Jeff Passan of Yahoo wrote a column about how the Yankees are in an awkward position given the presence of Aroldis Chapman, and his recent domestic violence incident, on the roster. He talks about how in acquiring Chapman and in doing so with a built-in discount due to his offseason incident, the team has abdicated any moral high ground it has historically claimed. He further notes how the words of Yankees people — notably Joe Girardi — clearly conflict with their deeds as a baseball club.
I don’t disagree with most of that. It is strange and a little unfortunate to see a seemingly very decent man in Joe Girardi have to walk the tightrope between an anti-domestic violence policy he no doubt believes in and having to support a key player on his team who has run afoul of it. And I feel bad for my friends who are Yankees fans who are going to spend the next year or two rooting for the saves Chapman notches without feeling, on some level, like they’re rooting for the man as well. No one wants to root for a jackass.
Thing is, though, we have all rooted for jackasses. Or, more to the point, the teams we root for have all employed jackasses and bad people in the past. And they all have done so knowingly, I guarantee you. There is not a single team in baseball that has a blanket “we do not tolerate bad characters” policy, enforced by cutting them or avoiding them altogether, irrespective of the quality of the player or the size of his contract. It’s always a sliding scale on which a certain amount of bad deeds and bad character are tolerated given a certain amount of production. If your moral high ground is so subjective, you don’t have a moral high ground. You have situational ethics.
Milton Bradley was employed by eight clubs, and they almost all knew of his violent acts and temperament. People most fans considered to be good guys like Kirby Puckett committed heinous acts. Josh Lueke was employed by multiple teams and it was his ineffectiveness as a pitcher, not his monstrous crimes, which persuaded teams to stop doing that. Former Yankees Chad Curtis and Mel Hall are rotting in jail for indescribably awful crimes which occurred after they left the team. Did a switch flip on guys like Puckett, Hall and Curtis later, after their playing days ceased, or was it clear to anyone earlier, at least on some level, that they were terrible human beings?
None of this is to excuse Aroldis Chapman or to tell any fan who cannot abide him or other players accused of domestic abuse that they are wrong for feeling that way. If I were a Yankees fan I would have a difficult time with all of this, just as I have had a difficult time rooting for Braves players who were demonstrably bad people too. I still don’t know what to think of Bobby Cox, for example. A Hall of Fame manager who led my team to its greatest glories but also a man who, as he was doing so, was arrested for hitting his wife. I try to be a person who, as the saying goes, separates “art from artist” and do not personally endorse Cox when I talk about his accomplishments, but it’s a lot messier than that in practice.
The point here is that however we as fans choose to approach these matters, let us not for one instant pretend that teams haven’t been walking this same tightrope since the game began. For the most part they have chosen to look past immoral, unethical, abusive and even criminal conduct by their players if that conduct did not get in the way of winning baseball games. To suggest that now, in 2016, this is a new area of consideration for them or that now, for the first time, the are abandoning some set of ideals they allegedly had in the past is naive in my view.
Finally, don’t take any of this as acceptance. I am not resigned to the idea that teams will always and must always employ bad guys. I think they should do less of that and that fans should persuade them to stop. I do not think that basing such an argument on a false premise — that they have just NOW abandoned some moral high ground and how dare they? — is a productive way to begin that conversation. Rather, I think it requires the greater acknowledgment and understanding that sports have always tolerated and protected bad guys and that, for sports to stop doing this, some very large assumptions need to change.