Torii Hunter: “we’re brainwashed to want to win”

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LAKELAND, FLORIDA — I made it into the Tigers’ clubhouse right as it opened this morning. It’s like most of the other spring training clubhouses. A bit more cramped than some because Joker Marchant is a bit older, but it’s the same scene you always see. At least physically. In terms of vibe it felt much looser than many I’ve been to.

Miguel Cabrera has a lot to do with that. Unlike a lot of megastars who are scarce when the clubhouse is open to the press, he was in front of his locker the entire time. He holds court over in his corner, mostly with the Latino players, but not exclusively. Indeed, there appears to be more racial/ethnic/rookie-veteran intermingling in the Tigers’ clubhouse than you often see. As it was Cabrera was loud and laughing and joking. At some point he and some other players started making random rooster/chicken/I have no idea sounds and it devolved into a game of some kind in which one of them took video of the others as they all tried to do the same thing. If I had remembered even a lick of my college Spanish I would have asked, but oh well. They all looked like they were having a ball and happy to be in each others’ company. Good chemistry? I dare not even suggest it.

I had a reunion with Torii Hunter, with whom I spoke in Tempe when he was with the Angels in 2011 and 2012. As always, Hunter was amiable and talkative. Indeed, if you’re holding a notepad anywhere near his locker he’ll just start talking to you without you asking him anything, which is highly unusual. But pleasant. I’m pretty sure that’s the reason why every baseball writer goes out of their way to praise Hunter. The guy could talk about how we should seriously consider forced euthanization of everyone over 50 and how we should outlaw ice cream and baseball writers would still talk about how great he is. I get why. He makes their jobs easier. We all like people who make our jobs easier.

Hunter and I talked about the politics of veterans taking long bus rides during spring training — he doesn’t have to do it and is just fine with that — the difference between Florida and Arizona — he much prefers Arizona, even if he likes being with the Tigers — and the thing that makes him wake up every day even after the grind of spring training starts to set in:

“I just want to win a championship. That’s what we all want,” Hunter said.

I asked him if, as many in the media like to say, a players’ “legacy” is somehow incomplete if they don’t get a ring. He considered that for a second and didn’t quite agree with it, but he did say “Ballplayers, we’re all brainwashed to win. We’re brainwashed to want that. That’s what we want.”

He feels he’s close. Joe Nathan came into the room and Hunter yelled across to him. After their conversation ended I asked Hunter if he helped recruit his old Twins’ teammate to Detroit this offseason. “Yeah, I did. I called him and told him,” Hunter said. By “told him” it was clear that he meant that he told them that Detroit is where he should come to win a World Series.

The Tigers are among the handful of teams who can seriously say they’re set up for that.

CC Sabathia won’t visit the White House if the Yankees win the World Series

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Over the past couple of days the subject of athlete activism, always present to some degree in American sports, but recently revived by Colin Kaepernick and a few other football players in the form of silent protests during the National Anthem, exploded into a headline dominating news story. Lighting the fuse: President Trump directly inserting himself into the controversy.

He did so during a speech on Friday night and during a series of tweets Saturday and continuing into this morning in which he urged NFL owners to “fire” or suspend players who do not stand for the national anthem. He also attempted to disinvite the NBA champion Golden State Warriors from their traditional White House visit because of their star player Stephen Curry’s public opposition to him, though Curry had already said he wouldn’t go.

As Ashley wrote last night, the silent anthem protests have now come to baseball, with A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell becoming the fist player to kneel during the National Anthem. Before that, at least one baseball executive, Orioles Vice President John P. Angelos, came out strongly on the side of players and against Trump. Joe Maddon said some less-than-enlightened words on the matter. Major League Baseball issued a statement on the matter. It was, not surprisingly, somewhat empty, taking something of a both-sides-have-good-points tack. It’s understandable, I suppose. I suspect Major League Baseball and its owners would prefer to not have to comment on this at all. The league does not do this sort of controversy well.

Ballplayers, however, will likely continue to speak up. The latest: Yankees starter CC Sabathia, who was asked yesterday whether he would visit the White House if the playoff-bound Yankees won the World Series. From the Daily News:

“Never. I just don’t believe in anything that is Trump. So there wouldn’t be any reason for me to go at all. I just think it’s stupid. I just think it’s dumb that he’s addressing players and stuff that he shouldn’t be. But it is what it is, and that’s the country we live in these days . . . I’m proud of the way that everybody has Steph’s back and just athletes in general these days, the way everybody has been stepping up has been great.”

Baseball players, as we’ve noted many times over the years, tend to be a more conservative bunch than football or basketball players. There are a lot more white players and a lot more players from southern, suburban and exurban areas. A significant number of racial-ethnic minority players were not born in the United States, so U.S. politics may not necessarily preoccupy them the way it may players from the United States. As such, political protest like we’ve seen in the NFL and NBA was never going to start in baseball in 2017.

But that does not mean that it was not going to come to baseball. Contrary to what so many fans seem to think, sports do not exist inside some bubble into which the real world does not intrude. Athletes are citizens just like you and me with social, political and personal concerns just like you and me. And, at the moment, a government official is demanding that they lose their jobs because he does not agree with their political views and the manner in which they are expressed. I suspect most of us would get upset by that if it happened to us. Certainly a lot of people I know on the conservative side of the political expression worried about government overreach and freedom of speech. At least before January of this year.

So I am not at all surprised that baseball players like Sabathia are beginning to speak out. He will not be the last. Others will join him. Others, as is their right, will push back and say they disagree with him. If and when people feel inspired to tell them to “stick to sports,” or “stay in their lane,” perhaps they should ask why the President of the United States decided not to do so himself. And ask why he thinks it’s appropriate for athletes to lose their jobs for their political views and why private entities like the NFL should be patriotic institutions rather than businesses which put on sporting events.

 

Bruce Maxwell first MLB player to kneel during National Anthem

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Athletics’ rookie catcher Bruce Maxwell did not stand for the National Anthem on Saturday night. He’s the first MLB player to do so and, like other professional athletes before him, used the moment to send a message — not just to shed light on the lack of racial equality in the United States, but to specifically protest President Donald Trump’s suggestion that NFL owners fire any of their players who elect to protest the anthem by sitting or kneeling.

“Bruce’s father is a proud military lifer. Anyone who knows Bruce or his parents is well aware that the Maxwells’ love and appreciation for our country is indisputable,” Maxwell’s agent, Matt Sosnick, relayed to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Susan Slusser on Friday. He continued:

Bruce has made it clear that he is taking a stand about what he perceives as racial injustices in this country, and his personal disappointment with President Trump’s response to a number of professional athletes’ totally peaceful, non-violent protests.

Bruce has shared with both me and his teammates that his feelings have nothing to do with a lack of patriotism or a hatred of any man, but rather everything to do with equality for men, women and children regardless of race or religion.

While Maxwell didn’t make his own statement to the media, he took to Instagram earlier in the day to express his frustration against the recent opposition to the protests, criticizing the President for endorsing “division of man and rights.”

Despite Trump’s profanity-laced directive to NFL owners on Friday, however, it’s clear the Athletics don’t share his sentiments. “The Oakland A’s pride ourselves on being inclusive,” the team said in a statement released after Maxwell’s demonstration. “We respect and support all of our players’ constitutional rights and freedom of expression.”

Whatever the fallout, kudos to Maxwell for taking a stand. He may be the first to do so in this particular arena, but he likely won’t be the last.