But in the Donald Trump era, not even sports receptions are immune to controversy—and Thursday was no exception. The apolitical day that Werner had hoped for was, naturally, anything but. And how could it not have been? In the lead-up to the ceremony, more than 10 Red Sox players, all Latino or African American, announced that they would not attend the ceremony. The manager, Alex Cora, who is from Puerto Rico, also opted out, citing the White House’s handling of the devastation of Hurricane Maria on his native territory. The former Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, one of the organization’s most beloved players of the past 50 years, told WEEI he supported Cora’s decision: “You don’t want to go and shake hands with a guy who is treating immigrants like shit because I’m an immigrant,” he said. Save for the outfielder J. D. Martinez, who is of Cuban descent, all the players who ultimately attended the event are white.
Jemele Hill: Why don’t white athletes understand what’s wrong with Trump?
Those facts were hard to reconcile with Werner’s insistence to reporters that this was not a meaningful split. “We don’t see it as a racial divide,” he said. Nevertheless, the image of the overwhelmingly white group posing for photos with the president on the South Lawn, nearly all their teammates of color conspicuously absent, brought to bear the questions of identity—and of who feels welcome in Trump’s America—that have dogged this administration from the start.
Still, after a day of riffing on topics from North Korea to Robert Mueller to John Kerry, Trump managed to keep his ceremonial remarks mostly focused on the team. A light rain fell as the president welcomed the players and coaches and called out some of their fans, including EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas. “Over the course of the 2018 season, the Red Sox were—frankly, they were unstoppable,” Trump said.
He narrated the team’s path to victory and joked about his love of the game and his own allegiance to the rival New York Yankees. “It’s a special—it’s a special game, a special sport. I played on a slightly different level. It’s called ‘on high school.’ A little different level, but every spring I loved it,” he said. “The smell in the air, right? Does that make sense? The smell in the air, right? It’s an amazing feeling.”
Martinez and the pitcher Chris Sale delivered brief remarks, calling the visit a “high honor” and a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” before presenting the president with a Red Sox jersey that said “Trump” on the back.
Read: Nothing unites a team like getting disinvited from the White House
Trump deviated from tradition by offering the group a tour of the Lincoln Bedroom, which Werner later recounted to reporters in front of the West Wing. “The president is a pretty good raconteur of history and he did say that, uh—he was talking about Abraham Lincoln losing the war, and said, ‘Well, I know you guys have lost a game or two, but this was a war.’” (It was unclear whether this meant Trump had implied Lincoln lost the Civil War. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not return my request for clarification, but a Red Sox player told me Werner had misspoken. “He did not say that,” Steven Wright said in a tweet. “He was giving the history on how the North was losing the war and with the help of Ulysses S. Grant they were able to defeat the South.”)