Debunking Stereotypical Language in Baseball: The Brandon Phillips’ limp edition

Those of you who know me personally know that I am a man of many hats.  Along with being an avid baseball fan and aspiring baseball journalist, I am also a student currently acquiring a master’s degree in Communications and Social Justice at the University of Windsor *coyly removes monocle*.

On top of that, I’m a progressive activist who’s tightly involved with many other dedicated people in Windsor battling for workers’ rights and other causes such as the anti-war movement and equal rights for women, visible minorities, immigrants, and the LGBT community.

I don’t say that to brag, I say it because I have spent the last seven years of my life studying the media and being actively involved in changing the discourse of the mainstream media and of the broader public.  In essence, I’ve been trained to detect subtle variances in discourse, especially those found in the media.

That discourse, when it pertains to baseball, often involves race since there has always been a struggle to maintain equality in the game.  That struggle is constantly changing and evolving, but it never goes away.  Case in point, the way in which Major League Baseball treats Latin American players (a whole other subject that requires much more writing).

Long-held stereotypes also prevail in baseball today: The idea that the black players are the athletes who ride along on talent with nary a thought to hard work, the Latin players bring the emotion and the fiery attitude, and the white players bring the scrappiness, tough play, and of course, leadership.

Despite the fact that these stereotypes are unfounded and comically stupid, you still hear announcers and pundits alike spouting them off as if they are totally justified and ingrained in the game; as natural as the rosin bag.

I’m not saying it’s intentional on the part of the media; these things rarely are, but the fact remains that our collective discourse of the game contains these discriminatory ways of talking about players of certain backgrounds. Acknowledging these indiscretions when they occur is part of the way we can rid ourselves of them and attempt to form a new discourse that can inform fans without relying on well-worn pseudo-truisms.

On Saturday night, while watching the Reds play the Diamondbacks in Arizona, the D’Backs broadcast crew of Daron Sutton and Mark Grace committed one of these indiscretions concerning Reds’ second baseman Brandon Phillips.

Phillips is one of the most underrated players in the game today.  Despite consistently putting up numbers that put him in the realm of the best two-baggers in the business, he doesn’t really get the notoriety that players like Robinson Cano, Chase Utley, or even Dan Uggla get.

When he does make headlines, it tends to be for reasons other than his direct play on the field.  Despite the cleanest of clean records off the field, Phillips is labelled as somewhat of a dirty player by the media for doing things that would make a white player tough, gritty, or a good clubhouse leader.

Make no mistake about it; Phillips is a tough player and a leader.  He’s also been nominated for the Roberto Clemente award for leadership and contributions to the community and is considered a very good teammate.

But Phillips does have a certain swagger about him; a confidence that radiates out of him.  Much like Jose Bautista has started to show and much like Derek Jeter has shown for the better part of two decades.

That brings us to Saturday night.

With one out in the top of the first inning, Phillips slashed a shot into rightfield for a single off of Arizona pitcher Daniel Hudson.  Then, with Joey Votto at the plate, Phillips took off running for second on what ended up being ball four to Votto.  Phillips slid into second base and tweaked his leg.  When he got up he called time and began limping around the bag, pulling up his pant-leg and checking his ankle and calf.  It was fairly clear that he wasn’t seriously injured, but whatever he had done to himself was causing him pain.

Enter the D-Backs broadcast tandem of Daron Sutton and Mark Grace:

Grace: “Ah, he’ll be just fine.  He’s kind of, he reminds me of Orlando Hudson, even when he’s perfectly healthy, he’s got a little hitch in his giddy-up”

Sutton: “I love that, by the way”

Grace: “Yeah!”

Sutton: “I think it’s great.”

Grace: “Yeah!…[Phillips] always kind of walks with just a little bit of a limp”

Now, this little exchange may have seemed innocuous, but let’s consider what Grace was saying here.  He compared Phillips to another black second baseman (Orlando Hudson) and went on to describe the way they walk.  In doing that, Grace has detailed a well-worn stereotype about the way black men walk and although it’s being used positively, it can just as easily be construed negatively and often is.

Phillips was then driven in from second on a Scott Rolen single and showed no ill-effect in his scamper toward home.  Sutton felt this was important:

“By the way, we were watching Phillips as he ran  around and scored, and as you [Grace] say, he was just fine”

This, of course suggests that Phillips limp (which was obviously a result of his awkward slide into second) was just Brandon bein’ Brandon.

I went back and watched both Hudson and Phillips walk under normal circumstances (I waste a lot of time, okay?) and noticed no discernable “limp” in either’s gait.  Both Phillips and Hudson are black second basemen, and both are vocal clubhouse leaders, but other than that, there’s nary a similarity between them and neither walks in any kind of unusual way.

So just what is Mr. Grace talking about here?

This may seem like a small and insignificant thing, and I am by no means suggesting that Grace or Sutton are racist or were doing this intentionally, but the fact is that they were following a stereotypical path when describing Phillips.  The only way to eradicate such nonsense from our discourse is to point it out and make it look foolish; which it most certainly is.

Brandon Phillips is a gritty, tough, clubhouse leader who plays with passion and copious amounts of talent.  One day, he’ll be recognized for that and the same old stale descriptors will be thrown away in the trash where they belong.  As for Grace, Sutton, and any other broadcaster or media personality; they should really know better.

ENDNOTE: For more subtle racism check out this post on Bleacher Report about the 20 most hated players in baseball today.  What do 15 of the 20 players have in common?  And is there a single shred of evidence in that useless tirade?  And did a five-year-old write it?  And did I just validate BR’s sad existence with a link?

ENDNOTE 2: For more subtle racism see any news related to the trial of Barry Bonds; or hell, anything in the news related to Barry Bonds at all.


2 responses to “Debunking Stereotypical Language in Baseball: The Brandon Phillips’ limp edition

  1. Holy shit are you ever reaching here. There’s racism in baseball, sure – sometimes subtle, sometimes not. But this was clearly not one of those times. Nice try, though.

    • So what are you disagreeing with? The notion that portraying black men as “walking with a limp” is a stereotype, or are you agreeing with that but suggesting that that in itself is not racist? Either way I would obviously disagree as would many others who know a lot more about than I do.

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