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Opinion: Yankees' Josh Donaldson finds controversy with comment

Josh Donaldson, now with the Yankees, uncorked a firestorm with a comment.Keith Allison, Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.0

By Jeff Kallman

In 2019, White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson had a skirmish tied to getting drilled in his next plate appearance following a home run he celebrated as he normally does—exuberantly, having (the nerve of him!) fun in his achievement. The skirmish got him a brief suspension (the pitcher who drilled him got a few more days) and a probing interview with Sports Illustrated writer Stephanie Apstein.

That was the interview in which Anderson likened himself to Jackie Robinson, not as a race pioneer but as one of the pioneers he hoped (and still does) would help break the barrier between those who continue insisting baseball is Serious Stuff on the field and those who insist there’s something amiss when you can’t have fun playing, you know, a game.

“I kind of feel like today’s Jackie Robinson,” Anderson told Apstein about it. “That’s huge to say. But it’s cool, man, because he changed the game, and I feel like I’m getting to a point where I need to change the game.” A little grandiose? Perhaps. Robinson had far more grave barriers to break. But grandiosity doesn’t mean Anderson didn’t have a point to make.

By Yankee third baseman Josh Donaldson’s light, it was good for a laugh. If he was right, once was funny, maybe (big maybe), but any funny expired long before he had a 21 May dust-up over an exchange with Anderson in Yankee Stadium during which Donaldson said, “What’s up, Jackie?” 

It caused an eventual bench-clearing incident later in the game. It put Donaldson squarely into the hottest seat of his career, even while Anderson slammed a shut-the-hell-up exclamation point upon the Yankee Stadium idiot brigades chanting “Jack-ie!” at him by slamming a long opposite-field home run near the end of a doubleheader’s second game.

Donaldson pleaded then and still does that it was just a jest, oblivious to the point that a white ballplayer calling a black ballplayer “Jackie” isn’t necessarily a jest so much as a racial challenge. His assorted public apologies since suggest he still doesn’t get it.

He apologized to Anderson by including a comment that they now had a mutual understanding. Never mind that, in Anderson’s view, that understanding has been, since the original “Jackie” remark in 2019, “You don’t speak to me, I don’t speak to you.” 

He apologized to Robinson’s family “for any distress this incident may have caused.” That isn’t even close to the same as an apology for using their husband’s, father’s, grandfather’s name and legacy as an entrée to a joke that had a shelf life of minus five seconds.

But Donaldson also felt the sting of his manager and at least one prize teammate not having his back on this. Aaron Boone declared the “Jackie” quip was somewhere Donaldson “should not be going.” And outfielder/bombardier Aaron Judge, who never has an unkind public word for any teammate even after an egregious on-field mistake, wasn’t exactly ready to acquit Donaldson, either: “Joke or not, I just don’t think it’s the right thing to do there.”

Almost as astonishing in a sad way is how many waxing in print about the incident failed to hoist the context in which Anderson made his self-comparison to Robinson. It  seemed as though you could count on half-a-hand how many remembered he did so in the context of doing his part to defund baseball’s Fun Police. But to whom should Anderson have compared himself, then? Johnny Appleseed?

I am long on record in favor of defunding the Fun Police myself. I’ll say it again here: I’m exhausted of the hypocrisy in saying one moment that you need to play professional baseball like a business but saying the next—you know, during contract talks, free agency markets, collective bargaining agreement skirmishes—that you need to remember you’re only playing a kids’ game.

You can argue all you want that Anderson saying his effort against the Fun Police made him a kind of Robinson figure was a little out of line, even though he knew (and said as much to Apstein) that he didn’t and doesn’t face half Robinson’s obstacles. But you can’t argue that Donaldson is just a witless naif, either. 

“He wants to say whatever he wants, whenever he wants,” an unidentified former teammate told Bradford William Davis, who writes as eloquently against MLB’s monkeying around with baseballs themselves as he does against the duplicities of the Donaldsons of the game. “And then he either feigns ignorance or surprise when he gets pushback.”

The scary part is that Donaldson and no few of his defenders didn’t feign their ignorance. They hoisted it unmistakably for one and all to see.

Jeff Kallman is an IBWAA Life Member who writes Throneberry Fields Forever. He has written for the Society for American Baseball Research, The Hardball TimesSports-Central, and other publications. He has lived in Las Vegas since 2007 and, alas, has been a Met fan since the day they were born. 

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