Tuesday, November 13, 2007

C.C. Sabathia, see what you have done

Congratulations to North Bay native C.C. Sabathia, who today was awarded this year's American League Cy Young Award.

The Cleveland Indians' ace posted a 19-7 record in the baseball season just concluded, with a 3.21 ERA and 209 strikeouts in 241 innings pitched, the most in the majors this year.

Sabathia becomes the first African American pitcher to win the Cy Young in 22 years, since the Mets' Dwight Gooden in 1985, and the first in the American League since Vida Blue won with Oakland in 1971.

With his 19 victories, Sabathia fell one win short of becoming the 14th member of the Black Aces, the elite group of African American pitchers who have won 20 games in a major league season.

Not too shabby for a kid from Vallejo.

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5 insisted on sticking two cents in:

Blogger henrix77 offered these pearls of wisdom...

I enjoy reading your blog...check it almost daily, as a matter of fact. I would be interested to hear your opinion on the following: Do you feel that by recognizing things such as "C.C. Sabathia is the first black pitcher to..." that we are, in fact, slowing the progress of all men truly being recognized as equal?

I realize it's not a simple answer, but I wonder if by constantly using race as a qualifier, we are perpetuating the notion that his accomplishment is more (or less, depending on perspective) impressive than if a white peer had done it. The obvious example being that if the announcement came today that Josh Beckett had won the Cy Young, surely no one would have said anything about him being the "first white pitcher since...".

I find that you usually have interesting insights on such things, and just wondered what your take was.

11:05 PM  
Blogger SwanShadow offered these pearls of wisdom...

Henrix: First, thank you for the kind words, and for the diligent readership. I appreciate both, very much.

Second: You've asked an excellent question. I'll try to offer a cogent answer.

In order to do that, however, I first have to correct a misquote in your question. I didn't write, "C.C. Sabathia is the first black pitcher to..." Instead, I actually wrote, "C.C. Sabathia is the first African American pitcher to..."

Perhaps that seems like a mere semantic distinction, but in fact, it isn't. Pedro Martinez has won three Cy Youngs -- two in the American League, one in the National -- since Doc Gooden notched his in '85. Pedro, a Dominican, is "black" but not "an American-born person of African descent," which is what the designation "African American" usually suggests.

Which just underscores the difficulty, doesn't it?

Now, back to your question. I don't know of anyone (anyone sane, at any rate) who'd suggest that C.C. Sabathia's accomplishment is either more or less impressive because of his ethnicity. (That word makes more sense to me than "race," which I believe is largely a canard. My biological mother was of German, English, and Dutch background; my biological father, African American. What "race" does that make me?)

The fact that there are relatively few major league pitchers of Sabathia's ethnicity, and even fewer who have won this particular award, is noteworthy. The first time a Japanese-born pitcher wins the Cy Young, it will be noteworthy. In my view, there's nothing at all wrong with observing such a fact -- and it is a fact -- any more than with observing that Sabathia grew up in a city in my general geographic region. (Which was, by the way, the first observation I made in my post. Did you notice?)

Had Josh Beckett won the Cy Young Award, it would have been noteworthy for a lot of reasons, but not because of his ethnicity. A couple of dozen Caucasian guys with ancestors from the British Isles have Cy Youngs in their trophy cases. ("The first white pitcher to win the Cy Young since... well... last year. And the year before that. Oh, and the year before that, too.")

Beckett's accomplishment might have caught particular notice, however, in and around Spring, Texas, where he's from. And there would certainly be nothing wrong with noting, say, that a Texas native won. (Although four-time Cy Young winner Greg Maddux, who's originally from San Angelo, has pretty well made even that fact old hat by now.)

The bottom line is that everything is noteworthy, especially when it's uncommon. We could have a lively discussion about the reasons why there aren't more African American pitchers in the majors, but the fact remains that there aren't many, and of the few there are, only C.C. Sabathia has won a Cy Young Award in the last 22 years. It's neither a "good" fact nor a "bad" fact. It's merely a fact.

Does my taking notice of this fact slow the progress of all men being recognized as equal? I don't think so, because I'm smart enough to know -- and I'll suppose that you are, too, Henrix -- that "equal" does not mean "identical."

I don't believe that we have to pretend that we are all exactly alike in order to treat one another equitably. My wife and I are equal partners in marriage, but that doesn't change the fact that we're different in hundreds of ways, not the least of which is gender. I'd have to be blind (in more ways than one) not to notice that she's not a man. :) Ignoring our differences is silly at best, and intellectually dishonest at worst.

Have I answered your question, Henrix, or have I only muddied the water?

12:41 AM  
Blogger henrix77 offered these pearls of wisdom...

We can say "black" or "African American". We can use the term "ethnicity", "race" or any other like-minded noun, but the point, or general idea conveyed, remains the same to the average reader...at least it does to me.

I agree with you in that certain accomplishments are noteworthy. However, I can guarantee you that while ESPN would certainly report that "Pitcher X became the first Japanese Cy Young winner", they certainly would not say "Pitcher Z became the first Cy Young winner from Spring, Texas". Why is that? Why is one's ethnic background noteworthy? Doesn't accentuating such things in today's society only perpetuate the notion that Pitcher X is somehow different than Pitcher Z (yes, I know we're all different, but is this really newsworthy to anyone other than geneologists and racists?)?

Perhaps I'm in the minority here (no pun intended)...anyone else out there have an opinion? As always, keep up the good work!

7:00 AM  
Blogger SwanShadow offered these pearls of wisdom...

First, friend Henrix, a quick point of order...

Because I make my living using words -- and perhaps because I'm an insufferable pedant at heart -- I tend to choose carefully the words that I use. As I've explained in my previous comment, the terms "black" and "African American" are not synonymous. The majority of the world's black (as we commonly use that term) people are not African American. Indeed, not all black people in the United States -- and certainly not all black baseball players -- are African American. I cited one example previously -- All-Star pitcher Pedro Martinez, who is black, but not African American.

In the same way, the terms "race" and "ethnicity" are not synonymous. I know thousands of people of the Caucasian "race," but they are not all of the same ethnicity. Most Caucasian Americans are, in fact, of multiple ethnicity -- for instance, my wife's ancestry is French on her father's side, German on her mother's, and English on both. As I noted before, my own biological mother, whom I never met, was of German, English, and Dutch ethnicity. That we lump most slavery-descended black Americans into a single ethnicity is largely because most can't effectively trace their lineage back to a specific African ethnicity.

My point being: The fact that many people conflate terms such as these doesn't mean that it's correct to do so.

With regard to the question of why anyone's ethnic background is noteworthy (going back to my original word), call it personal identity. Why do many Irish Americans celebrate St. Patrick's Day, or Italian Americans Columbus Day? Because their heritage is part of who they are.

Should we ignore or disavow such celebrations because they promote the notion that folks of Irish or Italian ethnicity are "different"? Heaven forfend! I wish my Irish friends well on St. Paddy's, and I salute my Italian friends on Columbus Day, just as I bid my Jewish friends "L'shana tova" on Rosh Hashanah.

One of the latter, my fellow savant Eugene Finerman, once referred to me as "the Black Prince of Jeopardy!" because I'd won more games on that program than any other person of similar background. Did I take offense? Not at all. (I thought it was hilarious. Apt, too.) I know that my ethnic makeup is not the only thing that's interesting about me -- as a person, or as a Jeopardy! champion. It is without question, however, a noteworthy truth.

In the same way, when I see a fellow from my local area being honored for his accomplishments, I take note. When the local fellow's accomplishment is especially singular because few of his (and to a certain degree, my) background have been so honored, I note that, too.

So, what think you, Henrix -- am I a racist, or a genealogist? :)

You see, it's all a matter of perspective. Some people believe that the way to harmony among disperate types of folks is to pretend that we're all exactly the same. Others believe that it's better to learn to accept that we are different, to understand those differences, and to celebrate them without allowing them to divide us. Count me in the latter camp. I'm confident that we can acknowledge the factors that make us distinctive, without using them as weapons.

In fact, that's exactly how it works at my house. :)

6:14 PM  
Anonymous DamonO offered these pearls of wisdom...

Have to agree with Uncle SwanShadow on this one. It doesn't in any way diminish someone else to recognize that a person from a certain group has made a great accomplishment.

For example, when someone is the first American to accomplish something worthy of note, it isn't demeaning to everyone who isn't American. We can respect our differences and still look at each other as equals.

10:53 AM  

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