SAN FRANCISCO – Brian Sabean’s voice came through the phone with balled fists.
It was June, 2007, amid a warped season in Giants history when the pertinent fact wasn’t whether the team won or lost, but whether Barry Bonds nudged nearer to Hank Aaron.
Sabean was on a conference call announcing a deal that sent Armando Benitez to the Florida Marlins for Randy Messenger, a right-hander conveniently drawing breath. Benitez, the Giants’ overpaid and overbearing closer, had converted nine of 11 saves but blew one on a Tuesday night at Shea Stadium when he balked in the tying run.
Back home, talk radio imploded. The Giants were mired in the standings and the roster was a Potemkin village built around Bonds’ milestone pursuit. But Benitez was bearing the brunt of it.
Sabean was forced to play Pontius Pilate, and he did not hide his disgust over it. He picked up the phone for that conference call and barked out a clear message: If anyone thought the team jettisoned its only problem, they were sorely mistaken.
“I'll say one thing about Armando, he was strong enough to be the whipping boy,'' Sabean said. "We had three players who weren't available except for one at-bat (Tuesday night) and that wasn't Armando's fault. Tonight we had three hits and looked as dead as a doornail, and that's not Armando's fault.
“We're at a crossroads in my mind. Apparently the fans, press, maybe some people in the clubhouse felt he needed to go. We'll find out what they're made of now.
“We'll see who's strong enough to be the whipping boy now.”
Why bring up a 7-year-old conference call now? Because it’s happening again. It’s happened too many times already. Jose Castillo. Pedro Feliz. There’s an unsavory undercurrent of discontent with Hector Sanchez and to some extent, Santiago Casilla. (Did you realize he has a 2.10 ERA in 241 games over five seasons as a Giant?) And now, amid a roster of underperforming hitters, Pablo Sandoval is the one against the post.
Even if Sabean didn’t intend it, the term “whipping boy” is racially charged, plainly and painfully so. It’s just as obvious that even in an enlightened place like the Bay Area, it’s the Latino players that tend to draw the angriest dissatisfaction from the loudest fans.
It’s everywhere in baseball. Why does Carlos Gomez get plunked for flipping his bat but Cody Ross does not? Why does Yasiel Puig get excoriated for not running out a fly ball yet when Bryce Harper does it, and gets benched, people criticize Washington manager Matt Williams for overreacting?
Why was there enough demand, on the streets outside Wrigley Field, for vendors to keep stocking “Pujols mows my lawn” T-shirts year after year?
It wasn’t long ago that a local radio talker went on an angry rant about “brain dead Caribbeans hacking at slop nightly.” That host was censured, taken off the air and considered unwelcome at major league venues.
Now he’s back on the air, and in a prime slot. He’s human crab grass.
And he has been Sandoval’s shrillest critic.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you are a racist if you’re furious with Sandoval’s .171 average through 18 games. There are other circumstances, I recognize, foremost among them Sandoval’s past lack of dedication to conditioning. If you’re put off by the fact Sandoval turned down the Giants’ three-year, $40 million contract offer, that’s your right, too – even if recent free-agent contracts suggest his agent was reacting objectively to what Sandoval should command on the open market with a decent walk year.
It’s not as if white players haven’t been jeered mercilessly in a Giants uniform. Johnnie LeMaster wore “BOO” on his back. A.J. Pierzynski is still as welcome here as a canker sore.
I’m not pretending I’m any more enlightened than anyone else, either. There are times when I’ve reflected on something critical that I’ve written about a Latino player and wondered, in all honesty, whether I would’ve been as unsparing if English had been the player’s first language. A Latino player is less likely to read my copy, or have a family member call attention to it. On a latent basis, have I taken advantage of that, knowing I was less likely to receive a cold shoulder in the clubhouse?
When making comparisons between prospects and established players, have I tended to group them along racial lines? Did I once compare Jason Heyward to a young Willie McCovey because they have similar baseball skills, or a similar complexion? Have I ever been more likely to describe a young, athletic player as “gifted” if he were white and “raw” if he were not? As much as I disapprove of the ways I believe Puig disrespects the game, have I been over the top in my criticism of him because he cannot defend himself as ably as an American player could?
And did I overstep when I initially joined the Sandoval chorus, pointing out he had come to bat with 46 runners on base and driven in just four of them, while neglecting to point out that Hunter Pence has driven in just two of 43?
Even if the answer is no, it’s always worth asking the question. All of us, good people and not so good, small minded and broad thinkers, operationalize race on a subconscious level. It takes work to challenge our own assumptions and opinions, to scrutinize why and how we arrive at them.
In this age when technology allows reporters an exponentially wider amount of interaction with readers and followers, I have to continually remind myself that 95 percent of the audience forms the silent majority. And of the 5 percent who make themselves heard, the crank and crackpot contingent is disproportionally represented. A few dozen hateful Twitter mentions do not form a referendum on a Giants fan base that always has struck me as passionate, loyal and informed.
But when you hear that unsavory element, no matter where it comes from, you can’t just unclench your fists. As Sabean added on that Benitez conference call, “I don't take satisfaction in anybody's demise or inability to do their job.”
Is Sandoval strong enough to be the whipping boy for Giants fans now? Maybe. But he shouldn’t have to be. Nobody should.