Bradford: The mess that has been Fenway Park and the race issue

Rob Bradford
September 14, 2017 - 1:50 am

Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports

Racism is terrible. There is racism in Boston. There have been racist acts at Fenway Park. There needs to be further discussions about how racism is affecting our society.

OK. Was that so hard?

This entire baseball season in Boston has had the racism issue surfaced more than perhaps any other year before it. Normally, that would be a good thing if for no other reason that it is important to remember there is still a lot of wrong out there. But, boy, how this conversation has unfolded has been an absolute mess.

A mess. From all sides.

As far as I'm concerned, race relations in and around the home of the Red Sox is no different as we sit here as it was on Opening Day. We have some stories and a lot of talk show debate. But all you need to know when it comes to making steps forward in intelligent dialogue was put on display on the left field wall in the fourth inning Wednesday night. Like the other initiatives and actions previously surfaced at Fenway this season, it fell flat.

The Adam Jones situation and the days which followed. Yawkey Way. And this. A lot of good intentions. A lot of uncomfortable (at least for me) misfires.

Let's start with the banner.

My esteemed colleague Alex Reimer took to the airwaves at midnight after the Red Sox' loss to the A's, immediately interviewing investigative reporter Michelle McPhee. Alex fired off support for the banner unveiling. "They had something to say, and they said it." Problem No. 1. Not really. They had something to say and for some reason decided to proclaim: "Racism is as American as Baseball." It was their "No Ragrets" moment. It did spawn a spirited debate: Whether they were for or against racism? That would seem to be an important distinction.

A statement on behalf of the group responsible for the dropping the banner was sent to

"We want to remind everyone that just as baseball is fundamental to American culture and history, so too is racism. White people need to wake up to this reality before white supremacy can truly be dismantled. We urge anyone who is interested in learning more or taking action to contact their local racial justice organization." Sure, too big to put on a banner, but it would have been worth the extra cloth considering what they initially settled for.

Then there was the decison to walk down to the first row of the Green Monster seats kick off their big moment at the worst possible minute of what would be 206 minutes of baseball. It was during the "Hats Off to Heroes" ceremony, honoring a military veteran. The photos of the banner tell the story, with all the fans around the three participants clapping for a war hero. They had no idea why everyone was looking up at them.

"They hung it out there and all the boos came in. We said, ‘That can’t be good,'" Boston resident David Ryan told the Boston Globe. Ryan was next to the banner-hangers. "We’re vets. We don’t want no [bull> out there. So I asked [one of the women in the group> at least three times clearly, ‘What does the sign say?’ She wouldn’t even turn her head to look at me. I said, ‘That’s cowardly. You won’t even tell me what it says.'"

But this whole clusterbleep has come from both sides. Too quick to act. Not thinking it out. Digging in on agendas. That doesn't seem like a good combination, does it?

When talking to Reimer, McPhee called the participants, "Trust fund kids." She had no idea who they were. They appeared to be in their 20's and caucasian. There's some prejudice right back at you.

It's the kind of reactionary thinking that drove me nuts during the Adam Jones incident. Immediately, there was an outcry from the "prove it" crowd, saying somebody would have come forth or captured the racial slur on camera if it happened. The argument was supported by the lack of evidence -- other than Jones' word -- defining the doubt. And it was fair to encourage further investigation. But when Reimer surfaced proof of an identical incident in 2013, also involving Jones, it was clear the walls were already put up. 

Three days went by with every single skeptical radio host having the opportunity to call Pat Bowlby about his experience watching racial slurs shouted the way of the Orioles outfielder four years earlier. Every single one of them passed, until we had him on Sunday morning. Bowlby detailed the 2013 incident, going on to explain why he believed it happened again.

The point was that it represented some of the investigative journalism the Jones critics were crying for, which undoubtedly would have added to the conversation. But this has been one of the problems we're talking about. Taking sides have become the priority.

Then there has been the reaction to the actions. This has been bungled way too often, as well.

The buttons handed out after the Jones case. The immediate identification of a racist act at Fenway, followed by a well-publicized ban for life. They were well-meaning, but also a little too transparent. There have been no more buttons, and we haven't had a log of similar ejections.

John Henry choosing to proclaim his sleepless nights running from the racist ghost of Tom Yawkey just days after the Charlottesville tragedy. Once again, nothing wrong with that. It's just that after years of opportunity to letting the Yawkey name linger in and around Fenway Park, the timing was a bit too convenient. And the conversation was also thin considering the chance for Henry to enact Yawkey-centric changes that didn't require city ordinances. All things considered, it just seemed to miss the mark.

And then we have the latest.

As Sports Illustrated legal expert Michael McCann pointed out, these folks with the banner could face the same penalty as those shouting racial slurs back in April. What will be the Red Sox' reaction? This will also be important. To simply let them go, as the initial reports suggested had been the case, doesn't quite seem right.

To be clear, I get the importance of this conversation. And some of it will prove to be productive.

But, you should be able to admit that between timing, execution, hard-headedness, paranoia and poor choice in sign verbiage, there is some work to do.

Racism, bad. Common sense, good. Something to remember for next season.

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