Fegan: In flap with Tim Anderson, there’s little reason to take Josh Donaldson at his word

Josh Donaldson ain’t got it like that with the Chicago White Sox, as he should well know.

It’s only been a week since a bench-clearing argument and shoving match with Tim Anderson, stemming from a physical tag attempt at third base. It’s been less than a year since Donaldson initiated an argument with White Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito, a close friend of Anderson’s, that culminated in a parking-lot confrontation that multiple people with the White Sox felt Donaldson misrepresented to reporters the following day. And four years ago, Donaldson took issue to an inordinate degree, with White Sox first base coach Daryl Boston using a whistle to celebrate good defensive plays.

All told, Donaldson seems a lot more likely to bump into a member of the White Sox roster who has made their dislike of him known — even former teammates of his — than anyone who’d enjoy a well-timed inside joke with him during a game. And it was in this environment that Donaldson admitted he called Anderson, one of the most prominent, celebrated and scrutinized members of a sadly dwindling supply of Black American MLB players, “Jackie.”

It was, and was interpreted as, a reference to Jackie Robinson. And by the two bench-clearing arguments it spurred and Anderson’s postgame comments, it called to mind a long history in this country of racial minorities being derisively referred to by the names of celebrities of the same race — often implying that racial minorities are an indistinguishable and largely irrelevant monolith to the person casting the insult. That this instance referenced the Black American who desegregated a sport in the face of fierce and long-enduring resistance, only made it more pointed.

Comedians who misread their audience this poorly usually leave the stage shortly afterward.

“He made a racist comment,” said manager Tony La Russa, making a point of being as direct as possible while speaking to reporters, including the Chicago Sun-Times’ Daryl Van Schouwen and the Chicago Tribune’s LaMond Pope.

“It was disrespectful,” Anderson said to reporters, indicating that Donaldson said it a second time later in the game, even after an initially frosty reception.

“This game went through a period of time a lot of those comments were made, and I think we’re way past that,” Yasmani Grandal told reporters, saying that Donaldson denied the incident when he confronted him in the fifth inning. “I guess he lives in his own world.”

Since, by Grandal’s own description, he didn’t even let Donaldson step into the batter’s box before beginning a substantial explanation of how he was in the wrong, Donaldson’s tone of surprise in his postgame comments strains credulity, like most of his explanation.

“(In) 2019, he came out with an interview, said that he’s a new Jackie Robinson of baseball, he’s going to bring back fun for the game,” Donaldson said. “(In) 2019, when I played for Atlanta, we actually joked about that (in) the game. I don’t know what’s changed. I’ve said it to him in years past, not in any manner than just joking around.

“If something has changed from that, my meaning of that is not by any turn trying to be racist by any fact of the matter,” Donaldson continued. “Obviously, he deemed that it was disrespectful. And look, if he did, I apologize. That’s not what I was trying to do.”

I’ll admit, after the initial shock of what Anderson revealed Donaldson said to him, my mind quickly went to Stephanie Apstein’s 2019 Sports Illustrated profile. It initially seemed far-fetched that Donaldson was referencing a three-year-old piece of carefully crafted long-form sports journalism. But a quote from it did get wildly circulated, out of context, among many who felt Anderson was overstating the burden of being an ebullient Black player in a sport with a culture that champions stoicism and adherence to decorum over expression and joy.

“I kind of feel like today’s Jackie Robinson,” he said in the piece. “That’s huge to say. But it’s cool, man, because he changed the game, and I feel like I’m getting to a point to where I need to change the game.”

It seems ill-advised to take Donaldson at his word on his intent. Anderson certainly didn’t, and he is probably the biggest expert in the world on the nature of his relationship with Donaldson. None of the people who work and travel alongside Anderson seemed to either.

But for the sake of exercise, let’s ground the analysis of Donaldson’s comments in the idea that it’s a reference to the Sports Illustrated story. In it, Anderson discusses his reverence and gratitude for Jackie Robinson’s career and legacy. He ruminates on the lonely nature of being a Black American in the current MLB landscape and the alienation he feels from its culture, especially in the wake of being suspended for the use of the N-word — an act that displayed the lack of understanding of the word, its power and its context by the league’s leadership. Anderson even discusses, in detail, the personal tragedy that helped trigger his awakening as a more prominent voice in the sport, and how in spite of all these factors, he was emboldened to encourage children of similar backgrounds who had suffered similar tragedies to follow in his path.

Maybe Donaldson thinks that is a good jumping-off point for a joke. But he should have reconsidered.

Because after Saturday, it’s pretty clear that he ain’t got it like that. And I’m willing to bet he already knew.

(Photo: Sarah Bull / Getty Images)

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