Major League Baseball is 'failing' in its attempt to increase front-office diversity and the issue could get worse

This year marks the 70th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s breaking baseball’s color barrier, and the 45th anniversary of his last public appearance. He had accepted an invitation to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the 1972 World Series but had no interest in serving as a prop for the sport to pat itself on the back.

He stood dignified on the field in Cincinnati, in coat and tie, his hair turned silver, his hands clasped and his head bowed as he listened to Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, bestow plaudits upon him. Robinson then stepped forward to accept a plaque, and gave a 17-second speech that challenges baseball to this day.

“Thank you very much, commissioner,” he said. “I am extremely proud and pleased to be here this afternoon, but must admit I’m going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third-base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball. Thank you very much.”

Robinson died nine days later. By 1987 — 40 years after Robinson’s debut — three black men had been hired and fired as manager, one as general manager, and the number of African Americans in each category had returned to zero.

"If you were to ask me if I think we've made enough progress, the answer is no," the commissioner told The Los Angeles Times.

That was not Rob Manfred today, although it could be. Those were the words of Peter Ueberroth in 1987.

The gulf between the faces who play the sport and the faces who run the sport never has been wider. And under its current strategy, the numbers could get worse before they get better.

“We are failing in that regard,” said Tony Clark, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Assn.

In a season in which a record 43% of players are minorities, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, the Angels’ Arte Moreno is the only minority controlling owner.

No one who is not a white man has served as a president or chief executive of a team since 2011. And there are only three minority managers, including the Dodgers’ Dave Roberts, down from a high of 10 in 2009.

“There is a lot more that needs to be done,” Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s wife, said last year.

In seven of the past eight years, the number of minorities in control of a team’s baseball operations department has declined or stayed the same. This year, that number is three.

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In the waning days of the 2015 season, over the sounds of balls colliding with bats and landing in gloves, Chris Gwynn heard his cellphone ring.

He was on a field in Peoria, Ariz., working with a prospect in the Seattle Mariners’ instructional league. The Angels were calling. They were looking for a general manager, and they wanted to interview him.

“I kind of went, ‘Whoa. I thought this was already settled,’ ” Gwynn said.

Within the industry, Billy Eppler was widely regarded as a shoo-in for the job. In 2011, the previous time the Angels had hired a general manager, Eppler had been the runner-up.

“There’s always that thought: Is this a real interview?” Gwynn said. “There’s always that thought for minorities: Am I just checking a box, or do they really have interest in me?”

In 1999, then-Commissioner Bud Selig directed teams to consider minorities when filling vacancies for manager, general manager, assistant general manager, scouting director and minor league director.

With more minorities in the candidate pool, the logic went, surely more would get hired — maybe not after a first interview, but after a second or third interview they might not have gotten without the chance to make a strong impression the first time.

When he enacted what came to be known as the Selig Rule, three teams were managed by minorities. That number rose to five in 2000, seven in 2001 and 10 in 2002, a record tied in 2009. That same year, a record five teams employed a minority general manager.

Today, 18 years after the introduction of the Selig Rule, the number of minority managers is the same as when Selig imposed the rule.

“These things are cyclical,” said Selig, 82, who is in his second year of retirement. “I think we’re very much on the right track.

“Would you like it to be better? Of course. I hope you and I have the opportunity to speak five or 10 years from now. I think you will agree with me that this is cyclical.”

That opinion rings hollow to Richard Lapchick, the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. Lapchick, who has studied racial and gender hiring practices in sports for three decades, said the trend has lasted too long to be cyclical.

“I think baseball needs to be concerned,” he said. “Just bringing in a diverse pool of candidates has not produced the numbers they want.

“The number is low enough and has been low enough for the past couple years that there has got to be a way to come up with a bigger hiring pool.”

On Aug. 13, 2015, in his seventh month in office, Manfred announced that the league had retained Korn Ferry, an executive search firm, to prepare teams and candidates for interviews in jobs subject to the Selig Rule. The announcement said Korn Ferry would give “special emphasis to the preparation of minority and female candidates.”

Gwynn, brother of the late Hall of Fame outfielder Tony Gwynn, interviewed with the Angels six weeks later. He said no one reached out to help prepare him for the interview.

He said he thought the Angels were sincere. He talked about how he knew the market, by growing up in Long Beach and playing for the Dodgers. He explained how he would rebuild the Angels’ barren player development system, using his experience as a scout and player personnel director for the San Diego Padres and as a minor league director for the Seattle Mariners.

And, since former general manager Jerry Dipoto had clashed with manager Mike Scioscia, Gwynn made sure to point out he could get along with Scioscia. He already had. The men had adjacent lockers for five years with the Dodgers because Scioscia wore No. 14 and Gwynn wore No. 15.

That was Gwynn’s first — and, to this point, last — interview for a general manager job. After the Angels hired Eppler, Gwynn said no one reached out to offer ways he could improve his skills to remain atop the candidate pool.

Two weeks before the Angels interviewed Gwynn, the Milwaukee Brewers interviewed Tyrone Brooks, then director of player personnel for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Brewers were looking for a general manager too. Brooks, who like Gwynn is African American, said that Korn Ferry worked with the Brewers during the interview process but not with him.

The Brewers, like the Angels, hired a white man. Brooks said he believed the Brewers gave him “a full and fair chance” in his first interview for a GM job. But, after more than two decades of working his way up the front-office ladder with three teams, Brooks wasn’t about to wait around for a second chance.

On his own time, Brooks had developed a baseball networking group of more than 30,000 members on the LinkedIn website. He quit his job with the Pirates and went to work for the league.

He was tired of hearing about baseball’s diversity problem. He wanted to do something about it.

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As the ballroom doors opened at the Arizona Biltmore on an afternoon this February, baseball’s diversity problem was easy to see. It was Cactus League media day, when the manager and general manager of every team that trains in Arizona makes himself available to reporters.

The Dodgers — Jackie Robinson’s team — have a minority manager in Roberts and a minority general manager in Farhan Zaidi. Even then, the final say in the Dodgers’ personnel decisions rests with Andrew Friedman, the president of baseball operations.

The other 14 teams represented in the ballroom, combined, had one minority manager and zero minority general managers.

Manfred, the commissioner, won’t say what numbers might have been acceptable. “That’s called a quota, and that’s probably against the law,” he said.

The situation goes well beyond optics. Manfred last month introduced a 16-man committee to advise owners in “on-field matters.” The committee includes three owners, three team presidents, three baseball operations chiefs, four managers and two Hall of Famers.

“Some of the best minds in our game, from a variety of positions and perspectives,” Manfred said in the announcement.

The committee could examine the type of issue that was revived during this year’s World Baseball Classic: whether the major leagues should embrace the joy and flair with which baseball is played in Latin and Asian countries, where a bat flip might trigger a smile rather than a fight or retaliatory beanball.

But only two on the committee are minorities: one is Latino; another was born in Japan — Roberts, who grew up primarily in Southern California.

“Our industry, I believe, is suffering as a result of the lack of diversity,” said Clark, the union chief. “Diversity offers a perspective and experience that can be a part of the conversation and can’t be replicated any other way than to access the talent that has that history and that perspective and that experience.”

However, what is good for the game might not always be what is good for a team. An owner who appreciates the need for diversity might still decide a white man is the best candidate.

“I do believe there is something fundamentally American about the idea that the best guy should get the job,” Manfred said. “I think it’s very difficult to ask owners to do anything other than that. I think they have to do that, in a really competitive business.

“I think our job is to make sure you have a pool of candidates where there is a reasonable likelihood that the best guy is going to be a diverse candidate.”

That challenge is made more difficult in an industry notorious for breeding copycats.

The current trend of hiring for expertise in statistical analysis is so pronounced that when Seattle Mariners President Kevin Mather called the commissioner’s office two years ago to get recommendations for a general manager, he said he was told: "We're assuming you're looking for a younger, analytic guru, computer-nerd type.

“Everybody else is asking,” he said he was told.

Mather later said he “embellished a little bit.” Manfred said his office never recommends a specific person but instead recommends “a slate of candidates” diverse in skill sets as well as in racial makeup.

“The philosophy in this office is that analytics are great, but the best-run clubs have some combination of analytics and more traditional thinking, and who you want to sit at the top of an organization is a business judgment the owner needs to make,” Manfred said.

“It is really rare — a unicorn — to find the guy who is an A+ analytical, sabermetric guy and an A+ traditional baseball-thinking guy.”

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The rise of the “A+ analytical, sabermetric guy” has had the unintended consequence of altering the likely career path of a baseball executive.

Of today’s general managers and baseball operations chiefs, 15 attended Ivy League schools. Three times as many executives went to Harvard as played in the major leagues — two: Dipoto, the guy hired by Mather to run the Mariners, and Billy Beane of the Oakland Athletics.

Dipoto was 32 when his playing career ended. David Stearns was 30 when the Brewers hired him as general manager, the job for which Brooks had interviewed.

Stearns attended Harvard, interned with the Pirates, worked in the front offices of three other clubs and in the commissioner’s office. He might be the model for what has become an overwhelmingly white collection of young, highly educated, analytical executives who never played the game at a high level.

“I don’t think as an industry we’ve necessarily pigeon-holed it quite like that,” Stearns said. “The qualities that I think owners and clubs are looking for are people who have the ability to process large amounts of information, people who can lead organizations and set a culture of winning, innovation and collaboration.”

As a mission statement, that might sound perfectly suited for use by an executive search firm. But the skills that enable the chief executive of a clothing company to become the chief executive of a restaurant chain — the skills a search firm might focus on in finding executive candidates — are not necessarily transferable to baseball.

And, for all the publicity baseball attracts, the league is not a corporate behemoth as much as 30 small businesses operating in association with one another, and a fraternity of owners sharing recommendations. It’s an old boys’ network, even if the old boys recommend young candidates.

Turnover is rapid, the pressure to win is intense, and the mentoring that typically develops among junior and senior executives in corporate America is rare. An executive at Bank of America or Coca-Cola might nurture a woman or minority because the two might work at the company for decades.

“General managers have a shelf life of two to four years,” said a major league executive, speaking on condition of anonymity. “So why am I going to spend my time trying to develop somebody when I should be trying to figure out who I can get to play shortstop?”

In the current environment, hiring an analytically minded, highly-educated manager or general manager has become the safe choice.

“You can’t tell me honestly that owners don’t get swayed by public opinion,” the executive said. “When it’s their reputation at stake, when it’s their standing in the community, when you’re resting it all on somebody’s head that you’re not quite sure about, it’s going to take someone with a lot of courage.”

If the “best guy” for the job were going to be a minority candidate, the pool of candidates needed to be deeper, developed from an earlier age, equipped with relationships throughout the league.

“You’re only going to get a lot of really qualified candidates if you focus on what happens when they are 22 years old,” Chicago Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said.

Manfred decided the league had to develop the executives in much the same way a team develops its players. Korn Ferry had to go. Manfred took the mission in-house.

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The commissioner’s office did not shy from talking about its diversity dilemma. Manfred sat in a conference room at league headquarters in New York for a one-on-one interview. In another room, five high-ranking league executives spent an hour detailing what they plan to do about it.

Brooks was one of those executives. After the Brewers rejected him for general manager, he put that goal on hold and came to work for Manfred, to launch what the league calls its “pipeline program,” to get those diverse 22-year-olds into baseball, to get them trained, mentored and on a path to top positions.

Tony Reagins was another of those executives. Reagins, the Angels’ general manager from 2007-11, was the fourth African American general manager in major league history. He now runs the league’s youth programs.

Brooks and Reagins each started his baseball career as an intern — Brooks in baseball operations for the Atlanta Braves, Reagins in marketing for the Angels.

Eppler, the Angels’ current general manager, worked as an intern for the NFL’s Washington Redskins, then started as a part-time scout for the Colorado Rockies, making $5,000 per year. John Coppolella, the Atlanta Braves’ general manager, turned down a job at Intel for $90,000 per year to take a New York Yankees internship for $18,000 per year.

Internships are an important first step to building industry connections. Yet the recent trend toward hiring Ivy League graduates, most of whom are economically able to work an internship or two for near-zero wages, has amplified baseball’s diversity problem.

For the first time, the league is prepared to subsidize minority candidates who cannot afford to live on intern wages.

“We are absolutely willing to spend our money to ensure that individuals who couldn’t otherwise do so can take advantage,” said Dan Halem, the league’s chief legal officer.

Baseball now recruits minority candidates — at job fairs, career days and at baseball games among historically black colleges — promising a salary healthy enough to persuade them to choose a major league team over a Fortune 500 company.

“We’re in competition with Goldman Sachs,” said Renee Tirado, hired alongside Brooks as the league’s vice president of talent acquisition, diversity and inclusion. “We look at this as an investment.

“This is not an affirmative action program. We’re not going to target Latino and African American kids just because they play baseball and find a job for them. … These are going to be, as the commissioner says, the A+ kids. We haven’t been as proactive in getting out there and saying, ‘Come here first, before you go to Goldman, or you go to Google.’ ”

In his first year, Brooks said he placed 32 minority candidates with teams or with the league office. One is Andre Park, a Korean whom Brooks said he found working for the Seoul-based club LG Twins and placed with the Dodgers. Park is living in the Dominican Republic, assisting in the Dodgers’ video operations there and immersing himself in learning Spanish.

Under Brooks, the league has explored ways to equip minority candidates with skills that are in demand.

In March, the league paid the registration costs for 10 college students to attend the Society for American Baseball Research analytics conference in Phoenix, then arranged a seminar with the Dodgers’ front office. The league also has launched seminars on analytics, salary arbitration and waiver rules for the Buck O’Neil Professional Scouts and Coaches Assn., a group with a predominantly minority membership.

And, despite the decades-long good intentions of committees and task forces, no one had the authority Brooks does now.

Teams with high-profile openings must check with him for recommendations on minority candidates. Teams must submit to him a list of diverse employees with high potential and identify how that potential will be nurtured so they can be prepared for those openings.

“This is not a guarantee anyone will get there,” Halem said. “This is an opportunity to hold clubs accountable so the candidates have the opportunity to grow.”

Manfred defines success in baseball’s diversity efforts not by getting any particular numbers but by putting in a process that can be trusted.

“I want programs in place that ensure we are hiring enough qualified minority candidates,” he said. “I want programs in place in which we take people who make progress in the baseball operations area and work with them on their career path, and on rounding out their skills, so we know we are creating a pool of qualified candidates that are available to take those jobs. And then I want clubs giving a genuine opportunity to diverse candidates.

“After that, the numbers are going to shake out the way they’re going to shake out.”

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin

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