Jim Bowden must go

Comparing Players' Association head Donald Fehr to the Sept. 11 hijackers degrades the memory of the victims, and baseball too.

Published August 3, 2002 6:14AM (EDT)

Jim Bowden should resign, or be dismissed, as the general manager of the Cincinnati Reds.

When, in 1987, the Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Al Campanis went on ABCs Nightline and stumbled through an illogical, almost superstitious, explanation for why African-Americans didnt have the right "necessities" to become Major League Baseball managers (or swimmers, for that matter), it became unavoidably clear that Campanis would have to leave his job.

There was nothing irredeemable about the man; he had grown from the pure racism of first-generation Greek immigrants in New York, to become Jackie Robinsons first double-play partner in the minor leagues, and then to hire black men as scouts when no one else in baseball did this. He had grown. He had just failed to continue to grow. Al Campanis, in 1987, showed he did not understand the pain of a large segment of the American people.

But to say what Jim Bowden said, 42 days before the anniversary of what history may judge as the worst day in this countrys history, is to show that he did not understand the pain of any of our people after Sept. 11. Nor did he understand the not-inconsequential role his own sport played in assuaging that pain, both then, and since.

"If players want to strike, they ought to just pick Sept. 11, because that's what it's going to do to the game," Bowden said to a stunned group of reporters before Thursdays Reds-Dodgers game in Cincinnati. "I don't think there's going to be a work stoppage. I don't think anybody's that dumb. If they do walk out, make sure it's Sept. 11. Be symbolic. Let (Players' Association leader) Donald Fehr drive the plane right into the building, if that's what they want to do."

Sadly, baseball has an extraordinary closet full of unforgivable, anti-social, skeletons. Besides Campaniss remarks, there was the infamous interview Yankees outfielder Jake Powell gave Chicago White Sox announcer Bob Elson in 1938 in which he spoke of his off-season duty as a police officer who liked to crack the skulls of black men. Billy Martin alone produced dozens of remarks about women that ranged from the misogynistic to the pathological. The very team names of Atlanta and Cleveland speak to a lingering, institutionalized racism against Native Americans.

Yet all these things, however hateful and unpalatable, were to one degree or another limited. Al Campanis, Jake Powell, Billy Martin, and others who shared their stupidity or their anger still had loyalties to somebody.

After the impact of his pre-game remarks became apparent, the Reds issued a written statement in which Bowden was quoted profusely apologizing. He termed his comparisons "horrible" and "extremely insensitive." But unlike Powell, whom the Yankees escorted from tavern to tavern in Harlem to personally apologize for his skull-cracking remarks, and even Campanis, who faced the media several times before he resigned, Bowden did not even read his own apology aloud.

Instead of summoning up the courage to be enough of a human being to personally ask forgiveness for the pain he had caused with his indefensible allusions, he had somebody else hand out a sheet of paper. One feels that had Bowden chosen to stand up and breathe life into these flat words, the apology might have seemed sincere, the trespass understood, and the reaction limited to some brief suspension or leave of absence. Instead, Bowden has compounded cruelty with cowardice.

Management and players will be to blame, of course, if a baseball strike ruins this September. The additional irony here is that Bowdens team was in New York just last week, and the Reds players -- those selfish, strike-contemplating players who were on the other end of Bowdens Sept. 11 analogies -- acquitted themselves like heroes. Ken Griffey, often excoriated as the quintessence of the egomaniacal modern athlete, met the widow and orphans of Kenny Marino, a New York firefighter who perished in the collapse of the towers. Two weeks after the attacks, Katrina Marino had e-mailed the Reds, explaining her lost husbands fanatical devotion to Griffey, and asking if the outfielder could hit a home run in Marinos memory.

He promptly did just that.

As Griffey followed-up with a personal visit with the Marinos, his teammate Scott Williamson went to Ladder Company 2 in Lower Manhattan. Williamsons fiancie is pure firefighter stock  her father and brother each district chiefs in Cincinnati, another brother, a captain. They brought shirts and hats from Cincinnatis department to the officers of Ladder 2, who lost 10 men in the attacks. The New Yorkers, in turn, gave Williamson a cap, which he wore on the field that night. Scott Williamson is from Fort Polk, Louisiana, and lives in Friendswood, Texas. And he went downtown and cried as honestly as any native of Manhattan.

When I first heard Jim Bowdens remarks I was out in Queens, at Shea Stadium, not five feet from where a city cop stood sweaty watch over us useless lugs in the press box. On my way out, I passed a group of New York Emergency Medical Technicians. And as I walked to my home, I crossed in front of the firehouse that is literally next door.

I thought of all the men and women in this city, and in Washington, and Shanksville, and Boston, and Los Angeles, and San Francisco -- every city that lost somebody on Sept. 11. I thought of the families of the friends I lost, and all the families -- all of us for whom, in a sense, it will always be Sept. 11. And I wanted to ask Jim Bowden: Who do you think you are, dragging these unending tragedies down to the level of your greedy business?

By Keith Olbermann

Salon columnist Keith Olbermann hosts the ABC Radio Network's "Speaking of Sports ... Speaking of Everything."

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