For Sox Mental Skills Coordinator Adan Severino, Looking Away is Not An Option
It happened at a high school game in Iowa in early July. A junior center-fielder by the name of Jeremiah Chapman, the only African-American player on his team, was subjected — unprovoked — to a torrent of racial taunts from fans of the opposing team. Someone yelled at him, “You should have been George Floyd,” a reference to the African-American man who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer who kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes.
Perhaps you saw the story. Perhaps you were disbelieving. Perhaps you were appalled. Perhaps you just looked away.
For Adan Severino, who posted the story on his Instagram account, it stirred memories. And he wants you to understand that looking away is no longer an option.
“To those who think it doesn’t happen, it does,’’ Severino wrote. “And just because you “don’t hear it” doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. I myself have been called a variety of names on the field. From N word, to coon, slave N word, BOY, Chardo*, cotton picker, to you’re not welcomed, and even handed a white supremacy card. And sad to say it, I was called most of these names as early as age 10. If you don’t know what it’s like in that moment I’ll tell you. It’s hurtful, it’s frustrating, frightening and at times can make you feel alone because you can be the only one of dark skin on the field and can’t do much about it because you’re outnumbered. Change needs to happen and it starts at home. The nerve of the adults and others in the area to shout obscenity. The kid just wants to play baseball like everyone else, but because he is black, he is subject to this now and sad to say in his future in the sport. This is one example why black kids don’t want in on baseball. What a freaking shame.’’
(*Chardo is a slang Cuban expression meaning black person)
For the last three years, Adan Severino has been a Mental Skills Coordinator for the Red Sox. On Friday, the ballclub announced that the University of Miami graduate has been promoted to Latin American Mental Skills Coordinator. His job is part of a growing awareness in the baseball industry that its most valued employees — the players — deserve care that goes beyond the weight room, training table and physician’s office. Severino, who works in the minor leagues, does his best work circulating among the players on the field or in the clubhouse, casual conversations serving as building blocks to trust that lead to more meaningful exchanges about the deeper issues that affect players’ lives — and performance.
But before that Adan was a ballplayer, and the son of a ballplayer: His father, Ramon Severino, played briefly in the Red Sox farm system as a 17-year-old signed out of the Dominican Republic, and Adan was born on Oct. 22, 1986, a happy occasion except for the fact that the Red Sox lost Game 4 of the World Series to the Mets that night. “My dad was livid,’’ Adan says.
From the time he was little, Adan (pronounced Ah-DAN) excelled at playing the game. He and Steven Merino, best buddies from the age of 7 in the town of Opa-Locka, Fla., a small, gritty enclave tucked into the northeast corner of Miami-Dade county, played in parks all over the area. He was 6 when he landed a spot on the Miami Lakes Optimists, and was 11 when his team, the Miami Thunderstorm, traveled the length of the state to play in a tournament in Tallahassee.
The Thunderstorm roster was packed with Latin kids — Adan’s mother, Isabel, was from the Honduras and met Ramon in the Dominican — and they were hardly lacking in confidence as they took on the homegrown upstate boys. Adan was on base when a teammate cracked a hit into the outfield and he took off running. The play at the plate was going to be close. “As I headed home,’’ he said, “I decided I would pull a Pete Rose.”
That meant, of course, that Adan planned to hurl his young body, a la Charlie Hustle, into the armored catcher blocking his path to the plate, hoping that the collision would keep the catcher from applying the tag. Runner and ball arrived simultaneously, Adan bowled over the catcher, tagged the plate, and jumped up in triumph — into a swirling mass of anger and naked hate.
“The parents were yelling at me to go home, calling me the ‘n-word,’’ Adan said. “There was all this yelling and shouting. My dad was sitting in the stands. He didn’t know what to do. The umpire couldn’t do anything. I loved that my coach defended me, but I was kicked out of the game.’’
The ordeal didn’t end there. There was no clubhouse to which Adan could retreat; he was forced to sit on the van that had brought the team on its long trek from Miami, which left him exposed to more vile insults. It was not the first time Adan had experienced racism in its most undiluted form; it would not be the last.
The incident long lingered in his memory, but did not hinder his love for the game, or the blossoming of his talent. An outfielder, Adan was named second-team All-State three times at Miami American Senior High School, put up big numbers at Broward Community College for two years, leading BCC to a state championship, and then was grabbed by the U — The University of Miami and its powerhouse program. The Hurricanes were playing in the College World Series in 2008 when Adan picked up the phone, the Minnesota Twins on the line, and learned he had been drafted by the Twins on the 26th round, the 786th player chosen. A longshot to be sure, but the chance of a career in professional baseball now appearing within his grasp.
That journey began in Elizabethton, Tennessee, worlds away from Miami and even further for the handful of Dominican players who were teammates that first summer and relied heavily on Adan, who spoke a language foreign to them but could comfortably speak with them in Spanish. “A very, very small town,’’ Adan said. “Anyone of color didn’t fit in.’’ Most days, Adan said, he would ferry the players to the ballpark, then home again, rarely venturing from that routine other than to grab a bag of Crystal Burgers.
But then there was the night they stopped for gas, and one of the Dominican players ran into the station for a bag of chips. He came back to the car, a puzzled expression on his face. Someone had slipped him a business card printed with a short but pointed message: “White power.”
“I had to explain it to him,’’ Adan said.
Like the vast majority of players drafted by major league teams, Adan’s stay in pro ball was a short one. After one season in Elizabethton, and one playing in Beloit (Wis.) in the Class A Midwest League, on Aoril 1, 2010, he was released by the Twins. He was 23 years old. “I took it hard,’’ he said. He played a handful of games for an independent-league team, then went back home to Miami to finish his degree, electing to add psychology to a course load that had focused on criminology. Little did he know that he had just taken his first steps back to baseball.
But first, there would be the hands-on experience of working at three different hospitals — the registration desk in a trauma unit, night shifts working with psychiatric patients at a children’s hospital, social worker at a third. Adan found he loved the work, the interaction with the patients, the chance to make a difference.
In 2016, baseball beckoned. Through some old contacts at UM, Adan learned of a job in the Red Sox scouting department. That job went to someone else, but Adan had a parting message for Raquel Ferreira, who is now the team’s assistant general manager. “You’ll see me again,’’ he said.
A year later, he made good on that pledge. Through Laz Gutierrez, another UM product who played pro ball and ultimately spent 13 seasons with the Sox as a mental health coordinator, Adan applied for and landed a job in the team’s department of behavior health, which was formed under Dr. Richard Ginsburg in 2015.
Working primarily in the lower minors, Adan has made a point of trying to ease the transition of the young players from Latin America, as well as cultivating relationships with the handful of African-American players in the system. “I have heard racist stuff in Spanish, too,’’ said Severino, who identifies as Afro-Latino. “Because I don’t speak Spanish with an accent, they think I’m African-American. They say stuff, and then I tell them, I understand everything you’re saying.
“I’m a black Hispanic. I don’t get to choose sides, living in America. What you see is what you get. You see the color of my skin, and the first thing people go to is the color of my skin.’’
The Red Sox, looking to find their place in the national conversation about police brutality and systemic racism, scheduled a virtual town meeting of employees in early June. Only a week later, the universally regarded Torii Hunter revealed he had a clause in his contract blocking any trade to Boston because he had encountered numerous racial slurs as a visiting player. Coming just a couple of years after a widely publicized incident involving another highly respected visiting player, Adam Jones, in which he said he was targeted with racial slurs, the subject of racism took an added urgency on Jersey Street.
Among those asked to speak at the Town Hall was Adan Severino, who grew emotional speaking about his own experiences and reaction to what he was seeing on the news nightly, but reminded his audience he was not alone.
“I talked to many players we have,’’ he said. “Latin players and African-American players, and psychologically they seem to be worn out. Our Latin players are scared to come over because they worry about being judged, and our African-American players just want to be heard.’’
Adan shared a letter from Josh Tobias, an African-American infielder who has been in the Sox organization since 2015, splitting time last season between Pawtucket and Portland. In his letter, he shared how hard it has been to watch the coverage on the news and social media.
“It’s always been hard,’’ he said, “to express things that bother me on the racial side. I wanted to keep my image as a carefree person….The police brutality situation has helped me find my voice as an African-American. Not only the police brutality, but the systemic racism.”
So voices are being raised. Adan Severino knows that’s not the same as voices being heard. This time, he hopes, they will be heard, too. It’s long past the point of looking away.
But no one can look away anymore.