A mid-August game at Citi Field between the Pirates and the Mets involved good friends and good baseball. It also involved, in our section, a racial moment.
Two young men brought a flag of the Republic of Korea to the game, standing quietly to display the flag each time Pirates’ rookie Jung-ho Kang came to bat.
For much of the game their simple action to honor Kang – who was born in Gwangju and played in the Korean Baseball Organization – went without comment.
When Kang came to bat in the 10th inning, the young men stood again with the flag. This time a number of people in the crowd responded by chanting, “U.S.A.!”
Kang got a hit, but the inning ended with a strikeout and Kang being tagged out in a rundown between first and second.
The chants of “U.S.A.!” began again. It was a moment to mock the Korean fans and the Korean player.
Then a young man took the flag and tossed it away from its owners. Clearly most of those in attendance did not agree, as other fans quickly returned the flag, but the ugly moment of racism remains.
The chanting and the actions represented an effort to support the Mets in a close game. To an extent, beer may have fueled them. But they were rooted in racism.
Racial prejudice and racism have intertwined with baseball, as they have with all of U.S. culture.
Major League Baseball (MLB) excluded black players until Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby broke the pattern of segregation.
Their great courage, with the support of some players and individuals in management, allowed them to endure the hatred of individuals and discriminatory policies, such as not being able to stay at the same hotels and eat at the same restaurants as their teammates.
Henry Aaron endured hate mail and death threats as he chased and broke the home run record.
Roberto Clemente faced prejudice and discrimination while he established himself as one of the first baseball stars from Puerto Rico.
At his career’s beginning, sportswriters who spoke no Spanish mocked Clemente as he struggled to learn English, his second language.
In some ways, baseball in the U.S. has challenged prejudices and stereotypes, and seen some elements of racism dismantled.
And while baseball may be a national pastime in the U.S., it has become an international game.
We still speak about the MLB championship as the World Series even though baseball leagues exist in Cuba, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Taiwan, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and elsewhere.
Between 1992 and 2008, teams competed five times in baseball during the Summer Olympics. Cuba won three times; the Republic of Korea once. The U.S. took the fifth gold medal in 2000.
Three World Baseball Classics have been held. Japan has won two; the Dominican Republic one; the U.S. has failed to medal.
International players fill the rosters of MLB teams. The Mets current active roster, for example, includes players from Cuba, Panama, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.
Yet when two young men seek to honor a player from the Republic of Korea, they are met with taunting and disrespect of their flag.
The words and actions of a few remind us of how far we have come and of how far we have to go to overcome prejudice and dismantle racism.
Asian Americans from all countries are often viewed as the perpetual foreigner, no matter how many generations a family has lived in the U.S.
African Americans, Latinas and Latinos and indigenous peoples experience similar realities within the dominant culture.
Too often we value people by their looks or backgrounds, creating structures that identify some as belonging and inside and others as foreign and outside. This contributes to moments such as the incident at the baseball game.
Jesus calls us to accept everyone as equal and as members of the family of God.
John’s Gospel tells the story of Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman at a well (John 4).
The customs and structures of the time said Jews and Samaritans should have no dealings with one another.
However, Jesus engages her and asks for a drink of water. Their conversation ends with the Samaritan woman returning to the city to tell her neighbors of her encounter.
In this meeting at the well, and in his other actions and teachings, Jesus reminds us that we are made for relationship; we are made for each other. Jesus calls us to see people not as “foreigners” but as our neighbors.
We are all God’s children in our places of worship, neighborhoods, at sporting events and wherever we find ourselves.
Support your team, loudly and passionately, to be sure. But do so in ways that do not demean, subordinate or disrespect others.
Celebrate our human differences that enrich our lives and our society. Treat all people with dignity and respect. And do so in all places, including at sporting events.
Grace Ji-Sun Kim is an associate professor of theology at Earlham School of Religion and the author of seven books and numerous articles. W. Mark Koenig is a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and a life-long baseball fan. You can follow Kim on Twitter @gracejisunkim and Koenig @wmkoenig.