By Jason Keidel
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Unless you’re a lawyer, you never root for lawsuits, particularly this one.
Longtime umpire Angel Hernandez is suing Major League Baseball for racial discrimination, which is troubling enough. Even more so is the center of the lawsuit and his ire — Joe Torre.
Hernandez claims that ever since Torre was named MLB’s chief baseball officer, he’s directly and negatively impacted Hernandez’s career. The accusation is that Torre has had a problem with Hernandez dating back to 2001, when Torre was manager of the Yankees. And now that Torre has a tangible influence over Hernandez’s upward mobility since 2011, his career has suffered.
The suit asserts that Hernandez has applied for crew chief, a position for which he says he’s quite qualified, yet has been turned down numerous times, and always in favor of white applicants. Since 2000, the lawsuit states, 23 crew chief spots have been filled, all of them also by white candidates. Taken in total, this case seems to spawn more questions than answers.
Torre has been part of our pastime for half a century, the quintessential baseball lifer. He has either played with or managed thousands of players. There doesn’t seem to be much in his history to suggest he’s a bigot. But if Torre indeed blunted Hernandez’s progress, is it because Hernandez is of Cuban descent, because of calls he made as an umpire or because of a personality clash? Is Torre the type of person who let a called third strike or play at third base stew in his soul, then take it out on Hernandez 16 years hence?
Is Hernandez’s legal beef solely with Torre or with MLB as an institution? After all, this is his 25th season as an umpire, with only six of them under Torre’s authority. Assuming there is a problem, is Torre simply a spoke on a monstrous wheel? Of the 92 umpires on MLB’s official roster, 82 are white. So is there merely a dearth of minority candidates, or a concerted effort to ignore them?
Much better legal minds can parse the particulars, but this Yankees fan simply hopes the claims against Torre aren’t true. During his 12 years in the Bronx, there were no public complaints of discrimination of any kind. In fact, many minority players have often spoken of Torre in avuncular, if not paternal, tones. Chief among them of course, is Derek Jeter, who has always referred to his former skipper with great affection and admiration.
Sure, you can be kind to one man and cruel to another. And if you echoed Hernandez’s accusations toward other people throughout the world, you could see, smell and get it. But Joe Torre? What have we ever heard about him that even hints at bigotry? That ’90s juggernaut was not only a great team, but also a family, a melting pot and a perfect, ethnic emblem of the city bearing its name. From Strawberry to Gooden to Raines to Williams to Martinez to Rivera, not a whisper of discrimination.
Maybe inherent bias — ours, not his — blinds us because Torre was at the top of so many sublime moments. Those of us who were young men or women those enchanted years, straddling the line between young adults and boring, responsible adults, have endless recollections of fun and fantasy, when the world and the future seemed as bright and brilliant as those teams. Torre may have made a few bad decisions on the diamond, but it’s hard to argue with his overall deeds or demeanor off the field.
As New Yorkers, as baseball fans, you, we or at least I hope Torre doesn’t strike out here. It’s not a game. It always felt like Torre would leave baseball on his terms, not forced out by legal terms. But if Torre whiffs, he won’t merely stroll head-down back to the dugout. He will walk out of baseball, and our lives, forever.
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