This is the silly season. The time of year we contemplate Baseball, free from the whip-around of everyday play. So with the news of Jose Reyes’ arrest on Halloween, I find myself pondering something that isn’t silly at all: the violence visited upon women by men who play the game, and my trepidation at how that violence will be handled.
Violence occupies an odd place in baseball. Unlike football, where hard blows are understood as part of the vocabulary of the game, contact is marked as unusual in baseball. It’s the result of a heated moment or an errant throw, a late slide deemed by whatever standard to be dirty instead of gritty. For all the talk of the way the game has always been played, force in baseball often sits in isolation, readily available for dissection and scrutiny. Even those who justify throwing at a batter as necessary retribution do so knowing their rationale is predicated in part on how aberrant this call is. It's a rupture in the way the game proceeds. Traditional but not routine. Stripped of their novelty, those moments would risk baseball becoming a different sport, something unrecognizable.
Football invites contact, relishes the violent run. Many of the game’s most enduring highlights have played out within the context of torn ligaments; of hits that shake opponents; of the disconcerting wobble of men temporarily stripped of their memories. We guiltily rejoice in it, marveling at the impact between bodies even as we remember the great human cost it carries. Where baseball revels in precision, command, football is made up of mad flashes that invite us to find something stirring amidst the chaos. With violence inextricably linked to the action, we are appalled but somewhat unsurprised when the sideline becomes blurred and the targets become personal, defenseless, female. We wonder, perhaps rightly, how much the game itself is in part responsible for these incidents. We worry about the twisted romance formed by fame, power, traumatic brain injury, and unfiltered rage.
Football is understood to take a physical toll; getting wrecked is the modus operandi. Of course football is mired in these failings. Just look at it. We feel implicated by its harshness, unable to unsee the brutality on the field and imagine how it might translate to the pain of abuse. We hate Greg Hardy and Ray Rice for their crimes, but we also feel like accessories, or at least enablers. We don’t think of baseball in those terms. The game doesn’t seem to bear the same cloudy responsibility. It has always been put forth as civilized, gentile, a gentleman's pursuit. We’re able to separate ourselves from violence off the diamond by so rarely seeing it play out on the diamond. We can withdraw when the game is done, content to pretend that our heroes never harmed anyone. But the NFL’s very public foundering on issues of domestic violence inspired baseball to adopt a new policy of its own. And following his arrest for the assault of his wife in Maui, Reyes will be the first player potentially to face discipline under that policy. We're going to have to confront that area beyond the field. And it is probably going to suck.
Sports are often the site of politics. Saying that makes people uncomfortable, even angry. But for a game, the great plays of America’s pastime are often splashed against a backdrop of race, gender, labor, and power. We come to understand much of the world around us from the language we use to talk about sports. They offer an arena for contestation, a chance to talk about something even as we talk around it. As a church might, they operate as a place of coming together, where we throw murky problems into the specific relief of a play or a player, rather than a party or policy.
That process can nevertheless be uncomfortable; sometimes you just want to drink a beer and watch a game. It isn’t particularly fun to experience sports that way. It’s why we chafe at those moments when we can see the seams, when labor disputes or racially charged commentary abrade the shine of a well-struck home run and reveal the social constructs beneath it. For much of the game's history, our reaction to domestic violence was conditioned by the societal acceptance of it. This was how conflict was resolved, how power at home was asserted and replicated, and discussing it in public was untoward. We’ve arrived at a painfully fought cultural disdain for domestic violence, and now the seams of the game are being pried open, with the failures of the past peeking through to confront the possible failures of the future.
This was always coming. It was always coming because there are some men who hit women and some of those men play baseball for a league that has been completely bumfuzzled by how to mete out punishment for that abuse. It didn’t start with Reyes. Many a colossus has a history littered with domestic abuse. We try to navigate complicated relationships with beloved figures like Miguel Cabrera and all-time greats like Barry Bonds, by forgetting the chilling testimony or the 911 calls against them. Violence might not be part of the vocabulary of baseball, and its relative absence allowed us a false sense of moral superiority to other sports, but that perception was much more a function of the absence of a conversation about the sin than the absence of the sin itself.
In his story on Reyes for The New York Times, Billy Witz quoted Mets’ assistant general manager John Ricco saying of Rob Manfred and the players union, “I don’t think they can claim they were smarter than everyone else, but they didn’t sit around and wait…They got together and said, ‘We’re going to have something in place and we’re going to do it now and not wait for something to happen.’” Manfred is committing to something progressive, something bold and transparent, and something accountable. We’re in it now. Baseball is making a claim, seizing a moral authority absent from the bungled deliberations of other leagues and the courts. We’ll do it better than they did. We’ll get it right this time. And in the pit of my stomach, I fear they won’t, because they never have.
I worry. I worry about the subtle shifts in tone and tenor that indicate when a victim’s story isn’t being taken seriously. I fear conversations between fans punctuated with words and phrases like “livelihood” and “innocent until proven guilty” and "he-said, she-said," words that shift the assumption of honesty away from wives and girlfriends toward the men who hit them. I nervously await the results of the bizarre calculus that weighs these transgressions relative to drug use and other misdemeanors of similar ilk, and arrives at a consequence, a number of games and dollars lost. I fear the goal of the new policy is not to deter violence, but to receive credit for clearing the depressingly low bar set by other leagues. To appear to take a stand against the monsters, while failing to exorcize the specters haunting us. Relative to its own past, and the recent history of other leagues, I fear that baseball believes all it has to do is avoid letting a Greg Hardy linger. I worry what they’ve really committed to isn’t a policy of change but of doing just enough, while actually doing very little at all. I fear the League’s real concern is that I, as a woman who loves baseball, will stop watching baseball. I worry I’ll want to.
The seams of the game are being pried open, and I nervously await what we’ll find when they are. The stakes for the victims and their children are obviously much more real and terrifying than they are for me and mine. My ability to enjoy a game is inconsequential by comparison; none of this matters when measured on a scale of families rent into pieces by violence. But as observers and fans and women, we still wait with bated breath, conditioned to expect disappointment from years of the league abdicating responsibility, and from the recent failings of football. Not really equipped with the right lexicon to discuss violence on the field, and terrified that the legal and moral lexicon we have off it will prove unequal to the task. We wait and worry because that is what is left in this deep breath before the plunge. Because these are our stakes.
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