Let’s do a thought experiment: think of the team you follow most closely. When was the last time it was involved in an incident—one which goes beyond on-field play—that made you feel embarrassed to follow that franchise?
If it’s the Astros, the answer is simple, except maybe in the overflow of recent options—they’ve been so defined by stepping on upturned rakes over the last month it’s hard to remember when they weren’t 29 other fanbases’ least favorite. Their underdog upsetters, though, last week emphasized the perils of defining oneself in opposition when (not all, though most of) the Nationals raucously celebrated their championship with the president who had been booed in their own stadium a week prior. It almost seems the larger a team’s profile, the more inevitable their disappointment is. Just to gloss a few other playoff teams: the Yankees matched the Astros with an abusive reliever in the decisive inning of the ALCS; the Rays before the season chose to renew the reigning Cy Young’s contract rather than offer him a substantial raise; news of the Dodgers’ crimes.xlsx came to light just a year ago.
Just because a team is out of contention doesn’t mean it’s not acting in crappy, immoral ways, though there’sx a bit of a “tree falls in the forest” self-evidence to why, for instance, the Marlins or Padres have not been accused of robust sign-stealing operations or their pitchers of abusing pine tar. If the action is disconcerting enough, it will pierce the public consciousness, as the examples of the Angels and Pirates demonstrated in a year both teams ended up losing at least 90 games. Point being, though, is this sort of thing exists for every single baseball team (every sports team, really)—it’s an offshoot of the whole “no ethical consumption under capitalism” thing, multiplied by factors of “institutionalized monopoly” and “history of racial and gender discrimination.” If you’re not thinking of an unethical, possibly illegal, and highly-publicized incident in your team’s recent past, well, you’re not paying close enough attention, your memory’s faulty, or you are too allowing when it comes to a preferred team.
All of this to say: it should not be surprising, necessarily, that followers of baseball have been deluged in the last month by a wide variety of stories connected by a common thread: the league and its assembling pieces failing on issues of integrity, morality, accountability, and respect. It’s long been the history of the league, one of the game’s enduring legacies pulling against and counterbalancing the heroics, accomplishments, and legacies that have reliably fashioned baseball fanatics. To follow MLB is and has always been to make certain choices about what one supports. I’m not here to interrogate the ineffable qualities that bring fans to baseball and cement it as the northern star in the constellation of many people’s media interests. One can love baseball for its purity as a skill contest, its bundle of messy-yet-clear narratives, recognize that MLB presently offers the largest community of baseball followers and the widest volume of coverage, and still be anywhere from off-put to disgusted with the league’s handling and responses (or pointed lack thereof) to the relentless slurry of scandals that distract from the on-field product.
One can be invested in MLB and still hope and advocate for better things—Sean Doolittle has been emblematic of this advocacy, most recently demonstrated in his decision not to attend his team’s celebratory White House visit, for which he cited his lack of interest in being around “somebody who talks like that” (referring to then-presidential candidate Trump’s mocking a disabled journalist in 2015). Doolittle was not the only Nationals player to decline attendance, though none of the rest of a group including Anthony Rendon, Victor Robles, and Michael A. Taylor specified an ideological motivation behind their absences (Javy Guerra told the Washington Post he was not present due to preparations for his upcoming wedding). There are those in the sport, in any case, who want things to be better.
Still, when it comes to support of an organization, that hope for betterment must, to feel based in some reality, be precipitated on some concrete change or adjustment, or at least a legitimate indication of intent to do better, or, most simply, some sort of show that someone is trying. If not … well, the “monopoly” thing complicates this, but suffice to say it saps the affinity and special ardor many feel for the sport when those who are in positions of power in the most accessible avenue for most to follow the game mirror the avarice, indifference, and corporate arrogance that pervade so much of our current culture. To be attuned to something is to amplify it, and dismayingly following MLB feels more and more like tuning into various hazy broadcasts of ignorance and worse.
In innumerable ways, subtle and not, the league and teams indicate they have little interest in, or lack the capacity to seriously explore, making the sport more transparent and inclusive. The league can’t try—not in delivering an adequate explanation for, much less a solution to, the mass variance in drag that has home run rates pulsing like an overloaded speaker; nor with improving (ideally, in some part at least for the players) free agency that has turned into a slog—say, the qualifying offer mess that punctuates the barren winter several times to tick the thermometer down a few degrees more; also unaddressed is the service time manipulation mess that has start of each season marred by infuriating punditry and doublespeak so teams can artificially gain a year of service. To try in any of those would make the game better, sure, but might also cost some money in the short term. At least for those a simple explanation suffices.
All of the prior frustrations are directly adjacent to the actual games being played, ostensibly the league’s 11-figure product. And then there’s what the league would very much like to separate from the games, though its responses make its attempts trying: a massive blind spot when it comes to properly addressing issues of domestic violence. The latest failure comes in the hiring of the Giants’ new manager, Gabe Kapler. The hiring (which reunites Kapler with fellow former Dodgers staffer and Giants’ Director of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi) resurfaced numerous questions about the 40-year-old—and to a lesser extent Zaidi’s—handling of a pair of sexual assault allegations against Dodgers minor league players in 2015.
In the first incident, a 17-year-old girl was alleged to have been drinking in the hotel room of two players in Glendale, Ariz., during Spring Training (along with two women). The girl claimed, in emails to Kapler, to have been physically assaulted and ejected from the room by the two women, while one of the players filmed and uploaded the assault to Snapchat. In speaking shortly thereafter with police officers, she also alleged a Dodgers player sexually assaulted her before she was kicked out of the hotel room. Kapler has consistently maintained since the Washington Post’s February story that he was never aware of the latter accusation in his interactions with the girl and her grandmother. He was advised by the team’s, “lawyers and human resources personnel” and in his own statement wrote of “people within the Dodgers.” His approach was nevertheless, fundamentally flawed.
For failing to meet expectations, the players involved in the hotel room incident were not conventionally punished; rather, according to internal Dodgers emails and texts, Kapler required them to undergo training for “being a good teammate.” Specifically, the players were assigned to write essays about Dodgers history, take nature walks, practice yoga and meditation, clean the team’s weight room and watch motivational videos.
Kapler also proposed that the girl meet with the two players, who in his words “wanted to apologize directly to the victim for their poor decision making and lack of responsibility or maturity.”
There’s no question the response was a misguided, offensive one, but as no one has disputed Kapler’s (lack of) knowledge of the sexual assault allegation, it could be judged more unsavory than disqualiyfing. As has been pointed out by Kapler and officials of several teams, not only was he acting with the backing of the Dodgers, but MLB’s “landmark” joint domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual assault policy would not come into effect until half a year later, August 2015. In clear violation of that policy was Kapler’s handling of a second allegation of sexual assault, from October 2015.
The second allegation, at the same Glendale hotel, involved a Dodgers player accused of “an act of sexual violence” against a member of the hotel’s housekeeping staff. Published three days after the first allegation became public, SI’s report includes an email from Kapler detailing his meeting with the hotel manager.
His report made me feel embarrassed for our organization. I assured him that we’d address the situation swiftly and that this would not be an issue going forward. . . Although this was an isolated incident, it was egregious enough to warrant a conversation with all our men.”
The Dodgers eventually cut ties with the player, but took no other action. This is the definition of a protect-your-own move. A third incident, also reported by SI, occurred at the Glendale Hampson the following February, involving multiple players bothering women around the hotel to a degree one source characterized as “stalking.” This incident was also not reported, though SI did not indicate Kapler’s level of involvement and MLB cleared the Dodgers of wrongdoing in it.
Kapler had, before his announcement as the Giants’ new manager, given little response to the second story detailing what appears a pattern of his role in downplaying and burying serious and troubling allegations. His blog post in response to the first story was more refutation than remorseful, containing no apologies but rather an explanation of why he didn’t act.
I take violence against women, especially sexual violence, incredibly seriously… There is a big difference between responding to a player who displayed an unacceptable lack of judgment and one that assaulted a woman. I am well aware of that difference, and I assure you that I would have acted differently if at the time I was involved I had reason to believe that a sexual assault had occurred.
In short, I believed everything that the victim told me throughout the process, and I acted based on that information to the best of my ability. During my handling of this situation, I had no reason to suspect that a sexual assault was alleged. I tried to make the players involved aware of their poor decisions, and I tried to encourage them to make proper decisions in the future. I believe I acted with the best intentions based on what I knew at the time. My goal in every interaction is to always act with integrity and to treat everyone with respect, and I believe my actions reflected those principles.
Assault, and when reported, the legal and institutional responses to it, is a tremendously difficult situation for any victim, and response requires an individualized, empathetic approach. To know the exact best method of response in each of the situations detailed herein would require far more information than is publicly available. To essentially sit on allegations, though, is as irresponsible a choice as it is a dismayingly common one; and while the evidence suggests Kapler did, as he stated, act “differently” in response to an alleged response, there is little to suggest he put in the time with experts and advocates necessary to find the best course of action. This despite Kapler and his then-wife Lisa having founded nearly 15 years ago the Gabe Kapler Foundation, “aimed at educating the public about domestic violence and helping women and their children escape abusive relationships.” Though domestic violence and sexual assault are obviously distinct issues, Kapler’s massive blind spot regarding the latter is disconcerting given his now-shuttered foundation and the principles of safety, well-being, and stability that are common to acceptable responses to both.
At Kapler’s introductory press conference, Zaidi emphasized several things: first, that he along with Kapler had insufficient responses to the allegations against players under their purview as Dodgers staffers. This is notable given that the Dodgers have consistently defended their role in those incidents, and also because Zaidi had faced less scrutiny than Kapler, who was named in two separate reports. Second, Zaidi underscored the strides he believes both he and Kapler have made.
For both Gabe and myself, we have used this process to reach out to advocates and people in the community that are experts in this field, and try to understand from their perspective, how they view those events. And I think we both come to realize that there were things we could have done better.
Zaidi spoke of the need to consult with experts and support victims, the right sort of statement even to a skeptical audience, speaking to some sort of education, however basic, on the proper response to such situations. Kapler, renowned for the savvy analytical mindset that pulled him out of the unemployment line after just two months, said that, in retrospect, he would have “called his mom” and asked her what steps to take. An admirable mindset—if grating to audiences who are used to men qualifying statements with “as a father/son/uncle/secret godfather/nemesis of a woman”—Kapler’s statement stands out given that he could have followed in his new boss’ tread and said he would have, you know, consulted the experts and supported the victim.
No one—or almost—is saying Kapler should never work as a manager again. It’s just…hard to look at this whole sequence of events as it’s going to be presented and accept the packaged conclusion that a lesson was learned and things will be better next time. For one thing, there was already a next time, in October 2015, and the response was lacking. For another, there’s been little indication Kapler actually learned a lesson: between his February blog post and the press conference (nearly the entirety of his discussion of the topic), he has protested his innocence of wrongdoing, affirmed his principles, and ultimately copped to some small degree of mishandling (though coupled again with an affirmation of his heart and principles being in the right place).
Having faced no consequences, it’s up to fans to decide whether they believe Kapler has learned and will do better next time. Kapler gave his piece. He has to hope fans accept it. Luckily for him, MLB seems intent on not giving fans much of a choice otherwise. The world will keep spinning, so will the baseballs, and so will events fans take umbrage to. It’s MLB’s carousel, and the options are to go with the spin or get off.
Kapler’s second hire, after all the controversy on the field and no small bit off it, feels representative of MLB’s current moment: a slow-moving PR nightmare on top of a half-dozen botched accounts on a foundational, horrifying act of violence. Did Kapler learn anything? Probably not. Will it matter to his employment? Also probably not. Zaidi was hired in San Francisco before the allegations came to light, though as he is not directly named in either report (and, y’know, because of Kapler’s hiring) neither likely would have affected his hiring. San Francisco, to drag them into the next decade after their best in franchise history, hitched their wagon to Zaidi, and now Zaidi his to Kapler. His first managing go-round didn’t go perfectly, but that’s how it is these days in MLB: You take a couple goes at it, get in the neighborhood of saying the right thing, and move on. Everyone else does, eventually. They have to; there’s nowhere to go when bound to the path of a circle.
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now