Randy Wilkins was frustrated, and at 10:09 a.m. on June 3, he purged his feelings. For 36 minutes, over the course of 16 tweets, Wilkins dissected with great clarity how Major League Baseball had botched its response to George Floyd’s murder and how it was indicative of deeper problems of racism within the sport. Wilkins is a baseball fan and a Black man, and to see the game he loves hurt him again and again became too much to contain.
People at MLB saw Wilkins’ thread. The bluntness and lucidity of his argument was impossible to ignore. They also saw an opportunity to do what they had pledged: to seek new voices, to learn, to not fall prey to the ills of which Wilkins wrote.
So they asked Wilkins to collaborate. He’s a filmmaker, and he has always been fascinated not just by how Jackie Robinson integrated sports and, in many ways, America but also in Robinson’s post-career activism — his support for Black businesses, legal protections, civil rights.
“It was very important to me to tell that story,” Wilkins said. “I just didn’t imagine it would be with MLB.”
What came of it is 87 seconds of purpose — a short film released by MLB to kick off the sport’s annual celebration of Robinson. In that time, Wilkins uses the words of Robinson, the voice of Dodgers star Mookie Betts and the images of baseball and baseball-adjacent causes to weave an instructive tapestry, one that tells a story that’s both generational and contemporary. Alongside Henry Aaron and Willie Mays are clips and a photograph of Curt Flood, whose fight for free agency carved the gilded path down which athletes in all sports walk. Interspersed among pictures and videos of protests past and recent is a woman holding a sign that says: BLACK TRANS LIVES MATTER.
Not until this year did MLB allow itself to say Black Lives Matter. By rubber-stamping a video that does so and includes the trans community, MLB convinced Wilkins that the league really is at an evolutionary point.
“I felt comfortable there were people who genuinely wanted to make a change,” he said. “Prior to speaking to them, my perception would align with the general public. In being able to speak with so many people, not just about business but on a personal level, I had no concerns. I thought it was genuine. I think they are committed to enacting change. I think they do understand things need to get better, not just in the game but the world. They understand their responsibility.”
If they didn’t, Wednesday and Thursday might have gone differently. MLB might have meddled in the on-the-fly protests staged by teams. The league might have mandated a coordinated response. Instead, MLB got out of the way just enough to let the players find their way.
Over the first 48 hours of baseball most players’ first legitimate foray into the world of social injustice and how to right it, there was talking and crying and hugging and yelling. It was a big, sloppy, disorganized mess. In other words, it was perfect.
Anybody who calls for some sort of organized response by MLB to the shooting of Jacob Blake doesn’t understand that movements do not start from the top down. As much power as the institution of baseball has, it functions best as a support system for players rather than an engine for change itself.
Imagine what would have happened had baseball planned a day off for all teams. It would have been perfunctory, something everyone did not because they chose to do so but because they were told to. Planned protests delegated by figures of authority is not protest.
Here’s what protest looks like: Milwaukee Brewers players, inspired by the Milwaukee Bucks walking out on a playoff game, wondering if they should do the same — and doing it. Players from other teams considering doing the same and deciding not to — and then, a day later, recognizing the error of their ways, learning from their choices. In some clubhouses, sources said, the strength of one or two voices carried the day. In others, robust discussion animated decisions.
With the New York Mets, the players’ decision to walk onto the field, pause for 42 seconds as an homage to Robinson, then leave the field with a BLACK LIVES MATTER T-shirt on home plate was not unanimous. Some believed the symbolism to be trite. In the end, the Mets and Marlins went out together and did it anyway.
Jeff Passan says his hope is that the Mets’ show of unity with the Marlins is what is taken away from Thursday’s walkout, not Brodie Van Wagenen’s gaffe about Rob Manfred.
Across the sport, there were angry players who felt bullied into going along with protests. That was to be expected. The politics of a majority of baseball players go against the strength of social justice movements. It takes Black players standing up in meetings and going into detail about racial injustice to illuminate teammates. It takes conversations. It takes all the elements a planned day off would eliminate.
This is not to say teams were entirely supportive. Multiple owners strongly oppose protesting police brutality against Black people, according to players who spoke with ESPN, and suggested their teams wanted them to play. Then there was the hot-mic allegation by Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen that commissioner Rob Manfred suggested a token protest in which the Mets and Marlins would walk off the field, only to return an hour later and play. While Van Wagenen walked back his comments and absolved Manfred, in a clarification he said the idea was that of Mets COO Jeff Wilpon. Whoever the idea came from, it was clear at some levels that management was not automatically supportive.
The intervention didn’t ruin the effect. Ten games were postponed. Twenty teams didn’t play. On the eve of Jackie Robinson Day, baseball players were taking the cues of its namesake. They were beginning to realize that in baseball, the most powerful thing isn’t your arm or your bat. It’s your voice.
Over the past two days, as he prepared for his film to run Friday, Wilkins has balanced his excitement with the sadness that accompanies the shooting of Jacob Blake, the death of George Floyd, the acts that pile up and remind him what it’s like to be Black in America today. He sees the aspersions cast on the players who chose to postpone their games, the idea that just because they don’t know where this movement is going it blunts the impact or lessens the import. Change takes time. Organization takes effort. The NBA players did not become what they are — a group with clear, defined, actionable goals outlined Friday in their return-to-play plan — overnight.
“This is the age of player agency,” Wilkins said. “The last 48 hours — especially for baseball — is a clear indicator that there is a paradigm shift taking place before our eyes. It’s a long process. It’s a tough process. But we’re seeing professional athletes recognize their power and translate that into action and force conversations that demand change. In some ways, it has to be messy. It’s not easy. If it were that easy, we would’ve figured out all the answers. We’re learning in real time. We’re all learning in real time. I’m still learning. How do I use my voice?”
Voice, for his film, was important, and it’s why Wilkins was thrilled when he heard Betts agreed to participate. His role in the Dodgers’ game Wednesday against San Francisco being postponed cannot be oversold. Betts said he wasn’t playing. The rest of the team followed. Out of respect for who Betts is and what he stands for and how strong his conviction is. “It’s serendipitous and fortuitous,” Wilkins said, “that Mookie is at the forefront.”
Among Betts and Flood and the Black Trans Lives Matter sign, Wilkins said he’s trying to “represent stories and communities that need to be at the forefront of these conversations. I’m proud of that. And I’m glad MLB agreed with that. They didn’t have to. If we look at the history of things, MLB is taking a risk by showing these images. And I’m really appreciative they decided to do so.
“The last few days have been very conflicting,” he said. “On one end, the events going on are scary. They’re terrifying. They are reminders that others look at people who look like me as a threat when I’m no such thing. It’s made me hyperaware of where I am, how I behave, how people look at me, how they perceive me.
“On the other end, I have this film where I’ve been given this opportunity to tell this story that needs to be told. As a filmmaker, my responsibility is to tell stories that document the stories of our time with an honest perspective.”
That story, in baseball, is just beginning. There are more conversations to be had, more action to be taken, more allies to join. The systemic racism Randy Wilkins saw in baseball two months ago is far from eradicated and won’t be for years. But change starts with a player. A team. A day of protests, then two. With 87 seconds of purpose that show the past and present aren’t so different and that the gains made then were only the start.