Delino Diaab DeShields stands to the full height of five feet and nine inches that he has been given by God and the genetics of Delino Lamont and Tisha DeShields, and despite obvious discomfort, he does not look down at the carpet as he answers. Instead, the naturally introverted center fielder breathes deeply, faces forward into a small half-circle of cameras and recorders manned by about a dozen white and Latino reporters, and speaks. The words are slow, thoughtful, and measured. Even so, they are still shaking when they emerge, betraying the turbulence of their trip from brain to lungs to throat to recording equipment.
Delino DeShields is naturally soft-spoken, but he is honest. When he performed well enough to have earned playing time that never seemed to come earlier this season, he admitted that it was frustrating, but demurred to the manager’s decision, and promised to work harder, get better, provide more value. When that playing time came, DeShields did not gloat, but spoke about how grateful he was for an ability to help the team win. In every occasion, DeShields has been consistent with the media: friendly, unassuming, and willing to give an honest answer, in spite of what is a naturally shy demeanor.
Delino DeShields is also black. And this is the Rangers’ first home game after the President of the United States used a campaign rally to use the phrase “son of a bitch” about black athletes who were protesting police brutality and racial inequality by peacefully taking a knee. He then took to Twitter to rescind the White House’s invitation to Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors, due to their hesitation to been seen as supporting this controversial official. This is the first home game for the Rangers after many professional athletes responded in no uncertain terms to voice their disgust at the unprecedented nastiness aimed at sports, of all things, and black athletes, in particular. Delino DeShields, through no choice of his own, fits that description. So he is naturally the one that the cameras and the recorders will find as they seek to take part in the dialogue.
It is not DeShields’ job to educate us, or our cameras, or our recorders about the intention of a protest that he has not, to this point, taken part in. We have the words (and actions) of Kapernick himself, and of dozens of NFL and NBA players, and–as of this weekend–Bruce Maxwell (a proud American and son of a military family) to explain themselves and their motives. So make no mistake, DeShields is being asked this question not because he is known for being outspoken or politically active. We are asking him these questions because he is the black guy in the room. He did not summon us, and he is under no obligation to answer these questions.
But he does. He stands at five feet and nine inches and shaking voice and steady eyes and does his best to gently speak his truth into a volatile situation. He begins by acknowledging that he understands the backlash. That there are some who feel like it is an attack on their values, their country, the men and women of the armed forces. That is a common mis-framing of the argument, and he admits that he understands why people would be upset at that.
“(But) what these people are doing is not to disrespect the families of (military) people, it’s for equality of everybody in America,” he says. He knows that no matter how carefully he chooses his words, there will be some who will ascribe him to one side of the divide or the other and that will be the end of their consideration on Delino DeShields.
He did not ask to be the voice of African Americans in the sport. But if the black voice was to be heard, it wasn’t like there were a lot of others to which he could defer. That’s not just in this locker room in this state, that’s a sport-wide truth. Only 7% of MLB players are African-American. By contrast, the NFL is roughly 70%. The NBA is roughly 75%. And with white players largely refraining from joining the protests, It’s no wonder there hasn’t been more engagement in baseball this week.
“As far as being an African baseball player, there’s not many of us,” DeShields admits. “So if I was going to make a statement, I feel like we would all need to do something together, as far as making a statement and having it really make an impact. So, I’m not saying I’m against it, not saying I’m for it, but I support people who are doing it. For me, I think there’s other ways to go about it and impact our community, whether it’s going into our communities and talking, or social media.”
I ask him if he feels like he has the support of the organization and his teammates. He says that he does, and reiterates his feelings that he belongs here, and the loyalty to those who have made that so.
“Since the beginning, since I first stepped in the doors, it has always felt like a family. I know Banny, JD, everybody in here (I feel like) their son, or their family. So I’m not going to go out and do or say anything without talking to them first, that’s something I support; just to speak about it and have a conversation about it, to know how they feel about it. For people in this locker room to have some kind of understanding how I feel, because there’s not a lot of people that have to deal with the struggles and deal with the things that someone like me, in a different environment, has to deal with on a day-to-day basis, no one really knows. So to speak about it, to have that conversation with people, I think that’s important, and I think that’s what people are really striving for.”
And there it is. The evidence that Kaepernick, and every athlete that has followed his example, has been–at least to some small level–successful in his quest: those who would hope to let racism live unperturbed and unspoken are failing. It is a painful and imperfect conversation, but it is a conversation. It is many conversations, really–awkward, imperfect, painful, difficult conversations that might not have otherwise happened–but they are happening, person-to-person, between co-workers in every profession, including baseball.
“Yeah. I’ve had guys come up to me and talk about it, ask me how I felt about it," DeShields says of conversations with his teammates this week. "People have been talking. It’s not as deep as you may think, but it’s something. It’s something that somebody who doesn’t have an understanding from the outside wants to know. And giving them a perspective may open their eyes a little bit or give them a different perspective on things.”
When the National Anthem plays before tonight’s game, Delino DeShields may well remain at his full five feet and nine inches. But even though he did not ask to be the voice of a protest, he is having these conversations with the people with whom he works, plays, and lives for the better part of every year. He is not alone. Around the country, these conversations are happening.
I’m listening. Are you?