Some disheartened by Gurriel’s gesture in city that prides itself on diversity
This was Houston’s weekend to shine. Two months after Hurricane Harvey, the Astros become the nation’s sentimental favorites to win the World Series.
Instead, comments by Texans owner Bob McNair comparing NFL players to “inmates” and an inappropriate gesture by Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel toward an opposing Japanese pitcher on Friday made the city’s sports culture a flash point in a national debate over race.
Greg Diaz shook his head when asked about the controversy outside Minute Maid Park, hours before Game 4 of the World Series on Saturday.
“The national media doesn’t understand,” said Diaz, whose family emigrated from Mexico when he was a child in the 1980s. “We’re not like that in this city. Look what happened in Harvey. People of all races come together in Houston to care for each other.”
That sentiment — the idea that this multicultural swath of Southeast Texas is somehow above typical U.S. race disputes — was repeated by others flocking to the ballpark, a belief fueled in part by reality: By some measures, Houston has become the most diverse major metropolitan area in the country.
But spend enough time talking with Houstonians about their experiences with race, and it becomes clear that living in America’s most internationally diverse city isn’t a firewall against bigotry and ignorance. Agreement on MLB decision
Danny Yang cringed Friday night when he saw the clip of Gurriel stretching the skin at the corners of his eyes, seeming to mock the facial features of Yu Darvish, after he hit a home run against the Japanese-born Dodgers pitcher. Yang, the senior pastor of Westbury United Methodist Church, grew up in Houston and is a longtime Astros fan. He remembers children making a similar gesture to taunt him on the playground.
“Probably every Asian-American has experienced that at some point,” said Yang, whose parents moved to the U.S. from Taiwan before he was born. “The gesture brings attention to the fact that you look different. It’s upsetting.”
Yang feels the same sense of “otherness” each time a wellmeaning acquaintance says to him, with surprise, “You speak English so well,” as if someone born in Kentucky and raised in Texas would struggle to pick up the language. Despite those experiences, Yang said he agreed with the decision by Major League Baseball not to force Gurriel to sit out any World Series games. Instead, the league suspended the Cuban-born player for the first five games of next season.
“I’m not sure what a suspension does to advance the discussion,” said Yang, who teaches his international congregation to treat each other with grace when discussing race and ethnicity. “If anything, I think it’s just going to make people more defensive and less likely to address these issues openly.”
Barbara Moon, the Astros superfan now famous for her homemade signs of each player on the team, issued a suspension of her own before Saturday’s Game 4. Moon, the daughter of Chinese immigrants who was asked to throw out the ceremonial first pitch during Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, said she didn’t plan to hold up the sign featuring Gurriel’s face when he came up to bat Saturday night.
“My heart kind of broke a little bit,” Moon said of seeing the image of Gurriel’s exaggerated squinting expression on social media. “I’m just hoping that maybe he didn’t realize what he was doing, and now maybe he can learn from it.”
While offering an apology after the game Friday, Gurriel, 33, also acknowledged using the Spanish word “chinito” when he made the gesture. The word can be a demeaning term for Asians but is used freely in Cuba, where Gurriel lived most of his life before defecting to the U.S. less than two years ago.
“I just feel bad,” Gurriel said through an interpreter. “If anybody got offended over there, it was not my intention.”
Christina Chin, a professor at California State UniversityFullerton who has edited a book about the impact of sports on Asian-American identity and teaches courses on race relations, said professional sports players, as public figures, should prioritize cultural sensitivity.
“His ignorance about it should not be an excuse,” Chin said. “It’s really not about the intent.”
Actions like Gurriel’s, intentional or not, further the marginalization of Asian-American athletes, Chin said. She pointed to, for example, Ben and Jerry’s use of fortune cookies in its “Lin-Sanity” ice cream, a promotion that was supposed to honor NBA player Jeremy Lin, the first U.S. born player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent to play in the basketball league.
Messages from professional athletes and managers resonate across society, Chin said.
“It’s not just a game,” she said. “It really is a reflection of our social climate and our racial climate in particular.” McNair meets with players
Hours before Gurriel’s gesture was caught on camera, Texans owner Bob McNair issued a statement to apologize for saying “We can’t have the inmates running the prison,” during a closed-door NFL meeting in October. The quote was included in a lengthy ESPN The Magazine story about league meetings in New York, where owners debated how to address players kneeling during the national anthem. The protests had become a political land mine after President Donald Trump took to Twitter earlier that week, demanding that players stand for the anthem or be cut from their teams.
In a league in which 70 percent of players are black, including the vast majority of those protesting, McNair’s remarks were widely perceived as racially insensitive.
“The comments were disrespectful,” said Texans offensive tackle Duane Brown, hinting that he and his teammates might demonstrate their collective disappointment before Sunday’s game against the Seattle Seahawks. “It was ignorant; I think it was embarrassing.”
McNair met with players Saturday and sought to clarify the remark. He said it was made not in reference to players kneeling during the national anthem, but to the “relationship between the league office and team owners and how they have been making significant strategic decisions affecting our league without adequate input from ownership over the past few years.”
On a night when the Astros had an opportunity to move within one game of a World Series championship, Gurriel and the league’s decision to delay his suspension dominated media coverage ahead of Game 4. Several national broadcasters, like Chris Broussard of Fox Sports, griped on air that MLB’s decision was “a huge cop-out.” Chris Gordy, of SportsTalk 790 in Houston, had a different take: He said on air that the issue had been blown out of proportion, especially given Gurriel’s apology and the differences in cultural norms in his native Cuba.
“We’re not going to do this for the whole pregame show,” Gordy said two hours before the first pitch. “I’m already done with it.”
Reactions of fans entering the ballpark revealed another sort of tribalism, one in which sports allegiance seemed to trump racial and ethnic identity: Many Dodgers fans said the punishment wasn’t severe enough; Astros fans, on the other hand, seemed far more eager to move on from the incident — even those who were initially offended. No avoiding it
Edmond Dair, an Astros fans, said he believed Gurriel’s action was a mistake made in the heat of the moment — not reflective of his true feelings. Dair, 55, emigrated from Hong Kong in the early 1970s. He watched over the decades as Chinatown moved from east downtown to Sharpstown and as the city became one of the most diverse big cities in the country.
Dair, echoing comments of those who oppose national anthem protests in the NFL, said he doesn’t believe sports should be a forum to highlight racial tension because it won’t solve anything.
“We make too much of a big deal out of it,” he said.
He stood holding a beer in the standing-room-only section near left field as players stretched, preparing for the biggest baseball game in Astros history. He’d come to watch his team and have fun, he said, not to discuss race.
But in a way, there was no avoiding it.
A couple of hours later, when Gurriel came up to bat for the first time in the second inning, thousands of Astros fans made clear how they felt about the controversy.
They stood out of their seats — and showered him with cheers.
“My heart kind of broke a little bit,” Barbara Moon said of seeing the image of Gurriel’s taunt on social media. “I’m just hoping that maybe he didn’t realize what he was doing, and now maybe he can learn from it.” Moon said she would not hold up his sign during the rest of the World Series Games.