For Jake Odorizzi, Rays pitcher, husband, father, the decision to step up to fight domestic violence was so easy.
Sometimes it’s seemed, rather obviously, that there’s a code players follow about such things. Players will donate their time, money and voices to other causes in need of resources and attention. MLB has championed many causes that are woven into the fabric of the baseball experience, particularly research and funding to fight ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). That work has been admirable and helped improve many lives. But when it comes to relationship violence, well, we’re getting into a tricky area, aren’t we?
Many in baseball have been accused of domestic violence and sexual assault, and prior to this season the policy for punishing players for those actions was weak or absent. Players weren’t going to criticize teammates. The silence through the years has been stunning and shameful.
But when Odorizzi was presented with an opportunity two years ago, there was no code of silence he felt the need to adhere to.
He was motivated by the relationships that ground him, and he put into action the idea that fighting domestic violence isn’t just a women’s issue. It’s a human rights issue and it’s an issue for a family man. For him, it’s just as important for men to stand up for women who are suffering or who have suffered. And when he was approached to take the REAL (Relationship Equality & Anti-violence League) Promise at the University of South Florida, at the Walk a Mile in Her Shoes event, he was quickly on board.
“[The Promise] is typically designed toward men. Long story short, do the right thing,” Odorizzi said before a game last week. “Treat everyone with respect, and at no point should you raise a hand to a woman. It’s more in depth than 'be polite.' For many, even that’s hard to do. I don’t understand bringing yourself to hurting your wife or girlfriend or child’s mother. I believe everything I said.”
Odorizzi was moved by local survivor Melissa Dohme’s story at that day’s event. He talked to her and listened to her. And he wondered how many stories are never heard. He admitted he didn’t know what he was getting into, but he referred again to his feelings for his wife. To him, with the game increasingly targeted at young fans, he sees an opportunity.
The pledge, one that former Rays reliever Jake McGee also took, didn’t make many rounds in social media. There was little coverage of the event. But the importance of that action cannot be overstated, perhaps for the Rays in particular.
Former Rays reliever Josh Lueke (now playing in Tokyo) was charged with rape in 2008 as a 23-year-old prospect in the Texas Rangers organization, ultimately pleading guilty to a lesser charge. He spent 42 days in prison. While that saga has far more details about how the Rangers, and later the Seattle Mariners (who’d had a strong history of supporting domestic violence prevention groups) handled the situation, the Rays also agreed to acquire Lueke in 2011, knowing what he’d done.
In 2013, Josh Sale, a former Rays first round pick, made abusive, misogynistic comments about a stripper he’d encountered. ‘Threw 50 cents at a stripper tonight. First time. Got kicked out and she got so pissed thought she was gonna cry…you’re a stripper. Be thankful Hoe,’ he posted to his Facebook page. Though the Rays reprimanded him and released a statement disavowing that kind of behavior, it was hard to square with their forgiveness of Lueke’s past.
Ultimately, Sale wore out his welcome with the Rays and was released. Lueke met the same fate, eventually. What’s amazing is that he was given an opportunity, after he expressed only half-hearted remorse to the victim in court (which, by the way, was her only other request after he agreeed to a plea deal). He never appeared emotionally equipped enough to flat out say he’d done something horribly wrong. The idea that players exhibit that behavior and don’t suffer consequences is part of the problem. The punishment too often doesn’t fit the crime. On a deeper level, what is expected of them?
“If you can’t fly right, you can’t be rewarded with baseball if you’re living like that off the field,” Odorizzi said.
The other factor to consider is the added power of MiLB as a community-based business. Minor-league teams are uniquely connected to the community in which they play, with the stadium an important model for employment and economic growth. Their outreach programs, as well as promo nights and events, connect them to the people living nearby. They attend games for cheaper entertainment, for the family, and for a glimpse at possible future stars.
The Bowling Green Hot Rods (Class-A affiliate of the Rays) partner with CASA, a facility dedicated to assisting victims of domestic violence and their families, on their annual Super Hero 5K run. It’s a fine example of a minor-league team connecting with the community to raise awareness and funds for a domestic violence organization.
The Rays, seemingly under the radar, have helped build six playgrounds in the Tampa Bay area in partnership with KaBoom!, and last year team president Brian Auld led the way to organize the construction of one for CASA. Auld is a former teacher and he designed a program in his early teaching days to help build playgrounds throughout Tampa Bay. Manager Kevin Cash and many former players were on hand. That kind of team leadership is not only admirable; it could inspire real change in the lives of those affected, and inspire young players who are witnessing the big club’s president and manager taking part in helping those affected.
A major-league player taking a leadership role, one of real action like Odorizzi, could also have immense impact; particularly if more major-league players follow suit. And although he didn’t have any experiences with victims of domestic violence, never knowing anyone who’d been in that situation, he was compelled to take part.
“Why not do it on a grander scale? We have the ability since everything we do gets amplified.”
There’s great power in the ability of athletes to reach kids on a variety of issues. When people talk about their heartbreak over “cheaters” who’ve admitted to using PED’s, they talk about their admiration for favorite athletes and their disappointment. Misplaced idolatry aside, that’s still true for many young fans. They still idolize athletes, without understanding their human qualities. If we apply that same indignation to athletes who’ve beaten their wives or raped a woman, we can teach our kids a lot through their love of the game. Baseball can be part of the change, and find a way to lead on the issue. Players taking a firm stand is part of that.
Odorizzi is respectfully, and carefully, thoughtful about how he broaches the subject. It’s important to not just resort to swift judgment. And rehabilitation is as important when discussing domestic violence as punishment. He walks the line as a man who cares about this issue, but who’s also a teammate.
I’ve also walked those lines. In 2013, Lueke was assigned to Triple-A Durham and I was scheduled (later changing plans) to return there to continue Bulls coverage. I wondered how I would feel covering him and if I could remove personal feelings. I’m a reporter, after all. The story isn’t about me. This was different, though; far too terrible to just pretend Lueke’s actions weren’t an issue. But it was more than that.
Two years earlier, I’d revealed my own history with relationship violence. On my blog Heels on the Field: A Minor League Blog I wrote a piece called, ‘How Surviving an Abusive Relationship Inspires my Life in Baseball.’ In it, I recounted some of my history with violence and some details of the impact violence has had on my life. I connected it to my career, expressing how I’d found strength and my voice in the strangest of places, baseball. The response from readers was incredible. That support, combined with my commitment to speaking out about domestic violence and sexual assault both in and outside of baseball, motivated and inspired later work. I’ve written extensively about incidents in MLB, the Domestic Violence Policy, and how important I believe it is to offer guidance and education in the minor leagues to players, many of whom are extremely young and inexperienced with life and relationships.
I freely admit that at times, my feelings toward the industry I work in have been conflicted. The men playing the game and running the business have been disappointing, frustrating and flat out wrong numerous times. There’s a current of disrespect of women in sports, whether it’s fans or players, and that obviously reflects society. If society doesn’t take domestic violence seriously, do we really expect sports to?
So the Rays, while making a good start, and MLB, also making a good start, have to step up like never before. They have to encourage their players to go out into the community, volunteer at women’s shelters, have more nights devoted to domestic violence causes and organizations, both nationally and locally. Teams often send their players out to volunteer for different charities and for events. And now is the time to more fully connect them in a very personal way to domestic violence. Let them hear women’s stories as Odorizzi did. The Rays participation in the building of that playground is one of the best recent examples I can think of, of a major-league team in tandem with a minor-league affiliate making an actual, huge physical effort. It was literal labor on behalf of women and children affected by domestic violence.
MLB’s DV policy isn’t enough, because it isn’t just about a policy. It’s about making a serious, committed effort and the effort has to be led by players, coaches and every person baseball. MLB can be blamed for being inexcusably late to act, but the culture of violence in sports and in society is beyond change via a written document.
Having a representative such as Odorizzi is huge. It matters. I can tell you, as a survivor, an advocate, a baseball writer and fan, it’s extremely meaningful. And for a team with that kind of history, they’ve uniquely positioned themselves as frontline fighters of violence against women. The Rays can be a model in the baseball world for how real words and action can make a difference.
At the end of the interview with Odorizzi, I turned off the tape recorder and shared some personal thoughts, then thanked him. We spoke for a few moments, and while I won’t repeat the exchange, it was clear that the man who took that pledge cares deeply about violence against women.
Your move, baseball.