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For this Rays player, justice means more than national anthem

John Romano | You can agree or disagree with Garrett Whitley’s silent protest, but you should at least be willing to have a conversation before condemning him.
Rays minor leaguer Garrett Whitley kneels during the National Anthem before Sunday's exhibition game against the Braves in Port Charlotte.
Rays minor leaguer Garrett Whitley kneels during the National Anthem before Sunday's exhibition game against the Braves in Port Charlotte. [ Marc Topkin ]
Published Mar. 1
Updated Mar. 1

PORT CHARLOTTE — Hopefully, by the time you finish this column, you will be proud of Garrett Whitley.

Not because you support him. That would be nice, but it isn’t necessary. Not even because you agree with him. That, too, is beside the point.

You should be proud of Whitley because of what he represents. He is thoughtful. Hopeful. Committed and courageous. In other words, he represents the best of all of us, even if you decide you share little common ground.

Let me explain:

Garrett Whitley is, at this point in his career, fighting an uphill battle to reach the major leagues. A Rays first-round draft pick in 2015, he is still immensely gifted, but his star has dimmed a little due to injuries that have slowed his development.

Why is that important to know? Because it speaks to what he is willing to risk.

On the afternoon of his first game in a big-league spring training camp, Whitley on Sunday chose to take a knee during the playing of the national anthem. It was not the first time he had done it, but it was the first time he did it while wearing a Rays uniform.

This was not done lightly, and it was not done without a certain amount of apprehension. Before he made the decision, he spoke to first-base coach Ozzie Timmons, who, along with third-base coach Rodney Linares, took a knee during the 2020 regular-season opener. A little later, Whitley went to general manager Erik Neander’s office and talked to him and team president Matt Silverman about it.

His intent, he said, was to raise awareness about social justice reforms that are still ongoing in America.

“The reason people are kneeling and people are protesting and doing these things is to spark conversations,” he said after Sunday’s spring opener. “Hopefully, it encourages people to actually look into themselves and look into society and make changes.”

At this point, you are free to agree or disagree with Whitley’s stance. There’s nothing wrong with that. You can suggest his manner of protest was disrespectful, and that’s a perfectly understandable position based on your life experiences.

Which, of course, is why Whitley is doing this in the first place. A protest without dialogue is meaningless. In essence, Whitley is willing for you to get angry at him if it means you might take a moment to consider why he is doing it.

And Whitley understands the stakes. There were a smattering of boos when he came to the plate later in Sunday’s game, but that’s the least of his problems.

With minor-league baseball put on hold last season due to the coronavirus pandemic, Whitley went to play for an independent team about an hour north of New York City. He played a dozen games for the Rockland Boulders and hit .227 with three homers before being released. Whitley, who turns 24 in a couple of weeks, said he suspects his release was because he began kneeling during the anthem.

Boulders teams president Shawn Reilly said in an email Sunday evening that Whitley’s release had nothing to do with his protest. Reilly said Whitley had been signed as a favor to the Rays, and the Boulders’ personnel staff was unhappy that an outfielder on loan was taking at-bats away from players who were going to be returning to the team in 2021.

Regardless of the reasons for his quick exit, Whitley was at least cognizant of the potential ramifications, and he knew he was taking a risk by continuing his protest in 2021, which is why he first spoke to Neander and Silverman.

“Knowing what we know about Garrett and the person he is, knowing that he is an A-plus human being, knowing he put a lot of thought into this, we wanted to make it very clear to him that he had our backing and full support if this was something he wanted to do,” Neander said. “Clearly, by way of him coming to us, this is incredibly important to him.

“We didn’t have a lot of opportunity to discuss it before the game, but we did express a desire to have plenty of follow-up conversations to listen, learn and best understand his perspective.”

Whitley, whose mother is white and father is Black, said Sunday he had not decided if he would continue to protest before every game, but said he was heartened by the response of Rays officials.

“I’m not really that vocal. I’m more of a quiet guy usually, especially when it comes to stuff like this, but it’s just too important not to say anything,” Whitley said. “Last summer this was huge. You couldn’t go online without seeing something. As time went on, you started to see less and less of it, and I don’t want people to forget.”

If you are angry about this, I have no right to scold you. But I would ask that you at least consider the ramifications. Are you upset because you believe Whitley was disrespectful? Because he protested silently and peacefully?

Because there is a flip side to that. He is protesting because statistics say Black people are treated differently in the criminal justice system in America, and he is willing to risk your wrath to draw attention to that.

Agree or disagree with him, that’s an admirable and courageous gesture.

In its own way, it is the best part of America.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.