Modern baseball is boring.
That was Tim Anderson’s feeling in the spring of 2019 when the Chicago White Sox shortstop spoke to Sports Illustrated for a lengthy profile.
Anderson told SI writer Stephanie Apstein he felt like “today’s Jackie Robinson” in crossing what he called the “have-fun barrier,” hoping to make the game interesting to today’s fans.
“That’s huge to say,” he said of the Robinson reference. “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.”
The quote was a small part of a long-form article on Anderson’s emergence as a star. It came out on May 6, 2019, when the Sox still were rebuilding and the 25-year-old was beginning to make a name for himself in a season he later would win the American League batting title.
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Three years later, MLB investigated an incident from Saturday’s game at Yankee Stadium in which New York Yankees third baseman Josh Donaldson called Anderson “Jackie” multiple times, precipitating a clearing of both teams’ benches and a war of words after the game.
On paper, it appeared to be a cut-and-dried case.
Donaldson surely was guilty. But of what, exactly? And what’s the penalty for instigating during a major-league game?
MLB handed out its ruling Monday, issuing Donaldson a one-game suspension and fine.
“There is no dispute over what was said on the field,” Mike Hill, MLB’s senior vice president for on-field operations, said in a statement. “Regardless of Mr. Donaldson’s intent, the comment he directed toward Mr. Anderson was disrespectful and in poor judgment, particularly when viewed in the context of their prior interactions.”
Donaldson — who elected to appeal his punishment — admitted to calling Anderson “Jackie,” explaining it was in reference to the 2019 SI interview. Donaldson’s defense was that he called Anderson “Jackie” during a previous series when he was with the Atlanta Braves, calling it an “inside joke.”
That series took place Aug. 30-Sept. 1, 2019 — about four months after the SI article appeared. The Braves swept the Sox, who already were out of contention. There were no reported flare-ups and Donaldson signed with the Minnesota Twins after the season.
Anderson didn’t speak to the media Sunday in New York and hasn’t been asked whether he recalled the “inside joke” Donaldson said they share. Anderson is expected to address the media before Tuesday’s game against the Boston Red Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field.
Donaldson also did not speak to the media Sunday. Yankees manager Aaron Boone gently suggested the remark was inappropriate, saying that mentioning Robinson’s name to Anderson “is just somewhere, in my opinion, he should not be going.” Boone said it was a “sensitive” issue and “you’ve got to read the room.”
After hearing Donaldson’s explanation, Boone said: “I sit here, as a white guy, that did change the context for me. But I also understand how it can be offensive or upsetting.”
Sox closer Liam Hendriks, who admittedly dislikes Donaldson from their days as Toronto Blue Jays teammates, called the inside joke defense “utter bull(bleep),” saying you don’t joke around with someone with whom you “don’t get along at all.”
Was it a “racist” comment, as Sox manager Tony La Russa alleged? Or just a poor choice of words that had no “malicious intent,” as Boone believed?
MLB didn’t go as far as siding with La Russa, but it clearly didn’t buy Donaldson’s story of an inside joke. The decision calling it “poor judgment” skirts the question of whether the remark was racist, and the ruling could have an effect on what is acceptable to say during games. What other trash talk is “poor judgment” that can lead to a suspension?
Sox pitching coach Ethan Katz expressed frustration with what he saw as too lenient a penalty, especially in light of another benches-clearing incident May 13 at Guaranteed Rate Field in which Donaldson tried to nudge Anderson off third base.
“We all saw his malice at third a week ago, then this comment with the ridiculous excuse that followed,” Katz tweeted. “What’s the point or message behind a 1 game suspension? This is incredibly disappointing and plain frustrating.”
MLB has dealt with racial, ethnic and homophobic slurs in the past. Former Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott was suspended one year and fined $25,000 in 1993 for “racially and ethnically offensive language” for making anti-Black and anti-Jewish slurs.
Anderson was involved in a similar incident in 2019 over a remark he made during a brawl to a Kansas City Royals pitcher. Anderson received a one-game suspension from MLB for “conduct” stemming from the undisclosed remark to Mitch Keller, who received a five-game suspension for throwing at Anderson in apparent retaliation for an epic bat flip following a home run.
In the 2019 SI article, Anderson admitted he called Keller a “weak-ass (bleeping N-word).” He said he did not regret calling Keller, who is white, the N-word.
“That’s a word in my vocabulary,” Anderson said. “When’s the last time (then-MLB disciplinarian Joe Torre) heard that word?”
Hill, a former Miami Marlins executive, currently holds the job of MLB disciplinarian. Anderson received a one-game suspension and fine from MLB on April 22 for making an obscene gesture toward fans during a game in Cleveland. But he appealed and won, receiving only an undisclosed fine.
Anderson is the face of the Sox organization and the undisputed leader of the clubhouse. He leads the AL again with a .359 average and finally is getting his due from the national media.
What’s more, Anderson seems to thrive on being in the spotlight, as evidenced by his walk-off home run in last season’s Field of Dreams game and his three-run blast Sunday night after being booed all night and called “Jackie” by Yankees fans.
Modern baseball may be boring.
But you can’t say the same about the White Sox.