It has been 3½ months since Adam Jones endured what he describes as “one of the worst nights” of his 12-year major league career.
Now, with the Baltimore Orioles‘ center fielder returning to Boston for the first time since a racial incident that rocked baseball, it’s fair to ask: Has anything changed?
In the 24 hours after being taunted with racial epithets by fans during a game at Fenway Park, Jones spoke out against intolerance and hate. He hasn’t discussed the incident since. Moreover, the Red Sox haven’t reported any instances of racism in the stands since the May series with the Orioles.
Still, in response to what happened to Jones, the Red Sox toughened their fan code of conduct to stress a zero-tolerance policy and impose the harshest possible penalties for violators. Major League Baseball also plans to implement a leaguewide fan code of conduct beginning next season, ESPN learned this week.
“I think as Adam Jones comes back, people are going to be more sensitive,” says Robert Lewis Jr., founder and president of The BASE, a program that leverages baseball to keep inner-city Boston youth out of trouble while providing athletic and educational opportunities. “I think people are going to be more watchful. I think people are going to be more careful.”
Says Red Sox president/CEO Sam Kennedy: “Our fans are conscious of this, and they recognize that we have a zero-tolerance policy and we are going to take action wherever and whenever we can. It’s an ongoing effort. There hasn’t been any follow-up incidents with respect to racial taunting that have been brought to our attention, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t happen again. It likely will, and we need to be really diligent.”
That’s especially true, Kennedy says, at this time in America, two weeks since the deadly rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and six days after a conservative “free speech” rally and a counterprotest converged on the Boston Common, less than two miles from Fenway Park.
If the Red Sox didn’t realize it earlier, the ugliness of the Jones incident helped reinforce that those deep political and social divisions within the country can also seep into sports.
FENWAY PARK IS notoriously tough on opposing players. But on May 1, in the first game of the Orioles’ most recent series in Boston, a few fans went way too far.
While playing center field in a 5-2 Baltimore victory, Jones was verbally abused with hateful language, including multiple uses of the N-word. Between innings, as he was running off the field and approaching the third-base dugout, a bag of peanuts was hurled at him from the stands.
After the game, Jones went public with what happened. The Red Sox swiftly apologized and denounced fan intolerance. So, too, did Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, players’ union chief Tony Clark and local political leaders, including Boston mayor Marty Walsh and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker.
The next day, Red Sox owner John Henry and Kennedy met privately with Jones and urged him to speak out. Jones — one of only 62 African-American players on Opening Day rosters and one of the more forthright players in the sport — held a news conference in which he talked forcefully about racism. Kennedy called on fans to report incidents of hate speech, and almost on cue, the team responded to a man overheard uttering a slur in the stands by banning him for life from Fenway.
Jones’ story — and the fallout from it — dominated baseball’s news cycle for the better part of 24 hours.
Then, it faded away.
Approached by an ESPN.com reporter this week in Baltimore, Jones politely declined to comment about his return to Fenway.
“I’m censoring a lot of my stuff now,” he said.
THE RED SOX — and Boston, in general — have a complicated history with race relations.
Not only did the Sox pass on opportunities to sign Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays, they were the last team to integrate their roster, finally doing so in 1959, 12 years after Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. Celtics great Bill Russell dealt with racism during his playing career. New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia said he has “never been called the N-word anywhere but Boston,” and Red Sox lefty David Price told the Boston Globe in January that he heard racist taunts at Fenway last season.
Some people in Boston, including former pitcher Curt Schilling, even doubted the veracity of Jones’ story.
“When it first happened, I was [angry],” Lewis says of the way Jones was treated. “But this idea that people were shocked that it happened at Fenway shocked me. Like, what makes Fenway different? What I appreciated is the Red Sox stepped up. They owned it. They didn’t hesitate. Because they have history, if they did less than what they did, they’d be in trouble. But I also loved what they said, too, that this is a societal issue that we all have to recognize.”
Kennedy, in particular, was mortified by the situation. Having grown up within walking distance of Fenway, he took personally the suggestion that Red Sox fans were more prone to intolerance. But he was also realistic about the fact that the 105-year-old ballpark, a civic treasure, isn’t immune to what’s happening throughout the country.
And so, the Red Sox responded. They added the term “hate speech” to their code of conduct and imposed the threat of a lifetime ban for bigotry. Ushers and security personnel were given additional training for how to handle future incidents, Kennedy says, and the team made it easier for fans to report violations by better promoting the number fans should text for security issues.
Henry and Kennedy met with staff and players — including African-American outfielders Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Chris Young — to solicit their thoughts and opinions. And just last week, Henry told the Boston Herald he plans to lead an effort to rename Yawkey Way, the street that serves as Fenway’s address, because it honors the racist legacy of former Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey.
“One of the things that Chris Young and Mookie and Jackie and [second baseman Dustin Pedroia] and [pitcher Rick] Porcello and John Henry, John Farrell and I all talked about was how the world has changed, at least in America, over the last 6-12 months,” Kennedy says. “We had the Adam Jones incident, and a lot of discussion grew out of that, internally and externally. Then we had the follow-up incident the next night. Then we had Charlottesville. The general sense that I’ve gotten is that there’s a willingness and a freedom for people to speak out, and that has changed the climate.”
With the Red Sox taking the lead, the commissioner’s office conducted a survey of all 30 teams about their policies governing fan behavior. Effective next season, MLB will implement a leaguewide fan code of conduct. By adopting a uniform policy, MLB is seeking to establish a set of minimum behavioral standards and consequences that are consistent for each club, according to a league source.
“We have certainly made the clubs more aware on this issue,” Manfred says, “and I’m comfortable, particularly in Boston, that everything possible will be done that we don’t have another one of those incidents.”
IMMEDIATELY AFTER JONES spoke out, his fellow players closed ranks.
Betts took to Twitter and encouraged Red Sox fans to stamp out racism by giving Jones a standing ovation before his first at-bat the following night, a request that was fulfilled. Young said he has experienced racism at ballparks during his 12-year major league career, an admission made by others around the league, including Sabathia, Miami Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon and Texas Rangers utility man Delino DeShields.
“It’s happened to probably the majority of black players in the game — and not just black players,” Young says. “It happens to Latin guys as well, or anyone who’s different from whatever the norm is considered to be. It’s very upsetting that it happens in environments where you’re surrounded by 35,000 other people. You have kids in the stadium. This kind of stuff is passed down. Hate is taught.”
Lewis says it’s incumbent upon fans to act as good citizens and speak up when confronted by hate. He also says he believes the best way to rid ballparks of social injustice is for the athletes to band together in protest.
“I think if a group of African-American players walked off, MLB would have to take a look at doing something,” Lewis says. “If Mookie and [Pirates outfielder Andrew] McCutchen, Adam Jones and even more start to speak out, I think they’d realize their power and effect. And let me tell you, who would follow them? It’ll be white superstars that will stand with them.”
What happens Friday night — and beyond — will tell us a lot about the state of America’s pastime.
“The important thing here is for the Red Sox to walk the walk,” Kennedy says. “What does that mean? That means we need to do everything we can to make people feel welcome. We need to be active in the community. We need to provide a safe and welcoming environment at Fenway.”