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Athleticism at full speed — the way a runner barrels into second base. Coordination and composure under pressure — how an infielder catches, spins and throws in a fluid pirouette despite the onrushing runner. It is an iconic play that captures the poetry and danger of baseball. It can be also, as it was when Chase Utley of the Dodgers slid late and high into Ruben Tejada of the Mets during Saturday’s playoff game, breaking Tejada’s leg, an example of the gray zone between playing tough, and playing dirty.
In a time in which everything happens in a hurry, it is doubly important for those people who make up the establishment of the game to be able to see each player in context — to understand where they come from and what they have had to face to get where they are, to speak their language, both literally and figuratively.
Professional athletes, regardless of the sport, are highly honed competitive animals. More than to excel, they want to win. And so do we fans. We roar our approval or hiss and whistle when an ambiguous call fails to go our way. There is nothing closer to a living inside a game of telephone, than watching a sporting contest with fans of both teams. It is like watching two different games.
For the players’ own protection as well as the integrity of the game, professional sports have rules that distinguish acceptable from reckless behavior, tough from dirty play. And yet, often, the difference between the two lies in something no camera replay can show — no slow-mo, no reverse angle shot. It's the intention of the player. This is one of the most important judgement calls in sports, and it often comes down to the eye of the beholder.
Let me explain by changing the subject a bit. I have helped coach kids baseball and soccer teams from time to time. And, in so doing, I learned to tell which of my future stars was likely to get carried away with the competition, their desire to win, as opposed to those who might commit a foul or barrel into a player out of ungainliness, because they are past the limits of their physical skill. One coaches with one’s heart as well as one’s head.
With professional sports, there are elaborate structures that should discern between tough but fair, and foul. Hometown fans get to see players day in and day out. They come to know who is naughty and nice. But they want to win. Coaches should know better than anyone, but live under a relentless pressure to win. Broadcast announcers are often themselves former athletes and, in reacting to a moment, also define it.
That is one of the reasons why an incident like Utley’s tackle-slide is so illuminating. It prompts the baseball family to pull together, to place the ugly slide within the context of a career. And this is proper, but depends on your being part of a network of people who know and understand you.
In similar moments, sadly, black and Latino players, often, do not get the same benefit of the doubt. They do not draw as deeply, it often seems, from the same reservoir of trust. Part of this, for Latin Americans, comes down to language. A language barrier can sometimes erect an artificial distance between player and coaching staff and fans — although, given enough time, virtuosity in the language of baseball will overcome over all barriers, linguistic and otherwise.
Another reason, perhaps the most important reason, is the under-representation of black and Latino players, coaches, managers, umpires and sports journalists. In a time in which everything happens in a hurry, it is doubly important for those people who make up the establishment of the game to be able to see each player in context — to understand where they come from and what they have had to face to get where they are, to speak their language, both literally and figuratively.
To coach with their hearts as well as their minds.