Some dis­heart­ened by Gur­riel’s ges­ture in city that prides it­self on di­ver­sity

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Mike Hix­en­baugh and Mi­hir Zaveri

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.

Steve Gon­za­les / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

“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.

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