PHOENIX -- Baseball's importance in the civil rights movement -- its platform as a place where a black man could play a child's game and represent so much to so many -- was established 69 years ago on the field of play. The issue of diversity, however, extends beyond the field and encompasses all races, colors and sexes. For baseball to be as representative of America as it aspires to be, the sport's focus extends beyond the continuation of Jackie Robinson's historic legacy.
"If you were to look backwards in our history," Commissioner Rob Manfred said Tuesday, "I think there was a point where our focus on diversity was a little too narrow."
Manfred was speaking at the fourth annual Major League Baseball Diversity Business Summit, an event held this year at Chase Field, where some 1,000 job seekers attend panel discussions and make business connections. With 30 clubs each employing scores of people, the opportunities are plentiful, and the league's hope is that an event like this can ensure that the people who represent those clubs also will represent the American ideals of inclusion and acceptance.
Certainly, MLB wants to be sure that minority and female candidates get proper consideration for its most prominent roles. That's why former Commissioner Bud Selig in 1999 instituted what is known as the Selig Rule, which requires every club to consider minority candidates for all GM, assistant GM, manager, director of player development and director of scouting positions, and why Manfred recently hired Tyrone Brooks from the Pirates to head the Front Office & Field Staff Diversity Pipeline Program.
It's not just about making sure these candidates get the opportunity to interview; it's about making sure they are properly prepared for those interviews, so that the process is done not out of courtesy but genuine eagerness.
MLB continues to attempt to improve its appeal in the African-American community. Given the league's efforts with the RBI program and the Urban Youth Academy, to say there was encouragement over 15 of the first 59 picks in last year's Draft being African-American is an understatement.
The Manfred commissionership, young though it may be, also has been important for actual diversity in its diversity efforts.
In mid-2014, Commissioner Selig's final year at the helm, the league hired Billy Bean, a gay man who lived in the closet during his MLB playing career, as its Ambassador for Inclusion, and Bean has since become a powerful and important figure in the sport. Not only has he made the rounds speaking to players, owners, executives and team employees to help break down barriers, but he played in an important advisory role in Brewers Minor Leaguer David Denson -- professional baseball's first openly gave active player -- coming out to his teammates.
Earlier this year, Manfred promoted Bean to his new title as vice president for social responsibility and inclusion.
"We see the coming out issue as a personal choice issue," Manfred said. "That's up to the individual. We feel our obligation to create an atmosphere where if that's what a person wants to do, they feel comfortable doing it. David Denson received tremendous support publicly -- but, more important, privately -- from Billy. We hope we're doing a good job on that front."
As recently retired reliever LaTroy Hawkins said in a panel discussion Tuesday morning, "We all have gay family members. And if you don't [think so], you probably do."
The goal is for the Major League clubhouse to be a place where an openly gay player can feel comfortable.
"It's important, and that time is coming," said D-backs president and CEO Derrick Hall. "I'm confident -- and I think everybody is -- that there are players now that are gay and have not said so. I'm looking forward to that day when we can point to one or many players and say, 'There's an example of our inclusion and our acceptance.'"
Manfred also hired Curtis Pride, who has been deaf since birth and played parts of 11 Major League seasons, as the heir to Bean's Ambassador for Inclusion title. Pride has long been an inspiration to those living with the impairment, and now he serves as a resource for those in the baseball family regarding issues related to disabilities.
And, of course, it's important to find opportunities for women to flourish in the game.
Kim Ng, MLB's senior vice president of baseball operations, spoke on the panel about the challenges she's faced as an Asian-American woman in a male-dominated sport. About the security guards who assumed she was a translator or a media member, or the people who wrongly assumed her baseball intellect wasn't on par with her male peers. For years now, Ng, who worked in the front office of four World Series clubs and three overall champions, has been cited as the most visible and most likely female GM candidate, but she's yet to get that shot.
"She really has positive reinforcement from every place that she's been, and I think it's a question of time," Manfred said. "The right opportunity, a club willing to take a chance and do something different. I think it will happen."
The A's recent hiring of Justine Siegal as the sport's first female coach is a visible victory in that realm of equality. And the heavy presence of female job seekers at Tuesday's summit bodes well for their continued emergence in front offices across the league landscape.
All of which is to say that baseball is not resting on its legacy and its laurels as the sport that broke down the color barrier and helped change a nation. Nor should it.
"[The league's efforts] give a more broad definition to diversity," said Manfred, "that I think is more important."
This is a game that aims to reflect the values of great citizenship, and we are at our best when people are rewarded for their attitude and aptitude.