Can you tell the difference between praise and ridicule? More importantly, whom do you trust to know the difference?
If you trust Tim Anderson understands how words work, then the Chicago White Sox star who dared to call out Josh Donaldson’s nonsense for what it is had every reason to fire back when the Yankees third baseman called him “Jackie”—yeah, like Robinson—twice while crossing the basepaths.
According to Donaldson, the “Jackie” quip was a reference to Stephanie Apstein’s 2019 Sports Illustrated profile of Anderson. Three years later, Donaldson seems to be hung up on a quote in the profile in which Anderson referred to himself as “a new Jackie Robinson of baseball.” (One wonders if Donaldson remembers anything else that was detailed in this profile, like Anderson’s extensive community work with Black kids in the South Side, or his desire to be a role model for young Black athletes.) Anderson said Donaldson’s shot was not only “uncalled for” but “disrespectful,” making it very clear that he saw offensive intent behind the comment. Donaldson maintained, both after the game in which the comment was made and in a statement five days later, that calling Anderson “Jackie” was a playful joke that Anderson was in on, a mutual “misunderstanding based on multiple exchanges between us.”
In a statement, Donaldson apologized to Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s 99-year-old widow, and her family for “any distress the incident may have caused,” but did not let his overwhelming remorse stop him from appealing MLB’s one-game slap on the wrist.
Donaldson is suggesting the opposite of what I ask you to do. He says you shouldn’t trust Anderson to discern between a joke and an insult, nor should you trust a man in his mid-30s to properly interpret the subtext of his own insult.
The only thing worse than the explanation was how many conspired to ensure it worked.
Yankees manager Aaron Boone stressed that he “did not believe there was any malicious intent” after hearing his third baseman’s explanation. Like a 49-year-old father rearing his 36-year-old child, Boone said he told the third baseman to “rein it in” next time. Days later, Boone reiterated he would not “get into anyone’s head and heart,” even when Anderson outright denied Donaldson’s claim that the two had ever joked about Jackie.
According to reporters on the scene after Saturday’s game, the Yankees’ lead spokesman urged them to include in their stories that Donaldson had called Anderson “Jackie” before, essentially running with Donaldson’s defense. The next day, after Anderson hit a three-run bomb to help sweep the double-header, the same spokesman told reporters that Donaldson “wants to know what you’re going to ask” before coming out to speak. (He never came out.)
Keith McPherson, an MLB Network TV and WFAN radio host declared Donaldson the latest casualty of cancel culture. “Tim has a problem w/ it now because they’re losing,” he tweeted, arguing that we should move on because Donaldson’s actions failed to rise to the severity of, no lie, inscribing “nigger” on an assault rifle used to murder elderly Black grocery shoppers. For McPherson, “real racism” can only be verified if it is pointed directly at your head, shooting you in the face.
Elsewhere, the New York Post’s Mike Vaccaro lamented that although Donaldson may be a “tone-deaf needler incapable of reading the room,” MLB’s one-game suspension would force him to “wear a scarlet ‘R’ the rest of his life.” I wonder if the league will slap Donaldson’s red letter over Donaldson’s Thin Blue Line sticker, which I saw proudly displayed at his Yankees locker on Wednesday.
To take these sorts of interpretations seriously is to buy into a perverse suggestion that Anderson misled Donaldson into doing a racism because he didn’t immediately throw hands the first time Donaldson got under his skin. They also ask you to accept that Donaldson is a professional and egregious irritant without ever stopping to consider what that fact really says about Donaldson’s character.
There’s a six-minute video on YouTube, titled “Josh Donaldson, the Angriest Player in Baseball,” which features just a few of his most famous eruptions and instigations. Watch that video and you’ll see him kick dirt on an umpire after feeling slighted by a blown call and shout, “Fuck you! Suck my cock!” at the Angels dugout.
We have fewer data points concerning Donaldson’s off-field demeanor, but the fact that he spent some time liking tweets in defense of Joe Rogan, which were sent after footage of the podcast host repeatedly saying the n-word emerged, offers some insight.
To be among Donaldson’s defenders is to walk a very narrow balance beam, but this situation has everyone doing their best Simone Biles impression. According to the pro-Donaldson faction, he blundered into unintentionally offending Anderson, but also knows exactly how to annoy opponents, but also didn’t mean anything by his latest provocation.
Players don’t always buy it.
White Sox catcher Yasmani Grandal told reporters that Donaldson “lives in his own world”—maybe one where actions don’t have consequences?—and expected him to “deny” the actual intent upon receiving any scrutiny. Donaldson shrouds himself in the plausible deniability of euphemism. He knows there will always be an army of fans and media and colleagues ready to defend his actions and his heart because they see his actions as an extension of their own. They know that rarely will the Tim Andersons in their lives dare to actually say something to their face.
As one of Donaldson’s former teammates put it to me, “He wants to say whatever he wants, whenever he wants. And then he either feigns ignorance or surprise when he gets pushback.”
“This MF stayed mad for three years about a quote from an article in 2019,” he noted. “The fact he got THAT mad about it and kept bringing it up to TA tells you everything you need to know, imo.”
I don’t know Josh Donaldson personally, but I know the type. And like Tim Anderson, I know what it’s like to be a Black man working in a predominantly white field. In the press box, professional wordsmiths know how to bring you down a peg with a little more subtlety, but like Donaldson, they know exactly what they are doing. Their preferred medium is less “fuck you” and more eye rolls and pursed lips, subtweets, and sarcastic quips wondering aloud if you belong. At one conference, a colleague gleefully assumed I’d be present to cover a diversity and inclusion panel. I can assure you it wasn’t out of a deep enthusiasm for my work.
Should I have cussed those people out? Challenged them to a fight on the spot? According to those who rushed to Donaldson’s defense, I forfeited my right to ever accurately describe those situations as demeaning and offensive the second I decided to keep my hands in my pockets.
People in my situation, and Anderson’s, have to pick our battles carefully. Because even when we decide not to, when we finally get fed up enough to describe the world for what it is and how we experience it, nobody wants to hear it. The Yankees fans who showered Anderson with boos on Sunday reminded me of that fact. The fans who chanted “Jackie” during his at-bats, obliterating Donaldson’s minuscule margin between subtext and text, reminded me that your words can be used against you.
I know how words work. Most do.