What it really means when white sportswriters talk about lack of hustle

This is SO not on Gleyber Torres.

This is SO not on Gleyber Torres.
Image: Getty Images

The Yankees fell to 6-11 on Wednesday night with a 4-1 home loss to Atlanta. They got a grand total of five hits, and if not for Atlanta’s generosity in throwing away Tuesday night’s game, New York would be on a seven-game losing streak right now.

As it is, the Yankees have lost six of seven, are tied with the Twins for the worst record in the American League, and sit only half a game ahead of the Rockies for the worst record in baseball.

And it’s all Gleyber Torres’ fault, apparently.

Torres did not run hard on a check-swing tapper back to the mound, it’s true. You can understand his frustration, being 11-for-59 on the season with no homers and 15 strikeouts, while also struggling defensively at shortstop.

At the same time, it’s 17 games into the season. Torres is a two-time All-Star, already at the age of 24. He’ll break out of it in time, as will the Yankees from their teamwide malaise. It’s tough to watch in the meantime, but it’s just about patience.

Or, for Andy Martino of SNY, Torres can be made the scapegoat. The idea here is that “It’s not a birthright to start games for the New York Yankees, even if you’re one of the most talented players on the team. It might be worth a shot for the front office to remind the entire group that these jobs must be earned on a daily basis.”

That’s right, the Yankees should send Torres to the minor league alternate site, and install Tyler Wade, an objectively worse player, at shortstop, in order to cure their slow start.

“The Yankees’ problems are not nearly all Torres’ fault,” Martino wrote. “But he’s optionable, struggling, and showing a lack of hustle.”

The language of “not a birthright” borders on a dog whistle. “Lack of hustle,” well, that’s giving up the game on how baseball works when it’s time to find someone to shoulder the blame for an entire team’s woes.

Since the start of the 2019 season, here are players whose names have appeared in newspaper articles in association with the phrase “lack of hustle”:

  • Brett Gardner
  • Yasiel Puig
  • Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
  • José Ramírez
  • Jean Segura
  • César Hernández
  • Cleon Jones
  • Maikel Franco
  • Robinson Canó
  • Ronald Acuña Jr.
  • Amed Rosario
  • Steven Souza Jr.
  • Bryce Harper
  • Buster Posey
  • Manny Machado
  • George Springer
  • B.J. Upton
  • Gary Sánchez
  • Keith Hernandez

For Acuña, Canó, Hernández, Sánchez, and Segura, there were multiple references, sometimes not even to specific incidents, but to reputations.

A couple of those names also may stick out as not fitting a clearly recognizable pattern. Gardner’s “lack of hustle” in April of 2019 was described as “uncharacteristic” by the New York Daily News. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Chronicle’s reference to Posey was a caption, noting that Posey was “not booed … for his lack of hustle,” associated with a Sept. 15, 2019 column by Ann Killion headlined, “Why Giants’ Buster Posey still gets benefit of doubt in frustrating year.”

The other white players who have gotten tagged this way are Harper and Souza, both of whom were benched by managers explicitly for incidents where they didn’t go as hard as they could.

Jones’ inclusion, in a retrospective about the 1969 Mets, shows that the lens of “hustle” has been tinted for a long time, while the other long-retired player cited for “lack of hustle,” Hernandez, was specifically referencing the period of his career when he had a cocaine problem.

Is it really the case, then, where not hustling is an almost universally Latino issue, and when it isn’t, it’s highly likely to be a Black player not giving his all? Or is this an issue of perception from the heavily white media corps, not to mention the heavily white baseball executive and managerial contingent?

The Yankees have lost 11 of 17 games to start the season. There’s a lot of things going wrong with the Bronx Bombers. Yet the focus goes to Torres over his effort level on a nothing play in yet another dismal all-around game for New York on a freezing night.

This is what institutional racism does. It’s not that people are going out of their way to criticize Torres because he’s Venezuelan. It’s that the trope of lazy Latino players is so pervasive, an incident that got brushed aside for a white player two years ago as “uncharacteristic” becomes justification now for the idea of demoting Torres. If anything is lazy, it’s this style of coverage.

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