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Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel

Image: Marco Torres

Note: After this story was published, Major League Baseball announced that Yuli Gurriel would serve a 5-game suspension in 2018 for his actions last night. He will also receive sensitivity training and personally apologize to pitcher Yu Darvish. Following commissioner Rob Manfred's decision, Astros' general manager Jeff Luhnow issued a statement supporting it, adding that "the Astros will donate Yuli's salary for these five games in equal parts to the Astros Foundation and to a charity directly supporting diversity efforts."

IT WAS THE FIRST GAME OF THE WORLD SERIES ever won by an Astros team in their hometown of Houston, and for that reason alone the night seemed electric, beautiful, once-in-a-lifetime. It was also a night in which the Dodgers, along with every other baseball fan in the world, suddenly seemed to realize that they were in the presence of greatness, that the Houston Astros of 2017, however they got here, had been forged out of a rare confluence of pitching and hitting, defense and poise, one that ultimately might be unbeatable.

And yet no thoughtful lover of the game of baseball or, for that matter, any fan of the Houston Astros, could come away from game 4 of the World Series, in which we triumphed 5-3 over the Los Angeles Dodgers, without profoundly mixed feelings. What should have been a night of elation and euphoria was hijacked by something that happened in the second inning. Two somethings, actually.

We are talking, of course, about the moments after Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel sent a fastball from Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish screaming into the Crawford Boxes in left field for a home run. The stadium exploded with cheers as Gurriel crossed the plate, and after the requisite high-fives and hair-ruffling that are a staple of Yuli celebrations these days, the Cuban-born Gurriel took a seat in the dugout.

There is much left to know about what happened next, but there are two things we can say for sure: Gurriel pulled back his eyelids to give his face the impression of an Asian one, and he uttered the world “chinito.” We know these things because they were caught on camera, and because Gurriel later admitted to both.

Robert Manfred, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, is expected to meet with Gurriel today, and also to decide whether and how much to punish him for the Two Things. In making those decisions, Manfred will no doubt need to consider more than what we now know for certain. He will need to consider, for instance, what Gurriel was trying to communicate by the Two Things. The immediate reaction of many, especially on social media, was that their use was intended to harm Darvish by mocking his looks and directing a racist slur at him. Gurriel himself, however, offered a different explanation for what he’d done. But this too permitted multiple interpretations. First, there was this:

“I was commenting that I did not have any good luck against Japanese pitchers in the United States,” he said through a translator after the game. According to this interpretation, the Two Things meant something like: Wow, isn’t it amazing?! I never do great with Japanese pitchers and tonight I did! That reading accounts for one of the Two Things (i.e., the word) but not both. If that’s what Gurriel was trying to communicate, why, one wonders, did he also pull back his eyelids? How would a gesture like that help him get his point across?

According to other press accounts, however, Gurriel also said this:

“Yesterday I was commenting that I’d never had any success against Darvish, and the gesture was saying that I wish he would look at me like one of them and maybe he’d throw me an easy pitch so I can do something.”

In this reading, the Two Things meant: That was great! Instead of giving me the hard stuff I usually get, Darvish pitched to me like I was a Japanese guy! Among the virtues of this explanation: it accounts for both Two Things.

Beyond what Gurriel intended, though, there’s also the question of context, and here we find valuable counsel in the words of Los Angeles Times writer Dylan Hernandez. In an article today, the columnist, who was raised by a Japanese mother and Salvadoran father, explains that the term “chinito,” while neither nice nor accurate (Darvish is part-Japanese, part-Iranian, and no part Chinese), is common in Spanish-speaking populations, and one’s use of it does not necessarily imply intent to harm. Moreover, he writes, “even racist-looking gestures, like the one Gurriel made, aren’t made with the same level of vitriol. Not close.”       

Importantly, Hernandez does not condone the Two Things. Indeed, he says that they come from a place of “ignorance,” and that Gurriel was right to apologize for them. He notes too that Darvish himself did not seem particularly offended by the Two Things. Like every other facet of this drama, however, Darvish’s reactions permitted multiple readings.

“When he’s acting like that, he’s disrespecting all the people around the world,” said Darvish with the help of his own translator during a postgame interview. “It’s not okay.” His meaning was clear: That was racist. That was wrong.

And that was also not the end of the story where Darvish was concerned, because the Dodgers pitcher also said this: “For me, personally, it doesn’t really bother me.” In addition, he later wrote “let’s stay positive and move forward” on Twitter, part of a statement remarkable for its magnanimity, especially given the immense disappointment Darvish no doubt felt over Friday’s pitching performance, in which he lasted less than two innings, gave up six hits and four runs.  Still, none of that seemed to impact his view of Gurriel, at least in this reading: Hey, this stuff happens. But let’s not blow things out of proportion.

That race is a complex issue in our world was never more evident than during last night’s World Series game. Though the Two Things lasted mere seconds, the full meaning of them could never be ascertained without, at minimum, a deep study of the man and the culture from which he hails, the Two Things themselves, what he intended by them, the context in which they came up, and probably lots more things we aren’t thinking of. But Major League Baseball doesn’t have time for such an inquiry. It needs to pass judgment on Gurriel’s actions today.

In the hours before baseball’s commissioner decides Yuli’s fate, more facts about the Two Things may emerge to impact that decision. But if not, we believe that he should be suspended from today’s game. We say that with a heavy heart, because everything we know of Gurriel—and we know quite a bit—tells us that he is a good and decent man, and we believe him when he says that he did not mean to offend. But we also believe that baseball’s special appeal among professional sports stems in large part from the MLB’s insistence on its players modeling good behavior. Right now, there are millions of kids watching Gurriel’s Two Things on YouTube and wondering whether, as Darvish might put it, such actions are okay. If the MLB imposes no punishment on Gurriel for them, the implicit message will be that they are. And they are not. Gurriel said so himself.

Forcing him to sit out a game would be painful for both Gurriel’s teammates and their fans, both of whom would be deprived of his superb talents at the plate and in the field. Would that be an easy thing to endure? Absolutely not. But here it’s worth remembering that as much as we love these guys, and properly so, there is another team to which all of us owe even greater allegiance than the Astros: the team of humanity. And in the end, that is the only team that truly matters.

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