In the weeks leading up to opening day 2020, the face of Black Lives Matter in Major League Baseball influenced the most prominent fellow protester to join in the most controversial of protests.
Andrew McCutchen encouraged former manager Gabe Kapler to kneel during the national anthem -- a hot-button gesture that McCutchen himself did not make.
On Thursday night in Los Angeles, Kapler, who now manages the Giants, became the first head coach or manager of a major North American professional sports team to kneel during the national anthem to protest social injustices endured by Blacks in America. It was a monumental gesture, endorsed by Cutch.
“Andrew is very influential for me,” Kapler told me Friday afternoon. “I’ve been having a lot of conversations and doing a lot of listening, figuring out ways I can help by amplifying the voices of the Black community. Andrew shared his perspective. He’s shared it consistently. It’s been very helpful for me.”
McCutchen and his wife, Maria, developed the pregame ceremony enacted in all ballparks, including the Phillies’ opener against the Marlins on Friday night, but that ceremony did not necessarily include kneeling. McCutchen is pleased that his counsel of Kapler produced such a brave and committed ally.
“That’s what we want. I’m not saying I want you to kneel; what I’m saying is I want you to understand what’s happening in our nation,” McCutchen said. He helped Kapler understand, and spurred Kapler to post a clear explanation on Twitter after the Giants game Thursday night -- at 4:02 a.m. Eastern time.
“Gabe, in his position, him doing what he felt ... was for him was the right thing to do. To speak out publicly and to kneel. That’s something that he felt meant a lot to him,” McCutchen said. “I commend him for that. I know Kapler enough to know that he’s not just saying it to say it. He’s going to be about it.”
Make no mistake: Kapler is all-in with BLM.
“My beliefs are that Black lives matter,” Kapler said about four hours before the Giants played in Los Angeles again. “My beliefs are that we need to come together as an industry in our communities nationally, and in the world, to promote diversity and inclusion. And I don’t think we’ve done a good job of doing those things in this country for a very, very long time.”
He paused, then went further: “I don’t think we have, to date, done a very good job of doing those things in this country.”
Would he kneel again Friday night? Saturday? Ever?
“I will continue to make decisions on a daily basis,” he said, and repeated the message he gives his clubhouse: ”Every day is an opportunity to make a decision, and to make a difference.”
The kneeling gesture originated in the Bay Area in 2016 with 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose protest earned him exile from the NFL for the last three seasons. Before Thursday, the only Major League Baseball player to kneel during the anthem before a game was former Oakland catcher Bruce Maxwell.
Thursday night, nine of Kapler’s players knelt with him during the anthem. They included white players Hunter Pence, a former Phillies favorite, and Mike Yastrzemski, the grandson of Rex Sox Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski. Dodgers outfield Mookie Betts -- the best Black player in the game, who just signed a record $365 million contract -- also knelt during the anthem. He was the only Dodger.
The kneeling was in addition to the scripted pregame ceremony McCutchen formulated.
As a wave of BLM-fueled protests surged across locked-down America in the wake of the killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta by white police officers, McCutchen discussed his plan to kneel during the anthem with Maria. Those conversations produced the plan that was enacted. “Its everyone linking together, unified, and standing for each other.”
He’d hoped teams would lock arms, as was done by several NFL clubs in 2017, but coronavirus protocols forbid touching. So, instead, team members stood and held a part of a black cloth that stretched from home plate to each foul pole ribbon.
In L.A., during the beginning of a recorded speech written by Andrew and Maria and recited by actor Morgan Freeman, players and coaches knelt together. Kapler, nine of his players, and Betts remained kneeling during the anthem. In Washington, where the Nationals hosted the Yankees, all of the players and coaches rose when the anthem was played.
The Phillies and Marlins did not kneel at all Friday night. That included McCutchen, who knelt neither during the ceremony nor the anthem; this was his plan all along.
The fact that McCutchen didn’t kneel did not detract from his message.
Three hours before the game, McCutchen, wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, talked about the ceremonies the previous day in D.C. and L.A. He said that, since the club reconvened three weeks ago, he and teammates have discussed injustice not just in the United States but all over the world; he mentioned the crisis in Venezuela in particular, homeland of teammates Jose Alvarez and Deolis Guerra.
A 12-year-veteran, five-time All Star, and 2013 NL MVP as a Pirate, McCutchen eloquently recounted how he has explained to teammates that protests during the anthem are not intended to disrespect the flag, the military, or law enforcement.
He relived conversations with people who share his Christian devotion but who abhor what they believe BLM to be. He talked about how has addressed the parallel but unassociated issue of Black-on-Black crime in American cities.
In short, he fully accepted his role as the voice of the movement in a sport in which Black people comprise about 8% of the work force. He realizes that he represents a minority during a major moment in American history.
“Some of those conversations are uncomfortable,” McCutchen said, “but there has been better understanding with each other.”
Kapler said he sought that understanding from literature, from articles, from former teammates, and from at least one former player.
“I’ve had extensive conversations with Gabe. I’ve been texting with him. Just about the moment,” McCutchen said. “He wanted to have a great understanding of what we’re doing as a whole.”
Mission accomplished, said Kap, thanks partly, at least, to Cutch: