WASHINGTON, D.C. -- After he saw the video of a Minneapolis police officer killing George Floyd, Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Andrew McCutchen felt compelled to do something. His first instinct was to kneel during the national anthem when baseball returned to the field. Following a conversation with his wife, Maria, he decided on a different path.
At the season-opening game Thursday night between the New York Yankees and Washington Nationals, players from both teams stood next to each other and held a long, black tapestry -- a socially distanced alternative, McCutchen said, to linking arms to show unity. Over the loudspeaker, actor Morgan Freeman read a speech written by McCutchen and Maria that began: "In order to achieve effective change and create a new canvas of optimism, empathy must lead the charge. This moment signifies our charge. Our brotherhood. Our unity. Equality and unity cannot be until there is empathy."
Players and coaches from both teams then took to one knee, with most bowing their heads. While all stood for the national anthem that played after, the message, McCutchen told ESPN earlier this week, was to acknowledge injustice not just in the United States, but everywhere, and illustrate that Major League Baseball, a league that has lagged in addressing social issues, can be a force for change.
"This is a moment for us to honor each other, to honor the things that we're going through," McCutchen said. "With the social injustices we're going through in this country, with the things that exist outside our nation -- places like Venezuela, the Dominican Republic. To honor that and show that we honor each other, that we have each other's back, that we're going to fight for each other. And the way we do that is by collectively being together as one. This is a representation of that."
Following conversations with The Players Alliance, a group of Black baseball players that includes McCutchen, the league offered players sleeve patches that read "Black Lives Matter" or "United For Change."
Interested players were given batting practice T-shirts that read, "Black Lives Matter," and teams across baseball can stencil "BLM" or "United For Change" on the field behind the mound for Opening Day across the sport Friday.
"MLB stands in solidarity with the Black community in the fight for racial and social justice," the league said in a statement.
The number of Black players in baseball has decreased drastically over the past quarter-century, and the lack of Black participation in the game stood out to McCutchen as he grew up playing in Florida.
"You're already a minority," he said. "When you go into the sport, you recognize there aren't going to be many people who look like you. As a young kid, starting to understand more about the game and my surroundings, it's something I noticed pretty early on."
It's something he would like to change, and making baseball a more welcoming place for Black players, he said, can begin with the league acknowledging where it needs to improve. People of color in baseball are disproportionately underrepresented at ownership levels; in decision-making, front-office positions; and among managers and coaches.
"They've been very transparent through all this," McCutchen said. "If Major League Baseball didn't care, quite honestly, I don't think we would've done anything. But the transparency I'm receiving from them is amazing. It literally takes all of us. MLB has done a tremendous job showing we want to be a part of change. I trust that they value our opinions, that they're opening the door for conversations and they're going to tackle whatever it is we're trying to combat."
In this case, McCutchen said, it was the simple act of doing something, which is more than baseball has done previously. After dreaming up the idea to hold the black fabric, he and Maria sat down at their Philadelphia-area home and wrote the speech, which ended with: "Today, and every day, we come together as brothers. As equals, all with the same goal -- to level the playing field. To change the injustices. Equality is not just a word. It's our right. Today, we stand as men from 25 nations on six continents. Today, we are one."
Though McCutchen said he does not plan to kneel during the anthem as the Phillies host the Miami Marlins on Friday, Los Angeles Dodgers star Mookie Betts and multiple players from the San Francisco Giants and their manager, Gabe Kapler, did kneel before their game Thursday night. Others across the sport are expected to, as well, on Friday.
"We don't want this to just be a moment," McCutchen said. "We want this to be a moment that puts us in a position where we can keep moving forward and having dialogue on the things we're standing for. This is a representation of what change, unity, equality, brotherhood looks like. It paints a picture. But what do we do next? This opens the door to be able to have these conversations and shoot for what's next."