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.
Outside of the batter's box, baseball has never been particularly swift in minority hiring, anyway. The American League hired a black manager (Cleveland's Frank Robinson) 28 years after its first black player (Cleveland's Larry Doby). The National League hired its first black manager (San Francisco's Frank Robinson) 35 years after its first black player (Brooklyn's Robinson). The National League waited another 11 years to hire another (San Francisco's Dusty Baker and Colorado's Don Baylor).
The path for an African-American to become a field manager has always been to play the game at the big league level -- generally at a very high level (of the 13 black managers in major league history, nine were former All-Stars and one, Frank Robinson, is a Hall of Famer) -- manage in the minor leagues and coach in the majors.
If the numbers of African-American players continue to drop toward the low single-digits, the traditional pool of black managers will cease along with the players. There has never been an African-American manager who did not first play in the major leagues, including the three in today's game -- the Rangers' Ron Washington, the Astros' Bo Porter and the Mariners' Lloyd McClendon.
The general manager ranks are even more threadbare. In the history of the game, there have been but four African-American general managers -- Bill Lucas (Atlanta), Bob Watson (Houston, New York Yankees), Kenny Williams (Chicago) and Tony Reagins (Los Angeles Angels). As the trend toward more statistical analysis has translated into more Ivy League hires at the general manager position, ex-players such as Williams and Watson, and baseball lifers like Lucas, now face yet another obstacle to the already existing difficulties of being hired. The line keeps moving.
The world is changing, as it always does, which presents opportunity inside of the despairing numbers. If being an Ivy Leaguer or a superior data-miner is becoming a defining criterion for the job regardless of race, then the sports enthusiast Ivy Leaguers who happen to be African-American might now have a career path into the game that once existed only to former players. It also means young African-Americans aspiring to work in baseball need to ramp up their SAT scores, diversify their skills and meet the challenge. Peter Woodfork, MLB's vice president for on-field operations and a rising star in the commissioner's office, is Harvard-educated and proof of what is possible.
Jackie Robinson Day should not only be a time of reflection and commemoration of April 15, 1947, or of lamenting the realities that -- whether baseball wants to confront it or not -- subtle and outright racism has always in large part explained the dismally low front-office hiring numbers and pathetically long waits between hiring milestones. It is the wait, the recognition of that racism and hardship, that makes it a milestone. It is also a reminder for African-Americans to simply be better, to adapt and succeed as the rules change. The finish line might seem continually to move farther away, but nothing was ever achieved, and nothing ever gained, without being ready and willing to fight.