Red Sox

McAdam: Red Sox deserve credit for confronting racist behavior – their own and that of their fans

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The issue of race is problematic, and that's been especially true in the last two weeks as the country reacts to the death of George Floyd.

It's easy to be cynical when it comes to the public response of major companies and civic institutions to the tragedy. Some come off as facile ("We condemn any and all displays of intolerance....") and others as pandering ("We will never allow...'').

It's difficult, if not impossible, to strike the right tone.

So it was no surprise when a tweet from the Red Sox on Wednesday, addressing recent comments by former major leaguer Torii Hunter, was met with a mixture of ridicule and scorn. For some, it was an exercise in political correctness; for others, it didn't go far enough. Some managed to infer that the team was calling all of its fans bigots, which, if nothing else, reveals a certain consciousness of guilt on their behalf.

Let's face it: a big part of the issue here is the Red Sox' history when it comes to race, which to put it charitably, was once abysmal.

Somehow, the Red Sox managed to integrate their roster after the local hockey team did so, and stories -- many of them documented; some merely anecdotal -- of the team's repugnant treatment of players of color (their own and others trying out) are, regrettably, many. As recently as the 1980s, the team allowed a blatantly discriminatory private club in its spring training home of Winter Haven, Fla. to distribute guest passes to its white players in its own clubhouse.

To the age-old debate over whether long-time owner Thomas A. Yawkey was a virulent racist, this much can be said without fear of contradiction: at the very least, Yawkey willfully allowed those who were racists to hold key roles in his organization.

So, yes, for a long period in their history, the Red Sox acted shamefully on the matter of race and that should neither be excused nor forgotten.

To its credit, however belatedly, the organization has made enormous strides toward rectifying its ugly history. The turnaround began in the last few years the club was run by John Harrington -- whose outreach to the African-American community represented the high point of his stewardship -- and has continued since the sale of the club to the John Henry ownership group in 2002.

It could be said that in the 21st century, a period which stands as arguably the greatest in the franchise's long history, the four most consequential and revered players have all been players of color: Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz and Mookie Betts. Such a transformation would have been, for a variety of reasons, unimaginable only a few decades ago.

Henry found himself endless mocked when he succeeded in changing the name of the street on which Fenway Park sits from Yawkey Way back to its original Jersey Street. His critics seemed split between alleging this was nothing more than political opportunism and vehemently denying the team had a history of bigoted behavior.

His loudest critics illogically charged that doing so ignored the Yawkey family's long history of philanthropy -- as if a person couldn't have both benevolent and misanthropic impulses, as if everything were -- no pun intended -- black or white.

Few saw the matter as someone attempting to write a wrong. That's what Wednesday's tweet endeavored to accomplish, too.

What should the Sox have done? Turned a blind eye to Hunter's remarks? Hidden the recent racist behavior on the part of some fans at the ballpark?

This was the Red Sox acknowledging the awful truth that their home ballpark has too often been openly hostile and at times hateful toward visiting players of color. I can tell you that, having covered the organization for better than 30 years, this characterization is widely held throughout the sport, especially by African-American players, coaches and executives. To deny that this pattern of behavior exists only reinforces the sad truth.

And yet, when then-Orioles outfielder Adam Jones alleged that he was the target of a racial slur at Fenway a few years ago, he was endlessly ridiculed and essentially called a liar. Jones has a terrific reputation in the game -- both as a teammate and for his charitable work -- but somehow, this was merely attention-seeking, a matter of a political agenda or an outright fabrication.

(Not long after, when the Pawtucket Red Sox' social media account was littered with abhorrent racist posts following the hiring of manager Billy McMillon, an African-American, a furious Red Sox executive pulled me aside and fumed: "And they still think Adam Jones was making that up?'')

Of course, in revealing that there were seven separate incidents of racial epithets being uttered by fans at Fenway Park, the Red Sox are opening themselves up to further derision. Some charged that these instances were made up for the purpose of virtue signaling. Others unfairly and illogically claimed the organization had brought the invective on itself.

But shining a light on such disgusting behavior acts as a good disinfectant. The Red Sox are no longer in the business of denying what's been painfully obvious for a long time and good for them.

More work needs to be done. But Wednesday's tweet is an acknowledgment of the ugly truth -- that racism still exists -- and a promise to combat it.

It doesn't scrub away the past, but rather, vows to improve the future. That makes it a noble objective.

As Martin Luther King reminded us: The time is always right to do what is right.