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MLB continues to bet on diversity

In Vegas, winter meetings highlight off-field opportunities

LAS VEGAS — These aren’t your father’s winter meetings.

Agents, team operatives, reporters, fans and the occasional player mill about a hotel lobby at what is effectively baseball’s national conference. Typically, it’s a sea of white men, the gatekeepers, who do things such as elect players to the Baseball Hall of Fame and discuss what’s to come during the upcoming campaign. But if this year’s proceedings are any indication, baseball in all its dealings is getting browner and more female from the inside out.

Two black guys, Harold Baines and Lee Smith, were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Danny Montgomery of the Colorado Rockies was named East Coast scout of the year. The diversity and inclusion department launched a series it dubbed “unfiltered,” featuring front-office personnel who talked about their atypical routes into the bigs. The league held a two-day event on women’s roles in professional baseball, courtesy of the Diversity Pipeline Program, which was begun two years ago and has helped place 86 people in entry-level roles in baseball, according to Major League Baseball.

One panel featured Ehsan Bokhari, director of research and development for the Houston Astros, who holds undergraduate degrees in psychology and math, a master’s degree in statistics and a doctorate in quantitative psychology; Emilee Fragapane, coordinator for performance science with the Dodgers, who has an economics degree; and Andrew Koo, an analyst for the Texas Rangers, who just started playing softball recreationally last year. Clearly, some franchises are operating well outside of the box when it comes to their approach to winning.

“Everyone I work with at the Rangers, we’re all passionate, we have a common goal,” Koo said. “And then when I meet analysts from other teams, we don’t have a common goal, we have shared experiences. Being able to talk about those in a somewhat limited way [is nice], but also just like share other interests.

“We’re still people, we still have other interests. Baseball’s one thing we love, but we love other stuff, too, right? We all come from different backgrounds. I’m just an Asian kid who grew up in Toronto who loves sports and food.”

Ten years ago, that guy’s not working in the bigs.

On the business side, when it comes to procurement, the field widens considerably. The league takes supplier diversity as seriously as it does actual baseball matters. Everything that goes into an MLB stadium comes from somewhere, and who gets those contracts is determined by each team. At one point, I was sitting at a table with representatives from two teams: three women, one black man. A young brother was pitching his company to them as a way to streamline their energy output. It was quite the sight. But these individuals were all invited by the league.

Meaning, while plenty diverse, the competition for jobs is still pretty cutthroat. Corey Smith, MLB senior director of supplier diversity and strategic sourcing, explained how MLB hopes to connect to more people than players to create fans.

“For us it’s really about how do you stimulate entrepreneurship,” Smith said during the breakout session. “When I was growing up, it was go to school, go to college, go get a job. I’ve taught my own kids, go to school, go to college, create your own job. So, the fact that these folks have taken that step of entrepreneurship and creating their own companies and successful companies, that they can handle a contract from MLB, why not assist them in growing that business even further. I think there’s a translation to loyalty. So, if you knew I supported you, I would like to believe in turn that you would support me. We want fans, we want people to appreciate the game, what better way to do that than say, hey, we’re supporting businesses that are in your community.”

Whether any of this makes you feel better is up for debate. I’m not so sure that knowing a minority-owned company installed the thousands of light bulbs at the local ballpark is going to suddenly make black folks more interested in baseball. But from a simple business standpoint, it’s the right thing to do.

And none of this suddenly means that the numbers at the highest level of the game on the field are going to change either. But the culture of baseball and its industry is not only about balls and strikes.

The trade show was starkly less diverse than nearly every other event of the weekend. I counted one Japanese guy with a bobblehead company and a Mexican former pro player with a bat company as the only nonwhite operators there.

“The Major Leagues have been around for 100 years. You can see where there are sprinkles of diversity within the organization,” Kenyatta Lewis, executive director, supplier diversity and sustainability for MGM Resorts, said. “I think we could always do better. It’s not just one specific segment, not just the African-American segment. Our society is moving to majority-minority and it’s not just one specific ethnic group. But it is great to see that corporations have programs like this, so that you have an entry port that says it’s welcomed.”

Besides the official proceedings, there’s a job fair. People pay a couple of hundred bucks just to be a part of the proceedings, never mind whatever it took to get them there and find a place to stay. There, job seekers find a big room with a physical job board, in which major and minor league teams have put up sheets of paper advertising their gigs. Ticket sales, turf management, stadium operations, social media, marketing, promotions, etc. Baseball operations is particularly popular since everyone wants to be as close to the game as possible.

Sam Gonzalez was in Vegas with a friend he met at an internship in Los Angeles. A Boston fan from Miami (his fandom traveled with the team when Josh Beckett went to the Red Sox), he has a law degree and initially was going to pursue being a sports agent. He just passed the bar and lives at home, like many other 24-year-olds. Now, he’s looking for a position in baseball ops.

“The industry of baseball for the longest time has had the appearance of old white men sitting at the top in power. By power I mean they run the league or they run a team,” Gonzalez said. “But there’s 30 major league clubs and there’s 160 minor league teams. That is a side that a lot of people don’t see. And I think underneath the very high-level execs, the gates are very locked. Beneath all that security in power, the game is very diverse, I’ve found.”

A quick scan of the available openings doesn’t exactly produce what appears to be a windfall, either. Quite a few positions are seasonal, unpaid, or only provide a monthly stipend. While much of the league’s efforts around diversity are related to getting into the game via paths other than the playing field, it’s not that easy to make a living. But the effort is noticeable.

The rosters were integrated first in baseball. The rest of the game is still catching up. But judging from a few days in the desert, MLB is giving it an honest effort and it’s working.

Clinton Yates is a tastemaker at The Undefeated. He likes rap, rock, reggae, R&B, and remixes — in that order.