In the spring of 2000, Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane and I sat in his office at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, and the GM asked a direct question: "Do you think I'm a racist?"
The A's were in a difficult position. They had produced players such as Vida Blue, Blue Moon Odom, Reggie Jackson, Rickey Henderson and Mike Norris and were situated in a city that housed a large African-American community and was historically and culturally famous, among numerous touchstones in the civil rights movement, for the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. But for the first time the A's were in danger of starting the regular season without a single African-American player on the roster.
Beane painfully listed his bona fides: the middle-class, diverse, military upbringing in San Diego; and his friendships with numerous African-American players, both inside and outside of baseball. The notion that he was purposely constructing a roster without black players was both hurtful and offensive.
I told Beane that I did not believe he was a racist, but the end result of the way baseball teams were increasingly being built -- targeting college players over high school prospects when 2 percent of college players are African-American, relying heavily on Latin American players, and reducing the emphasis on the stolen base in a power era -- would yield fewer black players.
Terrence Long ended up making the Athletics' 2000 roster, and an infamous milestone was averted, temporarily. Fourteen years later, as Jackie Robinson Day in baseball is again commemorated with disturbing, declining numbers of black participation, now down to 7.8 percent, the game might very well have reached its on-field nadir. Today, the San Francisco Giants, Arizona Diamondbacks and St. Louis Cardinals do not employ an African-American player.
Then, as now, the culprits remain the same and the numbers are equally disturbing in the managing, front-office and general manager ranks, with a more recent obstacle to African-American management opportunities -- analytics.
On its face, data mining is obviously not a racist practice, but as Beane and I discussed a decade and a half ago, the unintended consequences of a changing world have produced stalls in progress for African-Americans. As analytics became more prolific in baseball front offices, so have the criteria to be hired. The hiring universe, the game of who gets the jobs, has been changing for more than a decade.
The days of ex-players -- black, white or Latino -- becoming general managers seem to be coming to an end, a reign of opportunity that was never exactly plentiful. Hall of Fame players such as Nolan Ryan have accepted team-president roles recently, but currently only three ex-players -- Beane, the Angels' Jerry Dipoto and the Phillies' Ruben Amaro Jr. -- currently hold GM jobs. In a baseball first, there are more Ivy Leaguers in GM positions -- the Mets' Sandy Alderson, the White Sox's Rick Hahn, the Astros' Jeff Luhnow, the Cubs' Theo Epstein and the Rangers' Jon Daniels -- than ex-players.