ST. PETERSBURG — As the most unusual of baseball seasons began Friday night in front of empty stands at Tropicana Field, players and staff from the Rays and Blue Jays lined up along the baselines from foul pole to foul pole, linked by a black ribbon before the U.S. and Canadian national anthems played.
As a team, the Blue Jays dropped to one knee, while most Rays players stood while holding the ribbon.
Similar scenes played out around MLB stadiums in the league’s unilateral attempt to acknowledge and support the Black Lives Matter cause and battle racial injustice following the death of George Floyd.
While the initiative is certainly well-intended, it also distances itself from criticism that kneeling during the national anthem is disrespectful and unpatriotic, an argument that’s been one of this nation’s most polarizing since former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the anthem four years ago for the same cause.
On Friday, after players and coaches rose to their feet together and dropped the ribbon, two Rays coaches — first-base coach Ozzie Timmons and third-base coach Rodney Linares — dropped to one knee again during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Rays shortstop Willy Adames stood between them, placing his hands on his coaches’ shoulders. Timmons and Linares were the only uniformed members of the Rays to kneel.
“I’m very close with them,” Adames said. “I support them, and I support equality and I think everybody should do that. For me, it’s pretty special that I can support two of my coaches. I’m just happy that I’m right there next to them so I can support them.”
Along the opposite baseline, four Blue Jays players — Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio, Santiago Espinal and Anthony Alford — kneeled during the anthem. Alford and Espinal also kneeled during, “O Canada.”
On the back slope of the pitcher’s mound, the MLB logo and BLM was stenciled in black. Players could wear patches that read, “Black Lives Matter” or “United for Change.” Some wore both, including manager Kevin Cash.
Players were invited to wear Black Lives Matter T-shirts in pregame. Nearly the entire Blue Jays team wore the shirts during batting practice, but Rays players wore their normal pregame gear.
“It’s just your choice,” said Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo, a former Rays bench coach. “So it was my choice to wear it. Whenever we have a Jackie Robinson (day) or (Roberto) Clemente (day), I support all that. So that’s why I’m wearing this shirt. ... Of course I’m supporting one of my players, Anthony Alford, that’s for sure.”
While MLB has launched many initiatives, Black players made up just 7.7 percent of opening-day rosters last season. The Rays have no Black players on this year’s roster, and Timmons is the team’s only uniformed African-American.
Opening day began with the Rays making an emphatic statement on social media, tweeting that it would be “a great day to arrest the killers of Breonna Taylor.” Taylor was a 26-year-old Black female fatally shot by Louisville police in March; no arrests have been made.
Minutes later, the team announced a $100,000 commitment to local organizations battling racial injustice: Tampa’s Corporation to Develop Communities, the Pinellas County Urban League, the Equal Justice Initiative’s Community Remembrance Project Coalition, the NAACP Hillsborough County branch and the Pinellas People Empowering & Restoring Communities program.
The Rays have been one of the more vocal MLB teams in addressing social injustice and through the team’s diversity and inclusion committee are dedicated to doing their part to initiate change.
On Friday morning, the team’s Twitter account also linked to a social justice resource guide on Twitter and in email, offering links to an equity grant program, a list of Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) businesses; educational resources, and organizations that deal with the issue.
“I feel good we are supporting all the causes that are out there,” Adames said. “If it’s gonna help the people, you know, I’m 100 percent committed to it. I think we should help everybody. We should help each other as a people. And, you know, nowadays, there’s a lot of things are happening and I wish we could help each other in a better way.”