Aaron Judge is not baseball’s savior. Just let him play ball.

48 Comments

Sixteen years ago, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract was published. It’s full of James’ legendary wisdom and insight, but one bit that I come back to, over and over again, is this:

When a young player comes to the major leagues and has success right away, writers will almost always write about what a fine young man he is as well as a supreme talent. Never pay any attention to those articles or those descriptions . . . Sportswriters, despite their cynicism or because of it, desperately want to believe in athletes as heroes, and will project their hopes onto anyone who offers a blank slate. The problem with this is that, when the player turns out to be human and fallible, people feel betrayed. It is a disservice to athletes to try to make them more than they really are.

The baseball establishment has gotten on board with most things James has said over the years, but it still constantly ignores this passage. The latest example of it can be seen in the coverage of Yankees slugger Aaron Judge.

Yesterday Bill pointed out the silly hyperbole which is beginning to sneak in to Judge’s coverage. Today John Harper of the Daily News writes the column I’ve been anticipating for a few weeks now:

. . . it was Maris who hit those 61 home runs in 1961, famously breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season record of 60. And while Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds have since obliterated that number, their totals are so egregiously steroids-tainted that, in my mind and I believe millions of others, Maris’ 61 still stands as the unofficial record.

Wouldn’t it be something if Judge took a serious run at that?

It’s a paint-by-numbers piece if ever there was one. A healthy dose of criticism of the players of the 1990s and 2000s followed by a whole lot of “what a fine young man this Aaron Judge is,” all in service of a “baseball truly needs this!” and “it’d be a great story!” jazz.

It’s bad enough that we continue to see this kind of shade thrown on guys like Bonds, McGwire, Sosa and their contemporaries. The PED era was what it was, but my memory of it, and the memory of almost everyone who isn’t a tut-tutting sports writer, is that it was a lot of fun. Those homers happened, they counted and they provided a lot of entertainment for a lot of people. Think whatever you want about the record book and the ethics of it, but don’t assume for a moment that the majority of people who enjoyed baseball of that era are demanding that their memories be saved from some dark shadow.

The worst part of it, though, is sportswriters seem to forget how often they have played this game. And how naive they look to have played it in hindsight. Remember this story about Alex Rodriguez from the New York Times in 2006?

The cause of Bonds’s physical changes has been endlessly scrutinized; he has repeatedly denied knowingly using steroids, and baseball only began testing for them in 2003. The worst accusation against Rodriguez is that he bragged too much about his workouts in an interview last spring. Whatever people think of him personally, the legitimacy of Rodriguez’s performance has never been questioned … If he continues to avoid injury, the home run record could be his. If Bonds is the man whom Rodriguez is chasing, it is safe to say baseball will be rooting for him.

Tyler Kepner wrote that. He’s one of baseball’s smartest and best writers and even he couldn’t resist the lure of the [relatively] blank slate and the promise of a Great Clean Hope presented by Alex Freakin’ Rodriguez of all people. It’s almost impossible for sportswriters to resist it whenever a new talent bursts onto the scene.

If we have learned anything in the past fifteen years or so we’ve learned that that talking up ballplayers as ideals of wholesome virtue is idiotic. We don’t know them, not really. They’re all human. They all have faults and foibles. Some — like Albert Pujols, who James referenced in that passage 16 years ago — defy the odds and manage to remain citizens in good standing. Some remain that way during their playing career and then are revealed later to be guys who are not so great. Some, like Alex Rodriguez, fall off that pedestal onto which they were placed while still in their prime. Since we don’t know them, we don’t have any way of predicting who will and who will not turn out to be good men. Hell, even the ones who seem to be good may simply be great at hiding dark secrets.

The point, however, is not that we should be cynical and suspicious of everyone. The point is that we should not put people we do not know on such pedestals in the first place. Placing them there is an exercise in baseless hero creation and knocking them off — with disingenuous claims of personal betrayal — is an exercise in self-righteousness. It’s unfair to them and it’s, at best, naive of us. More often it comes off like cynically contrived theater.

Aaron Judge is having a fantastic season. He may have a fantastic career. He is unquestionably the most enjoyable part of 2017 so far and I hope he continues to do what he does because it’s damn fun to watch. Yankees fans are lucky to see him every day and they should not, for one moment, be expected to stifle their excitement, let alone question Judge’s character. He’s a baseball player and they should be allowed to enjoy his baseball feats without worrying about it.

But nor should they, or anyone else, put anything more than that on Aaron Judge’s shoulders. Just because John Harper or some other sportswriter has unresolved issues about past heroes turning out to have feet of clay doesn’t make it Judge’s problem. And it certainly shouldn’t give him more responsibility to them or to the game of baseball than he already has.

It will take more than a cursory apology for Josh Hader to put this behind him

Getty Images
40 Comments

If you missed it, Brewers All-Star reliever Josh Hader landed in hot water the minute he stepped off the mound in Washington last night when multiple tweets he made in 2011-12* were uncovered containing some seriously gross, racist, misogynistic and homophobic language.

Almost as soon as it broke, Hader made a quick apology for the tweets, saying that he’s not the same person now than he was when he was 17 years-old. Major League Baseball is investigating the matter and Hader acknowledged that he must and that he will talk to his teammates about this, so the story is not over.

Some commenters and correspondents of mine, however, have said they believe it should be over. Indeed, they said it almost as soon as the news came to light. While a small handful of those folks likely take no issue with the language Hader used — there’s a lot of ugliness out there, particularly noticeable in the anonymous online world — others have simply, and it would appear genuinely, said that we should cut Hader slack for some bad choices he made when he was 17.

I will gladly cut Hader more slack for six and seven-year-old tweets he made as 17 year-old that he apologizes for genuinely than I would if he tweeted that stuff yesterday, but let’s not rush to “aww, he was just a kid” land seven hours and a night’s sleep after it all came to light. Indeed, there are many reasons why this is not a case for instant and automatic forgiveness.

This was not some kid breaking out a neighbor’s window with a slingshot. This was not someone saying “that’s gay” instead of “that’s dumb” in the way a lot of us have in the past. This was not someone using a word or phrase that only recently came to be accepted by most people as unacceptable or said something that, while not containing any awful individual words was insensitive, to use the parlance of the day. It was some seriously ugly language (go read it if you’d like), used consistently, repeatedly and confidently. It’s not from some hazy time in the past like the 1970s. It’s from 2011 and 2012. It’s language that he and everyone else knew, at the time, to be profoundly offensive to a massive number of people and which was unacceptable to use in a public forum. Not just now, with the hindsight of age and time, but then, even at the age he was. The tweets are a window into a really gross and disturbed person’s mind.

Hader should — and he will — be given the chance to apologize and to make amends. No one is suggesting he be banished to an island and he certainly won’t be, so don’t even make a suggestion that he is or will be any sort of victim of P.C. culture or whatever the hell else people cite in order to excuse their awful behavior or the awful behavior of others. At the same time, however, let us not let him off the hook with a cursory apology and a conclusory “I’m not like that anymore” statement to a beat writer five minutes after the controversy came to light.

For one thing, no one else would be given such an easy pass like that. No politician or musician or artist or job applicant or anyone else, famous or non-famous, would simply be able to cite being 17 as a get-out-of-decency-free card. We routinely try criminal defendants that age as adults. We make 17 year-olds of color conform their behavior to the most unreasonably high standards, set by others, in order to avoid being discriminated against or worse. For his part, Hader was an elite high school athlete who knew damn well that what he said and did in public was scrutinized in a fundamentally different way than what others said and did and nonetheless tweeted that garbage anyway. He did it either because his level of empathy and respect for women, blacks and homosexuals was defective and abhorrent or because he knew better and simply didn’t care.

I am not suggesting Hader not be given a chance to apologize and make amends for all of that. I am not suggesting that he not be able to continue to pitch late innings for the Milwaukee Brewers, become rich and famous and live his life happily and freely. I am merely saying that it is not too much to expect him now, less than 12 hours after all of this has come to light, to have to do some actual work to explain and atone for it. To not just say that he’s “a different person” now but to tell us how — apart from getting caught being obnoxious — he became a different person and what that really means. To expect him to explain this and to apologize to his teammates, and not just the two who happened to be in Washington with him last night. To explain and to apologize to his fans, many of whom are women and minorities, and to ask for their forgiveness and understanding.

I am not, to use a phrase someone threw at me last night, “on my high horse” about this. I am not holding Hader to some unreasonable, liberal/P.C/social justice warrior standard in which poor, victimized Josh Hader can simply not win. I am simply saying that this is far more serious than finding out some 80-year-old man jumped a subway turnstile back in 1954 and that the acceptance of responsibility, the apology and the work Hader has to do in light of this is not to issue some quick and cursory one offered to a national beat writer as he towels off after a postgame shower.

I realize our standards and expectations of certain public figures in this country have become impossibly low, but my God, they are not that low, nor should they be.

*There were some putative Hader tweets floating around Twitter of a more recent vintage, particularly one about Trayvon Martin from 2016, but there is reason to suspect at least that one is a Photoshop. Hader has locked his account, however, and it cannot be confirmed. It’s not really important, though, given that Hader has admitted to making multiple ugly tweets, to make such a determination at this moment, so we’ll leave the analysis of each and every individual tweet for another time.