The Trickiest One in the Deck:
By Neal Shaffer


The race card is the trickiest one in the deck. It’s been played to bluff so many times that it’s logical—proper, even—to greet its presence on the table with a measure of skepticism. Still, it’s no joker. There is a history and a pattern to discrimination in American business which demands that each case be considered to see if there is, in fact, any merit. Every once in awhile a situation arises that is, at best, cause to wonder, and at worst an example of the old way rearing its entirely unnecessary head.

Such is the case of former Toronto Blue Jays assistant general manager Dave Stewart.

Stewart, who is black, left the Blue Jays on Nov. 14th to become pitching coach for the Milwaukee Brewers. This is definitely good for the Brewers, but they shouldn’t have had the opportunity to hire Stewart in the first place. He had served as assistant GM with the Blue Jays since 1998. Prior to that he had a stellar major league career (four times a 20 game winner) and also a very respectable record as a coach. When he moved into the front office in Toronto it was out of an expressed desire to eventually become a GM. At one point he turned down the on-field manager’s position with the Jays to remain in the front office and wait for his chance to move up.

That chance came when the Blue Jays fired GM Gord Ash this past year. Ash had not done a terrible job, but the Blue Jays are a perennial third-place team. Stewart is a highly intelligent, articulate man. When he was a player he was known for his quiet intensity on the mound, a trait he carried over into coaching. In addition to being the Blue Jays assistant GM he had pitched for them, coached on the field for them, and been in charge of player development and personnel. He is, to put it mildly, highly qualified. Yet instead of hiring him for the GM position Jays president Paul Godfrey hired J.P. Ricciardi, formerly Oakland Athletics director of player personnel, who is white.

Normally, race should not enter into the equation at all when hiring takes place. Certainly, it should not be brought up after the fact to lend bogus credence to a batch of sour grapes. But the Stewart case is troubling. Why, one wonders, would an outsider be brought in when a perfect candidate already existed in the organization?

To hear Godfrey tell it the reason is that "Ricciardi had something no other candidate had—he had a game plan and a strategy both for the major league team and the minor league team." Stewart, on Chris Connely’s ESPN program Unscripted said that Godfrey told him it was a "gut feeling" about Ricciardi that led to the hiring. Regardless of which explanation you take something doesn’t sit right. How could a man with no previous experience, from another organization in another division, have a "vision" about the Blue Jays minor league teams? And although gut feelings can go a long way it doesn’t seem like it would be enough to stake the future of a baseball franchise.

What is usually the case in these situations is that the person doing the hiring simply has a personal preference for one candidate over another. And anyone who has had to work with someone they dislike can attest to the fact that it is much easier to get things done when you enjoy being around your coworkers. Ordinarily that would be all the explanation that is necessary. Business owners should be free, certainly, to hire who they please without somebody from the outside coming in and telling them that they are racist. That is not, however, what has happened here.

Stewart is not coming in from the outside—if anyone should know, it would be him. And his integrity and intelligence are unassailable. He is the sort of man to whom you listen when he is speaking. After leaving the Blue Jays he remarked, "They think the only people capable of doing these jobs are white people, not minorities." That alone is sufficient reason to take a closer look.

Still, if it was just Stewart, it could probably be explained. But there is a troubling trend in sports, not baseball alone, of white-dominated front offices while on-field talent is increasingly diversified. On the field it is absolutely imperative to have the right player at the right time. Performance is 100 percent of the equation, as it should be. That is why you can look at sports and see people of virtually every background imaginable. Why has this not spread to the front office?

To be fair, it is highly unlikely that there is any overt or considered racism at work. More likely there is a situation where ownership is simply out of touch—a lot of old white guys who have been around a little too long. Chances are that the situation will change slowly and eventually catch up. Nevertheless, the case of Dave Stewart should serve as a reminder that it is, and will be, necessary to remain vigilant.