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Race doesn't appear to be a factor in continued unemployment of aging baseball stars

Presumably, the career will end in near total silence. No final ovation. No team president bearing farewell gifts in a ceremony at home plate.

As of now, Gary Sheffield's final appearance in a big-league game was an intentional walk in a Mets loss at Washington on Sept. 30. Lower back spasms had cost him most of the final month of the season, and an unconsummated trade to the Giants had robbed him of much of his joy for the game.

Now, months later, his 22-year major-league career could be at an end. The season has begun, and Sheffield remains at home in Tampa Bay. He is 311 hits shy of 3,000. He is 13 home runs from surpassing Mel Ott, Eddie Mathews, Ernie Banks and Ted Williams on the all-time list.

It seems major-league baseball is in no hurry to bring Sheffield back to the game. And that is unfortunate. It is sad.

But, as has been suggested, is it racism?

• • •

It was on this day, April 15, that Jackie Robinson forever changed the face of sports. The day he stepped on the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers was the day African-Americans had a reason to believe in a future with fewer walls.

Yet, 63 years later, there are some who contend major-league baseball still has a problem with African-American players. Angels outfielder Torii Hunter recently suggested baseball fills its quota of "dark faces" by signing Latin Americans instead of African-Americans.

And on Monday, Twins second baseman Orlando Hudson hinted that baseball teams go out of their way to ignore black players near the end of their careers.

"You see guys like Jermaine Dye without a job. Guy with (27 home runs and 81 RBIs) and can't get a job. Pretty much sums it up right there, no?" Hudson told Yahoo Sports. "You've got some guys who miss a year, and who can come back and get $5 to $6 million, and a guy like Jermaine Dye can't get a job. A guy like Gary Sheffield, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, can't get a job.

"We both know what it is," Hudson told reporter Jeff Passan. "You'll get it right. You'll figure it out. I'm not gonna say it because then I'll be in (trouble)."

Is there racism in baseball? Absolutely. There is racism virtually everywhere in America, so why would major-league baseball be excluded? The question is, how is that racism manifested?

Is it simply the infielder who never bothers to invite a teammate of color to play golf at his country club? Or is racism so ingrained that an entire league of owners and executives would intentionally decide to ignore older African-American players?

In this case, I would respectfully suggest that Hudson is wrong.

The reason Dye does not have a contract, the reason Sheffield's career may be over, has more to do with age. It has more to do with refusing to accept a lesser role. It has more to do with sabermetrics than racism.

Consider the case of free-agent outfielders Mike Cameron and Dye:

One is 37, the other is 36. Both hit .250 last season. One had an on-base percentage of .342 and a slugging percentage of .452. The other had an on-base percentage of .340 and a slugging percentage of .453. Both are African-American.

Yet Cameron got a two-year contract for $15.5 million, and Jermaine Dye is still at home.

The difference?

Cameron is an exceptional centerfielder whose offense has remained consistent for more than a decade. Dye is a corner outfielder whose defensive skills are waning, and who had a horrible time offensively in the second half of 2009.

The reality is very few players age 36 and above are hot commodities on the free-agent market these days. Dye was offered a one-year, $3 million contract by the Cubs and turned it down because he wanted more money and a greater commitment toward playing time.

Only five position players of similar age signed contracts for higher money per year than what Dye was offered. One was from Venezuela. One was from Japan. One was from the Dominican Republic. One is of Caucasian and Thai heritage. And one was African-American.

That will not go down as Exhibit A for Hudson's suggestion of racism.

Looking at free-agent position players who would be 36 or older this season, I found 29 who had signed contracts. And the ethnic profiles of those 29 players is quite similar to the overall makeup of the league.

According to a study by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, white players made up 60.4 percent of the league in 2008. And they accounted for 55.1 percent of those veteran free-agent signings. Latin American players made up 27 percent of the league. And they accounted for 27.5 percent of those free agents. African-Americans made up 10.2 percent of the league. And they accounted for 13.7 percent of those free agents.

The comparisons are not perfect because, looking at Dye and Sheffield, I focused on position players. Still, it is an indication that older African-American players do not appear to have been systematically snubbed.

• • •

The case of Gary Antonian Sheffield is more complicated than most.

It is true he has numbers worthy of the Hall of Fame. And Sheffield performed reasonably well for the Mets last season, even if he is a liability on defense and was clearly not worth the $41 million he was paid from 2007-09.

The problem is Sheffield, who did not respond to text messages, has never been shy about complaining about his salary or his place on a team. And the last thing a GM wants is a 41-year-old who no longer realizes he is a role player with a salary to match.

Ken Griffey, 40, signed a one-year, $2.35 million deal with the Mariners this season, but he is an icon in Seattle. Sheffield never spent enough time in any city to warrant that type of sentimental contract at the end.

So, yes, the idea Sheffield did not get a fitting farewell from baseball is unfortunate. It is sad.

But I do not think it was sinister.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

fast facts

Over the hill

Once a position player passes his 36th birthday, it is not easy to cash in on a free-agent contract. Only a handful were offered as much per season as the one-year, $3 million offer Jermaine Dye received (and turned down) from the Cubs.

Player Age Contract Background

Bobby Abreu 36 2yr/$19.0 Venezuelan

Mike Cameron 37 2yr/15.5 African-American

Johnny Damon 36 1yr/8.0 Multi-racial

Hideki Matsui 36 1yr/6.0 Japanese

Miguel Tejada 36 1yr/6.0 Dominican

Jason Kendall 36 2yr/6.0 White

Ivan Rodriguez 38 2yr/6.0 Puerto Rican

Race doesn't appear to be a factor in continued unemployment of aging baseball stars 04/14/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 14, 2010 11:15pm]

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