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Davey Martinez provides Washington Nationals leadership that is lacking elsewhere

The manager and his players are showing unity for social justice, but what about the baseball brass?

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Washington Nationals
Nationals Manager Davey Martinez is showing the kind of leadership that’s needed now by baseball’s top officials.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

It took a full day for the news cycle of the Jacob Blake shooting and the ensuing protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, to catch up with the Washington Nationals, but when it finally did, the spotlight on baseball was bigger than ever. Yet, at a time when leadership is needed, it’s coming from the players and the teams, and not from the top.

And so it’s good that the Nationals have Davey Martinez, whose passion for social justice was apparent on his face and steadfast determination to stand with his players was apparent in his voice when he spoke to the media.

“This is a humanitarian issue,” Martinez said in a joint media availability with Phillies’ manager Joe Girardi. “We’re all human beings. When I’ve got to go home at night and think about my grandkids and how they’re going to grow up, and my kids, the rest of their lives growing up, and not think about the game and whether we win or lose, and focus on what we do best, it hurts. It hurts a lot.

“We go through this day in day out, I hear from the players how they struggle, knowing that we’re trying to do our best to go out there and play this game, but there’s things going on in this world that they can’t put aside. It’s time to speak up. I think that’s the message we’re trying to send out.”

The Nats and Phillies were already preparing for Wednesday’s game by the time the Milwaukee Brewers voted to postpone their game against Cincinnati. Other teams followed suit by the time the Nats were done. But Martinez soon learned what the rest of the sports world was talking about, and he told his players to come in late Thursday, with a meeting set for 4 p.m.

Girardi called Martinez at about 2:15 to report that his team had voted not to play, and Martinez offered Girardi and his players unconditional support.

“We bang heads every day on the field. We love to compete, but we stand with one another when these things happen,” said Martinez.

“We did have a meeting, but before that I talked to them (Nationals’ players) and got their thoughts, and they were all in agreement that they wanted to support their fellow players, and they respect their decision.”

Martinez and Girardi gave their players all the support they needed, and appropriately conveyed the emotion and urgency of the situation, but when it comes to baseball’s leadership, Commissioner Rob Manfred is not stepping up to the plate.

Leadership, and the qualities that engender it, seem hard to find these days — from commissioners to elected officials, to university presidents, to school superintendents. People in authority who are sworn to protect lives and livelihoods are instead protecting their own interests and reputations.

A crisis is almost always a consequence of failed leadership or none at all. Racism is a crisis in this country, one that is uniquely American, embedded in our history and culture. But here it is, hundreds of years old, and professional athletes — already risking their health to perform for us in a pandemic — must now stop what they’re doing to get American sports consumers to pay attention to what’s going on.

Martinez and Girardi and the other managers are right to publicly back their players as they have. But what about their bosses, the ownership and the organizations? Why hasn’t Manfred, who speaks on behalf of the 30 owners who employ him, come out and said himself that MLB teams will not be taking the field?

If baseball were really taking a stand on racism, in addition to making a statement that teams would not play, MLB would be seeking diversity in its team ownership, promoting it in front offices and marshaling sponsors and corporate partners to address the issue. There’s not much evidence of that happening, quite to the contrary.

After New York Mets General Manager Brodie Van Wagenen falsely accused Manfred in a hot mic conversation of pushing the Mets and Miami Marlins to play their scheduled game Thursday night, Manfred released a statement not showing leadership, but washing his hands.

“I have not attempted in any way to prevent players from expressing themselves by not playing, nor have I suggested any alternative form of protest to any Club personnel or any player,” the statement read in part.

Does that sound like support? Does that sound like commitment?

Not much.

Baseball will be back in business Friday, celebrating Jackie Robinson Day. Manfred and the other overwhelmingly white executives and owners will pay tribute to Robinson as a pioneer and praise the Negro Leagues for their talent and tradition. But they’ll never address the reason the Negro Leagues and the “color barrier” existed in the first place.

At a pivotal moment in our nation’s history, the sports world has the influence to effect changes in society. The companies involved in sponsorships and broadcast rights have enough money and power to influence laws that affect themselves, so why not a broader issue like social justice?

It could be done. But it would require leadership. It would require maturity. It would require taking responsibility for — and supporting — employees and their actions. It would take a lot of qualities that seem to be in short supply these days.