Looking back on race, Red Sox

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During the 2008 postseason, I wrote a column pointing out  the Red Sox's roster was largely white. If I noticed it, minority players might notice -- and perhaps, given the past reputations of both the team and city, shun the Red Sox in free agency.

The reaction stunned me.

The Red Sox were furious, even though I had written that the makeup of their roster appeared "nothing more than a coincidence, a fluky snapshot in time." Their anger did not surprise me, but that was the least of it. I was called a "race-baiter" and worse on the Internet. A white-power Web site trumpeted the column, to my everlasting embarrassment.

The point of the column -- the point of every column I write -- was to provoke thought. But the subject of race remains so explosive, I should have known that much of the ensuing discussion would not necessarily be rational, or even based upon what I actually wrote.

Well, here we are, getting ready for a new season, and the subject is worth revisiting.

Three of the Red Sox's offseason additions are minorities -- center fielder Mike Cameron and infielder Bill Hall are African-American, and third baseman Adrian Beltre is Dominican. It's only fair to note the words of Sox general manager Theo Epstein ring true: "Our player-personnel decision making is completely color-blind and always will be."

Equally important, Cameron and Beltre were free agents who chose Boston.

Beltre, who signed a one-year, $10 million contract, needed a short- term, high-dollar landing spot after his long-term market failed to develop. The Sox were a logical choice -- they not only had money, but also have benefited from a strong, recent Dominican presence, from Pedro Martinez to Manny Ramirez to David Ortiz.

Cameron, unlike Beltre, had multiple suitors he found attractive. He was aware of the Red Sox's racial makeup and the perception among some African-American athletes that Boston can be unpleasant for players who are not white. But he picked the Sox for the most basic of

reasons: He wanted to win.

Cameron's insights are valuable; he is 37 now, a 15-year veteran, practically an elder statesman. He was honored Jan. 30 at the 10th annual Negro Leagues Baseball Museum Legacy Awards, receiving the Pop Lloyd award in recognition of baseball/community leadership.

Playing in Boston, he says, is just another test.

"I'm down to the sunset of my career," Cameron says. "I wasn't really thinking about it that much. With all the different situations I've been through, all the tests I've been through already, I thought, 'Why not grasp the opportunity?'

"Maybe I can be a new era of pioneer. Pokey Reese played there. He's a real good friend. He really enjoyed his time there. Ricky Gutierrez, Rickey Henderson, Coco Crisp all had good experiences in Boston.

"I'm comfortable, knowing Tito (manager Terry Francona) and a few other guys on the team ... I would never have gone there if I didn't think I was up for the challenge."

What had Cameron heard about the Red Sox?

"Just that they haven't had many African-American players in the past," he says. "But that's never been a major concern of mine. I feel like before I make any judgments about a situation, I need to live it first.

"Different teams go through stages where they have more or less African-American players on their roster. With only about nine percent in the league, it's going to happen."

Cameron's agent, Mike Nicotera, discussed with Cameron the possibility he might be the only African-American on the Red Sox's roster. Cameron says he spoke with Sox Hall of Famer Jim Rice, an African-American, about "what life in Boston is like." Rice told him, "It was a great place to play baseball."

This is not some 25-year-old rookie, inexperienced and naïve. The Red Sox are Cameron's seventh team. He began his career in Chicago with the White Sox. He was traded for Ken Griffey Jr. and replaced him as the Mariners' center fielder. He played for a 71-win Mets team in New York, and recalls being one of the Padres' few African-American players in San Diego.

His biggest concern is not succeeding as an African-American in Boston, it's succeeding as a player, period, in such a high-pressure environment. Cameron is a major part of the Red Sox's shift to a more defensive-oriented club following the departure of left fielder Jason Bay.

His fitting in off the field will not be a problem; everywhere Cameron goes, he is one of the most popular players in his clubhouse. In Milwaukee the past two seasons, he was part of a group that he described as "a brotherhood." No doubt, he will blend in well with the Red Sox, helping create a happy, diverse mix.

What's more, he plans to continue his practice of reaching out to children in his community, believing that fans relate better to players when they meet them instead of just watching them play.

I think back often to my column from '08. I know that for many, the topic was -- and is -- discomforting. But it's important to keep talking about race, particularly in a sport that faces dwindling numbers of African-American players. It's also important to remember that players choose teams for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes racial makeup is a factor; sometimes not.

Cameron says he cannot wait to play in a town where baseball is "deeply rooted." In the end, he does not view the world in terms of black and white.

"I've never been a person like that, who viewed people in terms of color," Cameron says. "I've never looked at it from that aspect. I try to treat everyone the same -- my kids, parents, grandparents, the guy on the street.

"I believe the people in Boston will see it the same way, understand that all we do as players is put on the uniform and have a little bit of talent to play the game of baseball.

"I know the expectations are very high, and I'm looking forward to being part of our success, the team, the community and the fans."

That's a prominent African-American free agent talking. Maybe I should not have been so concerned in '08.