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Thursday, February 05, 2004

What if Jackie Robinson Tried To "Pass"?

The Bench Coach has a very touching story about Ernest Burke, a former Negro League player who passed away in near total obscurity. (I say that with some reservations; for damned sure, I won't get my name on the AP wire when they lay me out, not unless I somehow accidentally launch a nuclear strike, or drop a bottleful of ebola toxin in the California Aqueduct.) The suffering of the early black players in the majors brought to mind a story I passed on a few months ago to a gay friend about Cleveland Indians pitching prospect Kazuhito Tadano. Tadano, for those of you who don't know, made a gay porn video while in college. This was later discovered and made it impossible for him to sign with Japanese league teams, as the commissioner of Japanese baseball blackballed Tadano. So, the Indians pounced:
"He should have been a top five pick over there," said a major league scout who requested anonymity. "He gets it up to 93-94 (mph) and he throws four different pitches for strikes.

Where other teams backed away, the Indians took a chance on Tadano, getting him at the bargain price of $67,000. It's paid off up to now, as Tadano rocketed from high Class A Kinston to Triple-A Buffalo, dominating two levels along the way. And where some teams may have worried about Tadano's teammates' reactions, the revelation has not affected Tadano in the clubhouse.

Tadano says he made the video to support himself during college. The Indians were satisfied that it was a one-time "mistake", and that any side effects would be limited to explaining it to the press. So the kid gets to pitch again and has risen quickly through the Indians' minor league ranks. Just to make sure everyone is cool, Tadano recently asked for forgiveness about his role (IMO, a face-saving maneuver for his family). Still, I find one thing about the affair irritating, and it is this:

What if Tadano really was gay?

As Outsports puts it,

We’ll never know the reaction, however, had Tadano apologized for making the film but confirmed that he was gay. Or simply never mentioned his orientation. Would he still have been accepted by the team? Would he still be vying for a job with the Indians? How would the media and fans react? The jury of those questions is still out. The Tadano Affair is more of a sideshow than the main event in the history of gays in sports.
Jackie Robinson couldn't "pass" because of his skin tone; he was black as midnight. But say he was just on the edge. It's probable that dozens such men wriggled across the color line back in the day. We wouldn't know him from a myriad other great players, and somebody else's name would adorn the Cooperstown halls, somebody else's number would be retired across baseball. He wouldn't have absorbed a nation's hate and jeering, wouldn't have felt the weight of every black man denied a sip of water because the nearest "colored" fountain was far away. While I don't want to go too far in the direction of equating the current state of gay rights with the condition of blacks in that era -- does the hit show "Queer Eye" qualify as progress, or is it a rainbow-colored minstrelsy? -- the parallels still give pause. Cavemen yet live. The provinces groan under their weight.

Postscriptum: The Asian baseball tracking site baseballguru.com reports that, subsequent to these events, a Japanese team has offered to draft Tadano. As one of my friends observed, there's something both humorous and ironic that that team is the Yakult Swallows.


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