There have been a lot of disappointing moments in my life as a Cubs fan but they all pale in comparison to the searing disappointment I felt last night as Jason Heyward was quietly scratched from the Cubs lineup while his teammates decided to play.
First came the announcement that the Milwaukee Bucks were not playing Game 5 of their NBA playoff series I was finishing up work for the day. That was quickly updated to clarify that the Bucks players were boycotting the playoffs to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. This is more a strike than a boycott, so I’ll be using that word for the rest of this piece but the terminology is less important than what happened next. Orlando Magic players quickly joined the Bucks in their protest, and ESPN NBA reporter Adrian Wojnarowski captured the implications of these actions perfectly:
The NBA, owners and front offices didn't see this wave of player boycotts coming today. Hours ago, they all expected to be playing these games tonight. This is a pivot point for the NBA and professional sports in North America.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) August 26, 2020
The news broke fast and furious that the NBA was postponing all playoff games for the night. The WNBA joined them and Brewers reliever Josh Hader was asked about the Bucks decision during a pregame interview:
He was also asked if the Brewers had any plans to join the Bucks:
Josh Hader on Bucks boycott: "I think it's a tremendous stand. This is more about sports." Says can't say yes or no on #Brewers boycott. "I'm sure it's something we are going to discuss."— Tom (@Haudricourt) August 26, 2020
Inside the Brewers clubhouse a vote was taken on whether to play or not, and according to Brewers beat writer Tom Haudricourt the players were unanimous that they would join the Bucks in deciding not to play on Wednesday night. Ryan Braun said it best:
It was clear afterward that it was not a decision the players took lightly. The Brewers were prepared to go forward with their protest even if the Reds did not agree, which could have resulted in a forfeit.
“Obviously, we saw what the Bucks decided to do and I think, frankly, that inspired us,” said Ryan Braun, the senior member of the team who opened that meeting with his thoughts. ”I think it motivated us. I think from the beginning of this season we’ve worn T-shirts that say ‘Justice. Equality. Now.’ We’ve made statements.
“But at some point, actions speak louder than words and we felt like today provided a unique opportunity and a moment for us to use our platform to actually put these words and these statements into action. I’d say at least seven or eight different guys spoke passionately about how they felt about the situation and unanimously as a group we all decided that we felt like the greatest impact we could have was by not playing a baseball game tonight, so that everybody could take the time to try to continue to educate themselves on what’s going on in our country and hopefully we continue to try to have these difficult conversations and eventually elicit change.”
It also didn’t take long for Reds players to agree to postpone the game. At that point all eyes were on the rest of the league, including the Cubs:
Following the cancellation of the Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds game tonight, more teams are discussing the possibility of not playing, sources tell ESPN. Among those currently discussing it: the Seattle Mariners, who have the most Black players of any team in MLB.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) August 26, 2020
I don’t know what I expected from the Cubs, or any other team for that matter. I guess I expected that some teams would play, and others would not. However, what wound up happening with the Cubs was the worst of all possible outcomes as Jason Heyward was announced as a late healthy scratch and the game went on:
The blue checkmarks that cover the Cubs were all very quick to post that Heyward had met with manager David Ross and decided not to play, but encouraged his teammates to play:
According to those in Detroit he encouraged them to play. This was a personal decision by Heyward, who spoke eloquently on the BLM movement on opening day. https://t.co/yIA5YaSJ8K— Paul Sullivan (@PWSullivan) August 26, 2020
Per the Cubs, Heyward encouraged his teammates to play tonight. https://t.co/Q9UQPPBYBS— Russell Dorsey (@Russ_Dorsey1) August 26, 2020
However, Heyward’s Instagram made his intentions more than clear:
In case you’re more of a words person:
After the game, Heyward and Anthony Rizzo answered some questions from the media and Heyward explained that multiple players felt uncomfortable playing if he was sitting out but he encouraged them to play. It is worth noting that nothing from any coverage late last night and this morning indicates the Cubs got to the point of discussing canceling the game, only that more players wanted to join Heyward [VIDEO].
So, instead of watching the Cubs play the Tigers I began working on this story. If the Cubs clubhouse won’t join him in sitting out a baseball game in solidarity with dozens of athletes protesting police violence against Black Lives, I will join him by not watching this game and explaining why.
There were other options available to the Cubs. Half a dozen teams made a different decision and were able to arrive at a consensus. When Mookie Betts informed his Dodgers teammates he would not play tonight, this was their response:
#Dodgers Mookie Betts: "For me, no matter what, I wasn't going to play tonight." Thanks his teammates for backing him up.— Bill Plunkett (@billplunkettocr) August 27, 2020
Clayton Kershaw: "Once Mookie said he wasn't going to play, that started a conversation. ... We made a collective decision not to play tonight."
That the Cubs would not or could not come to a similar conclusion speaks volumes. While Brewers, Reds, Mariners, Padres, Dodgers and Giants players elected not to play, Cubs players let Jason Heyward sit the game out alone.
The Cubs are not the only team that had individual players sit out while the games were played. Jack Flaherty and Dexter Fowler both sat out as the Cardinals played the Pirates. And to be clear, these were not front office decisions. All indications are that the decision to take the field in any ballpark in America last night was player-driven. That the Cubs decision to take the field in Detroit was a decision made by individual players makes it more difficult to reconcile, not less.
Earlier this year the Cubs put “End Racism” on the Marquee. It was widely reported that Theo Epstein was behind the league initiative to hold Black Lives Matter signs during the draft. Many players wore Black Lives Matter badges or batting practice T-shirts earlier this season. There were valid criticisms that these actions were performative and insufficient in the face of decades of systemic racism on the part of MLB. I held out hope that those moments might be the start of something more.
Claire Smith, the trailblazing Black woman who won the 2017 Spink Award for her contributions to baseball writing, put it better than I can:
This is yourPee Wee Reese moment, @MLB. Your sport that is but 7.5 percent African American. Show those players numbed by the shooting of unarmed black men, women and children that their grief matters. Stand with the @NBA & WNBA. Send the message that Black Lives Matter.— Claire Smith (@MzCSmith) August 26, 2020
Your Pee Wee Reese moment.
Of course Jason Heyward encouraged his teammates to play. There is no such thing as persuading someone to protest. There is no such thing as compelling someone to see a historic crossroads at their feet. In fact, buried in the slew of stories explaining that Heyward insisted on his teammates playing even as he protested by not taking the field last night is this from Jon Greenberg in The Athletic:
But could his Cubs teammates have taken matters into their own hands and voted to sit out regardless of what he wanted? Absolutely. It would’ve been a powerful statement that team president Theo Epstein would have loved. Heyward said he also told anyone to sit out if that felt they had to, and Ross confirmed that no one did.
As Ross recounted, things were fluid until the game started. Perhaps there are some Cubs waking up this morning wishing they would have done just that.
Six MLB teams joined the NBA and WNBA strike yesterday and the Cubs were not one of them. Greenberg’s article highlights the element of time, that the Cubs were fully dressed 30 minutes before the first pitch when Heyward took the floor to explain his decision. That players were torn on what to do even five minutes before the start of the game. The team decisions made on the West Coast had the luxury of hours to discuss the issues and come to a conclusion as opposed to minutes.
All of that is true and these are hard issues but I still woke up saddened by the lack of moral clarity in the Cubs clubhouse. It is disappointing to know that Cubs players will wear a shirt but not join a teammate in protest. That the words they spoke and tweeted at the start of the season were just that: words.
No one will remember the games that were or weren’t played on Wednesday, but history books will record the teams and players who protested by refusing to play. I, for one, will never forget the players who could wear a shirt but couldn’t bring themselves to do more.