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MLB New York Mets

Dan Warthen, New York Mets Spark Non-Controversy Controversey

Dan Warthen

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“—Also, Dude, ‘Chinaman’ is not the preferred nomenclature. Asian American, please.”

If only New York Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen had been a Cohen Brothers’ fan in the 1990s, then he would have known what Walter Sobchak knew 16 years ago.

Warthen caused a curiously minor controversy earlier this week when apologizing to Jeff Cutler, Daisuke Matsuzaka’s interpreter (also Japanese) for telling a joke using the slur in question. He did so, while again using the word, within earshot of Stu Woo, a San Francisco-based Chinese American reporter, who did not end up laughing.

Warthen and GM Sandy Alderson issued statements on the incident Wednesday, in lieu of a promised face-to-face meeting with Woo.

No public admonishment has come Warthen’s way – he still travelled with the team to Las Vegas – and after the statements were issued, the whole thing seems to have blown over rather quickly. And maybe that’s for the best.

Yet there’s an aspect of this situation that won’t leave me alone, and at the same time, I can’t identify. Maybe I’m missing something or simply am misunderstanding the whole thing.

I know that had Warthen chosen a different word while addressing a different race of people, this would have been a very different situation. For example, slipping the “n-word” usually causes a week of heated debate in the sports world. Maybe that’s what’s gnawing at me; the way Americans have in internal ranking of how derogatory a particular word may be based on the level of societal guilt we feel toward the people it describes. Not only did Woo himself use the word “Chinaman” three times in his Wall Street Journal account of the incident, but so did an ESPN analyst while reporting on the story.

The fact that one word can be used without worry, but I would think twice about trying to slip niggardly (etymologically unrelated) past the editors speaks to my point.

Or maybe it’s the other way. I believe there is no such thing as “bad words,” although there are certainly bad intentions. I do not believe Warthen intended to hurt anyone, and I don’t think anyone is saying he did, but felt like he was comfortable enough with Cutler to tell the joke in the first place. Again, the controversy here is over Warthen’s botched apology, not the joke itself. Whether Warthen felt guilty or perhaps heard Cutler’s laughter wasn’t quite genuine, he was trying to own up to his mistake.

Reading Woo’s account, I feel he was more shocked at hearing the word than offended by it. He attempted to speak to Warthen directly and was given the run-around by the Mets; it wasn’t until after Woo realized he wouldn’t be discussing the topic with Warthen that he published his piece on the incident.

I suppose that’s the thing: this shouldn’t have been a story. There’s nothing here that couldn’t have been talked out in private, with no hurt feelings afterward. But once it did become public, the incident became more of an example of how far we are from racial equality than an opportunity to close that gap.

Sports, and baseball in particular, has a fantastic way of becoming an anthropological snapshot of our real-time culture. An opportunity to learn about ourselves without commissioning a decade-long study financed by some private-interest group — the raw data has already been compiling for hundreds of years (you can start by checking the box scores from 1946). We just have to learn to use it, like Sobchak sort of did. And like how the Mets clearly haven’t.

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