Back in March, Cleveland Indians pitcher C.C. Sabathia made a big deal of lamenting the lack of African American players in professional baseball. ESPN and others picked up on it, in part because Sabathia was very deliberately trying to draw attention to the North Vallejo Little League that he sponsors, as well as the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities and Urban Youth Academy programs, which are aimed at young black American boys. Explains Sabathia: "I want to show them. I came from there. These are the fields I played on. There is a way out, and it could be baseball."
But the issue is a slippery one, and there are major problems with the discussion in the way that Sabathia and ESPN framed and continue to frame it. They use African American and black interchangeably and synonymously; so not only are all African Americans black, but it seems that all blacks are African American. Having set a sort of syllogism thusly, Sabathia seems to reach the conclusion that ballplayers of African descent but who are not American (ie. black Hispanic players from the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Venezuela, etc.) are not black, and begins to problematically demarcate the difference between black and, I suppose, black-but-not-really-black.
To this point, Sabathia makes some interesting references to sight and the visibility of black (and black-but-not-black) ballplayers, and I want to quickly tease out how complex they are. He suggests that it's important that black bodies be visible on the field, since, he suggests, black American kids aren't playing because they don't see themselves represented:
"They don't see us playing," Sabathia said. "When I grew up, I was a pitcher and I liked the Oakland A's. I liked Dave Stewart. I was a big left-handed hitter, so I liked Dave Parker. You had Barry Bonds playing in San Francisco, guys like that. There were a lot of guys to look up to."
This is all well and good, except that the number of black bodies is actually increasing - it's just that those bodies are, within Sabathia's logic, black-but-not-black. But for Sabathia, this is a problem - these bodies are misrecognized/mistaken by kids for black bodies. So even if kids do appear to see themselves represented, it isn't actually bringing them to the game because it's a false recognition:
"I don't think people understand that there is a problem. They see players like Jose Reyes and Carlos Delgado and just assume that they're black."
How black American kids intuit that Jose Reyes and Carlos Delgado aren't actually 'black', I don't know. For Sabathia's logic to work, we have to assume that something about Reyes' and Delgado's inauthenticity explains how they fail to attract African Americans to play ball, that the misrecognition at work is either eventually defeated or is itself self-defeating. It's a very white project, though, to participate in this sort of game aimed at drawing a line between those inside and those outside of a well-defined category of the proper citizen, or proper player. It's obviously xenophobic, yes, but I suppose that it seems somehow less obviously racist when this sort of disturbing nationalist rhetoric comes out of a black man's mouth.