In Seattle, Washington, the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club is a community-based organization whose goal is to “promote understanding, goodwill, and world peace.” Their mission statement reads: “to change lives in our local and world communities through service and financial support.” Their values are inclusivity, coming together in the name of service and ethics, and positively impacting others’ lives.
On February 5, 2021, Kevin Mather, former President of the Seattle Mariners, led a program entitled “Seattle Mariners – Sea Change!” At first glance, this looks like an exciting talk that falls right in line with the Rotary Club’s ethos. The actual presentation did everything to undermine Bellevue’s vision while pulling the curtain back on a damning systemic failure within Major League Baseball.
For those unaware of Mather’s scintillating performance in front of the Rotary Club last week, you can read the transcript here and view some of the videos here. The most troubling comments center around Mariners’ top prospect Julio Rodríguez and former Mariners’ pitcher and current special assignment coach, Hisashi Iwakuma. Rodríguez is Dominican. Iwakuma is Japanese.
When a Bellevue member asked Mather about Rodríguez, Mather replied (emphasis mine), “Julio Rodríguez has a personality bigger than all of you combined. He is loud. His English is not tremendous.” Rodríguez is arguably Seattle’s top prospect. He’s dynamic. He has an absurd upside. By all accounts, he’s a great kid and teammate. Despite all of this, Mather’s first instinct was to use coded descriptors to answer the question. Being “loud” isn’t a flaw or defect. It describes volume. In this case, Mather meant this as a character trait. How do I know this? Beyond saying “he is,” Black and Brown people have constantly heard this phrasing in a derogatory manner. It is dismissive. In fairness, if being loud is the worst thing Mather could say about Rodríguez, you could shake your head and move on.
And yet, Mather said far worse about his prized prospect. Rodríguez didn’t speak Mather’s native language well enough in the former Team President’s eyes. Victims of ignorance don’t bear the responsibility of explaining away bigotry. We don’t need to evaluate or defend Rodriguez’s capacity to speak English. All you have to do is look at his YouTube channel to realize that isn’t an issue at all. The fundamental issue is the prism through which Mather looks at people who do not look like him. Mather views Rodriguez’s value as a human only through his own lens of stereotypes, oppression, and analytics. Of course, some will brush this away as a mistake. It is just a poor choice of words. Mather didn’t mean it.
Except Mather meant it when he mentioned growing tired of paying Iwakuma’s translator. In only a way bigots joke, Mather said Iwakuma’s English got better quickly once he mentioned to the former pitcher they were no longer paying for an interpreter. No one asked about Iwakuma’s ability to speak English. No one cares about the Mariners translator expenses. Mather willingly shared this anecdote to a curated group of Mariners fans. In a mere 45 minutes, Kevin Mather established a pattern that MLB historically has not addressed well enough.
Major League Baseball has made valiant attempts to address diversity on the field and in the league. There has been admirable progress. Despite that progress, it always feels like we’re having the same circuitous conversations. Why aren’t there more Black ballplayers? Why can’t the league market all these young stars? Surely, we can throw more money at youth travel ball clubs to help a kid get a glove. Of course, companies like Nike and Gatorade can do better at building partnerships with these players. But those suggestions don’t rectify the core problem. This is all systemic. It is a part of the very fiber of the league. The system produces and enables people like Kevin Mather. This is how the system continues to perpetuate itself. It promotes the very things that will help it survive. Kevin Mather is a gatekeeper.
It isn’t a coincidence that Mather made these comments in front of an older, white male section of the fan base. Would he have made those comments in front of Seattle’s robust and vibrant Asian community? I wonder how Latino Seattle Mariners fans would take those comments about Rodríguez, especially if English is their second language. Mather was comfortable making those comments about Latino and Asian players. He thought the audience wanted to hear this. In Mather’s eyes, baseball fandom’s essence sat in on a Zoom call with him at the Rotary Club. If we’re to take Bellevue’s vision statement at face value, it appears Mather made a terrible assumption.
This endless cycle of addressing true diversity in MLB will continue until the system is dismantled. It will happen when the Kevin Mather types aren’t the default choice to wield power. Keep in mind, Mather resigned. The team didn’t fire him. His archetype still reigns supreme. It requires a courage and boldness not yet seen from MLB to truly reimagine that position of authority. At the moment, it is far more comfortable reinforcing itself than reinventing itself.
Now, there are people in the league and in organizations that want real change. I’ve met them. I’ve worked alongside them. We’ve had very real conversations. That spirit does indeed exist. Someone can make the case that Mather’s attitudes no longer reflects the majority. The problem is up until Monday at 4pm, he wielded power and influence. Mather shaped the vision of a franchise. The Mariners were fine with this until Mather got caught.
If your response to all of this is don’t bring race into it, you’re telling on yourself. I didn’t bring race or ethnicity, or language into this. Quite frankly, I didn’t want to write about it. But the former President of the Seattle Mariners brought all of this up. He brought the problem to the forefront. He willingly raised it to a group of people that looked like him because he assumed they all shared the same belief system. This lies at the heart of the matter. It is a system that creates a discerning institution that willingly chooses who can engage and benefit from it.
Many people, including myself, have lamented why things are still the same for far too long. We’ll continue screaming into the void until that belief system is dismantled by those who no longer want to be the only beneficiaries. That is when we’ll know if diversity is truly an ethos or a cute buzzword to satisfy the masses.