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What Is Baseball For? Jose Reyes, MLB, and America’s Pastime

I’ve written for the internet a fair bit—fiction, memoir, literary criticism, theater and movie reviews, controversial takes on religion, disability, and politics—but nothing has attracted trolls like quite like my sportswriting. I’ve been attacked for calling a player’s .168 batting average “lackluster,” for being too optimistic about the Mets, for not writing an article about Michael Conforto, for writing articles that are too long for the troll to read. I expect today will be no different, so without any hedging or an appeal to the masses I’m just going to come out and say it: the Mets’ signing and subsequent vernation of Jose Reyes is bullshit.

First, a word about his alleged crime—though the charges against Reyes were dropped due to his victim’s unwillingness to testify (a common fear-based reaction in victims of spousal abuse, particularly pro-sports players’ spouses), the fact that charges were even filed suggests the overwhelming evidence against him. District attorneys don’t like to dilute their win-numbers with murky “he-said she-said” cases, and most states report dismissing more than half their domestic violence cases, in some places upwards of 80%). From the 911 call, we know the fight was intense enough to be noticed and broken up by hotel personnel, and from the police report, we know Reyes confessed to “an argument that turned physical and resulted in injuries,” injuries serious enough that his wife was not only treated by medics on the scene, but also transferred to the hospital afterward. Criminal charges aside, most pertinent to us—baseball fans—is the fact that the MLB’s governing body found Reyes in violation of its domestic violence policy.

The fact that the MLB has policy governing this kind of behavior speaks to both the seriousness of the alleged crime and the prevalence of the problem, in baseball and in professional sports at large. The violent nature of the wrongdoing is the reason why we should care about it more than we do Daniel Murphy’s homophobic idiocy or Colon’s lecherous and financially irresponsible behavior. (Though, yes, we should care about these, too.) And yet, as several BP Mets authors have written before me, all too often teams and fans alike allow the need to win to override our ability or desire to make good moral choices.

Baseball is both a game and a business, so some argue it doesn’t matter what a player does off the field—it only matters how well he plays. And while this does seem to be true in practice, it doesn’t make it good practice.

I understand that a person who is not a professional sports player might beat up his wife and be allowed to keep his job. With one in four women victims of domestic violence, anyone who works at a medium-sized business could statistically be working with a man, or multiple people, who are both good at their jobs and abusing their wives and/or children. Is it unfair that we treat the personal lives of public figures differently? Yes. (But I suppose that’s what the consolation millions are for.) In a perfect world, private sector employees would also not be allowed to commit violent acts against their families. But we are nowhere near perfect, and if change is going to happen, it must happen publicly first. This is the question at the crux of all MLB controversies—PEDs, hate speech, violent crimes, and the in-between—what is a professional sports player’s job?

What are we actually requiring of people who play in the MLB? We can say all that matters is a player’s actions during his allotted time on the field, but our own actions as fans suggest something different. If baseball was just about a specific set of physical skills and the points gained or lost because of them, we’d likely interact with the game much differently, perhaps like we do a lottery ticket—in passing, results-oriented. But baseball fans root for specific players and teams; we buy hats and jerseys and wear their names on our backs. Players in turn perform for us not only around the diamond, but on the Jumbotron, in interviews, and on social media. Fans and the media craft narratives: the come-from-behind underdog victory, the local boy makes good. Baseball’s personal elements, the way we as fans get attached to players and teams, are why we watch the games on TV and fill the stands. They are why we bring our children to those games, and point to the men on the field as something to which they should aspire.

Of course there is the question of another kind of narrative at play—rehabilitation and reform, second chances. And while part of me thinks a violent attack is deserving of a one-and-done ban for a player, the optimist in me (the one that roots for the Mets) sees the value in giving a person a chance to redeem himself. That doesn’t mean, though, we can remain silent about the implications of holding up Reyes as a role model.

To me, the Mets’ handling of Reyes’ return has been perhaps even more disappointing than their decision to re-sign him in the first place. At the very least Reyes should have had to start from a place that demonstrated contrition and humility, the very qualities a person lacks when he commits a violent assault against another person. The Mets should not have taken the number off the back of Travis d’Arnaud and given it to him (Rolex or not—reaffirming that tons of money makes assault go away is not the takeaway we want to be telegraphing); Reyes forfeited that number when he made the choices that got him suspended. The Mets should not have moved Curtis Granderson, the equivalent of a baseball saint, to give Reyes the leadoff spot; leadership is a privilege to be earned. The way Reyes’ return was handled essentially undid any punishment he got.

Can we continue to teach our children truisms like “there’s no ‘I’ in team” and “it’s not if you win or lose—it’s how you play the game,” on the one hand, and then then give a player who’s demonstrated moral reprehensibility the white glove treatment with the other? Can we continue to reinforce the message that the lives (and fandom) of women are not as important as the ball game, that a player is free to hit a woman as long as he also hits home runs?

I am tired of being told that this is the way of the world. Even if it’s true, it doesn’t have to be the way of the MLB. In fact, a relatively small pool of organized, talented individuals is the perfect microcosm via which to practice change and advocate for basic human decency. And while sweeping the crimes of rich and/or powerful men under the rug might be more of an American pastime than we care to admit, to throw up our hands and say it can’t be fixed, or worse, that it doesn’t matter, is not acceptable.

Photo Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

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