Dusty Baker had a pretty bad day. Slip sliding into unforced error after unforced error, Baker was asked to opine on Aroldis Chapman and the recent revelations that domestic violence likely derailed his trade to the Dodgers. The complete transcript of Baker’s Winter Meetings comments can be found here. If I were feeling charitable, I would say the press conference served as a living, breathing demonstration of the dangers that befall those who refuse to update their priors about how the world works before speaking in public. As I’m not, I’ll say instead that Baker’s comments read like a greatest hits album for all the worst tropes of the domestic violence dialogue, from assuming the innocence of the accused while purposefully refusing to engage reported facts, to the suggestion that women might abuse men in equal measure.
Language is a tricky thing. In a business like baseball, which is so preoccupied with the place where language meets image, it is often twisted. In moments of crisis, its messengers contort themselves around it, hoping to direct and funnel narratives, and shape words into a cohesive, coherent picture of the game or those who play it. Smoothing the rough edges of baseball’s human stakeholders sits in contradistinction to the situation on the ground, which is almost always a messier, craggier reality. Allowing the mess to show is considered a bad look, a public relations problem; often, it suggests dysfunction or poor decision making. Because this language is so carefully crafted and tinkered with, when the mess shows through the imperfections are granted an assumption of sincerity. Divorced from the razzle dazzle, we’re confronted with the uncomfortable proposition that we often don’t see the truth, and that the truth is sloppy. Language, we learn, is an unreliable narrator.
Of course, the truth of many of the issues of baseball is discoverable by other means. Most of the baseball we care about takes place in public arenas. When we’re unable to account for something on the field, we develop better instrumentation and more precise metrics to understand it. We comb through public records to tabulate the cost of new stadiums. We engage in complex operations of counting and sorting. Confronted with unreliable narrators, we try to simply sidestep them altogether.
But sometimes the language offered in public is all we have. It’s the most readily available barometer by which to gauge how seriously the league takes an issue. Indeed, it might be the only one in service. The disciplinary process around domestic violence exists in the realm. Its subject occurs away from the playing field, in homes and outside restaurants. It’s handling is often clouded by contradictory accounts, and stilted cooperation. And when it moves from the public view of the crime scene or the courtroom to a league investigation, it becomes more private. That’s not an unwarranted change of condition. Indeed, treating victims and their families with sensitivity and respect likely means leaving our near-prurient interest in the horrible details unsatisfied, allowing the case to play out away from the scrutiny and censure of baseball observers. We get drips and drabs, but we are reliant on leaks and testimony from people we will never meet, all of which leaves us wondering whether we’re properly balancing our obligation as fans to demand better with our greater obligations as human beings.
Which is why bad days like Baker’s rankle. The league’s new domestic violence policy requires a faith in things unseen. It asks fans to take as given an investigative process of sufficient exactitude, to assume competence as the league throws the contours of that process into more specific relief, and a fair and appropriate use of discretion on the part of the commissioner. It asks us to believe in them getting a difficult thing right, a difficult thing for which they have shown little previous aptitude. To take their language at face value, because the only other instrument of measurement at our disposal is the courts. To believe that the razzle dazzle is a faithful copy of the scene it describes.
Ultimately, believing language in the context of domestic violence is a good thing, if that language is kept honest. We shouldn’t need to see the pictures. There shouldn’t need to security camera footage. The process ought to let the voice of the victim sing above the cacophony of nonsense presented as fact. When we see discussions of due process in domestic violence cases, it’s less about concern for the legal rights of athletes as it is a coded plea to think the woman a liar. We can believe Katherine Ramirez while also thinking Jose Reyes is entitled to a competent and vigorous defense. Learning to hold those two truths in equilibrium with one another requires we believe language to be honest, even as we acknowledge that it exists within the context of legal processes.
So it’s a problem when Dusty Baker asks, “And who's to say what you would have done or what caused the problem.” Baseball doesn’t shoulder an exclusive responsibility to dispense punishment, but it assumed some of that responsibility when it introduced its new policy. Having taken up that mantle, it’s hard not to look at Baker aghast and ask, “Isn’t it for you guys to say?” And if it is, language like this suggests an assumption of incredulity when faced with victim testimony. It suggests there might be circumstances under which Chapman’s response might be understandable, even justified. It suggests asking for it.
Sometimes language is all we have. When some of the only unvarnished language dovetails with the worst parts of the dialogue around domestic violence, it leaves us wondering how representative those sentiments are in dugouts around the league. We take it at face value, because surely if Dusty were parroting talking points, they would more deftly sidestep these landmines. Baker’s press conference felt honest, and if it suggests a fidelity to the process behind it, what else lurks for us? We’ve been asked to believe the language put forth by the League. Dusty Baker had a pretty bad day. But if we believe his language, baseball might have had a worse one.
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