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May 6, 2003

Breaking Balls

Service with a Smile

by Derek Zumsteg

There are few things in this world that confound me more than our obsession with other people's opinions.

Honestly, why is it that we spend so much time caring if Martin Sheen is anti-war, Dennis Miller is pro-war, or if Leonardo DiCaprio is pro-hazlenut? So what if a reliever having a somewhat surprisingly good year is uncomfortable with guys who like other guys, in a different way. Big deal.

I'm referring, of course, to last week's comments in the The Denver Post from Rockies pitcher Todd Jones, which read:

"I wouldn't want a gay guy being around me. It's got nothing to do with me being scared. That's the problem: All these people say he's got all these rights. Yeah, he's got rights or whatever, but he shouldn't walk around proud. It's like he's rubbing it in our face. 'See me, hear me roar.' We're not trying to be close-minded, but then again, why be confrontational when you don't really have to be?"
In addition, Jones said that if an active baseball player was to ever come out of the closet, that person would have to be a star, otherwise people "wouldn't put up with that." Since then, Jones has written that he meant his comments to be taken in a hypothetical context of what might happen--but also that his only mistake was that he made his views public, which is a little contradictory.

Keli McGregor, Rockies president, ran a statement on their web site that started out well: "The unfortunate comments made by pitcher Todd Jones in (The) Denver Post in no way reflects the views, opinions or attitudes of the Colorado Rockies." And then: "As an organization and as a part of this community, we are committed to providing an environment for our employees and fans that is free of discrimination and prejudice, regardless of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability, or status as a veteran."

Quick test, though. What's not in that list?

Yup. Isn't it strange that in responding to a furor about a player's statements on homosexuals, the Rockies managed to issue a statement that--had it stopped at "free of discrimination"--would have been much better than one that lists some common causes, but conspicuously skips over the one at hand?

If you're going to issue a statement, how about: "As an organization, we believe every employee has the right to speak their mind about any issue they want. We also believe that all our employees should respect others and will act to ensure that we welcome players of every stripe, and will not tolerate veiled threats or intimidation of the kind Todd Jones implied a gay player might face"?

Or something to that effect. I'm not picky.

Jones has the right to spout off and say whatever he wants. If he wants to join the International Flat Earth Society, more power to him. However, baseball is a business that depends on the goodwill of the general population, and baseball is right to take a strong stance against players who have these views, and if that includes running them out of the game, so be it.

Take John Rocker. He made some weird statements about New Yorkers a couple of years ago that managed to offend just about everybody, and baseball slapped him for it. The same arguments regarding free speech arose then: that baseball was in the wrong for punishing him, because it's censorship against a player's right to speak.

But your right to speak doesn't entitle you to do damage to your employer without repercussion.

If for some reason Sports Illustrated did a behind-the-scenes portrait of Baseball Prospectus and I said in an interview that: "I hate our brown-eyed readers. They're the worst, they're all a bunch of stupid genetically deficient freaks who should at least have the courtesy to wear colored contacts so the rest of us don't have to be sick at the very sight of their hideous appearance," should I be surprised when Huckabay & Co. show up at my doorstep with a blackjack, a canvas sack, a good length of high-strength rope, and tell me it's time for a trip to the waterfront?

Of course not. I would have offended a huge segment of the Propsectus readership, and they'd be absolutely right to discipline or fire me.

Why is it that so many people have been so eager to slag Bud Selig for his years as Commissioner where he constantly bad-mouthed his own product--alienating fans across the country, demanding his immediate removal--but are just fine when a player comes out and says that he doesn't like the way 10% of the game's fan base has been strutting about like they own the place? Why should particularly ignorant and offensive alienating speech get such a spirited and vigorous defense, when run-of-the-mill stupid speech is attacked?

There's a counter-argument that says disciplining players who make these kind of ludicrously stupid remarks is hypocritical, and that teams aren't fining or taking any action against players who are hard workers at the stadium but then go home and beat up their wives. Is that a double standard? Absolutely. But it's society's double-standard, and baseball's only giving us what we want. Everyone in New York wanted John Rocker's head put on a pike outside Shea, but hardly anyone raises a protest when their team trades for someone who actually does terrible things but doesn't talk about them.

Baseball is not the most savvy business, but it does respond to the public, and that's what this is all about. There are many more people who are offended by homophobia who might not go to games than people who would attend in support of Todd Jones--so baseball's apologizing. If the furor was greater, he'd be fined. It's not about free speech against censorship. If people were horribly offended by ridiculous goatees, most of the Oakland A's would be on league suspension indefinitely. If fans picketed the offices of teams that harbored wife-beaters, we'd see baseball be much more active in trying to counsel and help those players.

This isn't about Todd Jones' right to free speech, or John Rocker's right to be scared of ethnically diverse subway trains. It's about baseball's commitment to customer service.

Related Content:  Censorship,  The Who

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