light-hearted truth to be told about his beard and a clear-conscience one to be told about his time in major-league clubhouses.
The beard is being dyed. Span, 36, laughs about his coloring efforts and the results. He’s been retired for a short period of time, but out of baseball for a year-plus. Transition after 11 years in the major leagues comes in all forms. Managing the beard is one.
Handling a beard, like so many other things, has become less important to the point of being almost moot in this societal climate. Calls for social justice have reached a level not seen since the late 1960s, or perhaps ever, sending the country into convulsions, combativeness and mostly peaceful protests. And so, Span was asked a question only simple in its construction on day to celebrate freedoms: What is it like being Black in a major-league clubhouse?
“It’s difficult,” Span told NBC Sports Washington. “I’m going to be honest with you. I would say since I was a little kid, I was one of two, maybe three, African-Americans on a baseball team, from the age of 5, 6 years old. Get into a major-league clubhouse, the numbers are even smaller. Usually one or two. Yeah, it’s difficult man, because you…how should I say this? I think you — I would say, over the years, I think I learned how to kind of just roll with the punches, whether it was like a slight discrimination here or there. You just kind of learn how to deal with it or whatever.
“But now, looking back…at the time, I knew what was going on, but I was like, this is what America is. This is what it is. In order to play this game or be in corporate America, this is what you have to go through in order to be successful and play the game they want you to play, in a sense. I would definitely say, yeah, it was difficult. There [were] a lot of lonely nights. A lot of lonely days being in the clubhouse at times. I say that, but I also say in the same breath, it was some of the best times of my life. But I did experience subtle discrimination on a pretty semi-daily basis, to be honest with you.”
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“When I say like a subtle — and some people might say, ‘Maybe they just didn’t like you’ — it could be just as simple as we land in a city and a couple players are going out for dinner and they may not tell you,” Span said. “Or they come in the lunchroom and you’re sitting at a table and they see other people sitting at a table, and they go pick that table. Some people might say, ‘Oh, they just didn’t like you,’ or whatever. I don’t think that…Little subtle things like that, you know what I’m saying? To where you didn’t think nothing of it, it just is what it is, you know.”
Within the endless proposals from the players’ union is a small budget point marked for social justice funding. It’s $10 million total, split between the league and MLBPA; a pittance in the grand scale of finances. The would-be fund is also something which would not be present in another environment. So, it’s rare progress for baseball, if just incremental.
Meanwhile, Black participation at the upper-levels of the game continues to recede. Of the 882 major leaguers on opening day rosters in 2019, 68 were African-American, amounting to 7.7 percent of the league. Eight managerial and three general manager vacancies were open after the 2019 season. Carlos Beltrán was the only person of color to be hired. He has since parted ways with the New York Mets because of his participation in Houston’s sign-stealing scandal.
Dave Roberts of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Dusty Baker of the Astros are the only African-American managers in the league. Baker was hired after A.J. Hinch, who is white, was fired in Houston because of the Astros’ cheating.
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There have been just five African-American GMs in baseball history. Three organizations — the St. Louis Cardinals, Minnesota Twins and Oakland Athletics — have never hired a minority as their general manager or manager.
The lack of Black representation at all levels is an ongoing problem for Major League Baseball. Span thinks simply broader inclusion would help resolve the issue.
“So when you bring more African-American players in the game, they’re surrounded by people that understand their culture,” Span said. “Understand where we come from. Understand that we are different, but just because we’re different doesn’t mean that we’re not qualified. I think a lot of times, we got labeled, Black players got labeled a certain way because we are different. Where we come from, we talk differently, just the way we were raised is different.
“If you don’t have an open mind as a white person, I could see how easy it would be to pass judgment on something that is different, something that you don’t understand. You know what I mean? Quite naturally, if you don’t understand something or it doesn’t make sense to you, what do you do? You kind of label them or discriminate against them or whatever the case may be. So, I think just having just more people from top to bottom — from ownership, to the front office and of course in uniform.”
Baseball has not been able to achieve that on any level. It hasn’t managed the subtle slights Span experienced when playing in Minnesota, Washington, San Francisco, Tampa Bay or Seattle. The league has gone backward, not forward, on this topic. Maybe as society moves, baseball will finally move with it, resetting the relativeness of a graying beard among someone’s problems.
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