Ex-Jay Gregg Zaun, now of Sportsnet, joined Bob McCown and Stephen Brunt to speak rather passionately on the subject of Yunel Escobar and Jays’ clubhouse culture during the six o’clock hour of Prime Time Sports on Tuesday– a segment which was followed by an instant classic of radio magic, as Alex Anthopoulos– berated for initially denying a request– briefly joined the program to discuss the matter, only to have his phone (presumably a Rogers device) experience some curiously-timed troubles just as McCown was turning up the heat.
Anthopoulos returned to the station Wednesday morning with Brady and Lang, better prepared and under less scrutiny than he’d faced the previous afternoon, and Paul Beeston spoke to Prime Time Sports on Wednesday evening to reiterate the club’s position. We’ll explore all of that this post, but for me the most instructive bit of chatter came between Zaun, Brunt and McCown– and that’s not necessarily so much because of what they said, which was alternately insightful and infuriating, but because of layers of crucial nuance that can be revealed by contemplating what they didn’t, or wouldn’t, as they veered gradually farther off the rails.
Zaun began in much the same place I was in Tuesday’s press conference wrap-up, bemoaning the curious messaging we witnessed. ”It was like they were all on a different page, and they didn’t have any time to prepare, yet they had a full day to prepare. And that was the best they could do?” he asked.
As I noted, the lack of coherence in the messaging really reflected worst on John Farrell, especially as he gave a flimsy explanation of how it was possible that nobody noticed the writing on Escobar’s face, suggested that it was his understanding that Escobar’s eye black messages were almost always uplifting (they’re not), and insisted that homophobia isn’t a problem in baseball, despite Escobar having acknowledged moments before that his now infamous phrase was in common usage among Latino players.
Yet as easy as it would be to skewer Farrell here, I think it’s only fair to point out that– while I don’t necessarily agree with the approach– the manager likely feels an obligation to protect his players and to not upset the clubhouse dynamic, which he may well have done by throwing them under the bus on any of those points.
I think it’s also clear it would have opened the manager up to some very harsh questions if he’d admitted homophobia was a problem in the game, and thereby his clubhouse. Simultaneously, it would have meant contradicting the message from Escobar that this is considered a benign phrase in many contexts, and commonly used in Latin America– in much the same way that similar phrases were far more widely tolerated in our culture not so very long ago, despite the fact that they were unmistakably known to be, at their most basic, very hurtful language– a point I think a lot of those so righteously outraged by this whole situation would do well to remember.
That’s not to excuse it by any, any means, but to remind us how far we’ve come and how quickly on this subject, and to admit that it was not long ago when I can recall hearing a person who’d called something “gay” offer nearly the exact same defence as Escobar gave, when called on it– just as lamely suggesting that it was benign, that it wasn’t directed at anyone in particular, that it wasn’t meant to be hurtful.
I certainly can’t be the only one to have this experience, and it’s… it’s just… as easy as it may be to be completely outraged by the nature of the translated language, I’m increasingly having a hard time wanting to bring the absolute fuckhammer down on a first time offender who is hardly the only player to have used that word, and who comes from a culture that has yet to, en masse, catch up with our understanding of what can and can not be tolerated in this realm.
In that sense I’m with Anthopoulos, who has been emphasising this as a moment to acknowledge and punish the stupidity of Escobar’s act, while mostly promoting education and awareness. It just cannot be as simple as dousing Escobar in biggot napalm and watching him writhe. And, I’m sorry, but part of me can’t help but also wonder how the nature of the reaction from some may have been different if this had happened during Escobar’s excellent 2011 season, and if so many weren’t ready to write him off anyway, because of his play on the field.
Zaun knows this– both about the language and about the quality Escobar’s play.
“The language and the words that are used in the confines of the clubhouse– in the sanctity of the clubhouse– can get pretty nasty,” he acknowledges. “It can be about as racist as you can possibly imagine, homophobic slurs get lobbed around at each other all the time. But that’s the nature of a clubhouse. It’s how men talk in the confines of a clubhouse. But in public we know those words to be unacceptable.”
What he’s doing here, apart from articulating an ugly, largely unspoken truth, is saying that context matters– which flies in the face of a lot of commentary I’ve seen.
As for Escobar’s play, Zaun says he agrees “100%” when McCown discloses that, if he were “the person encumbered on making the decision on the future of Yunel Escobar, he would have put on a Blue Jay uniform for the final time.” Yet rather than jumping straight to the incident as the core reason, we’re told that’s ”based on a couple of things: his play, his inconsistency at the plate, his overall lack of… consistency. He’s been an overall very inconsistent offensive player.”
I can’t possibly agree with letting Escobar’s poor season have any kind of bearing on one’s view of all this– and I’m not sure that’s what Zaun’s doing here, though he did make clear that he is no Escobar fan to begin with.
“I watch this guy play baseball on a day-to-day basis,” he explained. “I see the facial expressions, I see the body language. No doubt he’s talented, but he has a lot of growing up to do, as do several other young players on that ballclub.”
The former catcher kept rolling: ”People tell me he wears eye black with messages on it all the time. Isn’t that something you do in high-school? College? Unless it’s ‘I love Jesus,’ I’m thinking that’s just a little bit immature right there.”
Other than as a reason to get sanctimonious, I cannot comprehend why that should be such a massive deal, but Zaun referenced it more than once during the segment, pointing to it as one of many things that are emblematic of the much deeper problem he feels the club has.
“The atmosphere in this clubhouse and in this organization is consequence free,” he bleated. “Go ahead, play poorly for a couple of months, if your name is so-and-so and such-and-such, we’re going to cut you some slack. We don’t expect you to play the game properly. We don’t expect you to stand up and be accountable for your mistakes. It’s a consequence free environment.”
Zaun is not entirely wrong in that assessment– or especially in the examples he later gives of Brett Lawrie’s unapologetic baserunning errors, or Moises Sierra’s failure to have sunglasses forced upon him– but there’s far too much he misses as he continued to rail against what he claims he’s seeing from the Jays.
For example, while I– and anyone who has read Dirk Hayhurst’s books– understand the genuine, valid resentment that may be felt by 17th-round-pick Zaun for coddled prospects, it’s perhaps an uncomfortable fact of baseball life that the extraordinarily talented are going to get that much more opportunity to make good on their potential, simply by the underlying economics of value.
That sort of thinking– the processes behind allowing Colby Rasmus to play out the string last season– doesn’t gibe with old skool Zauner’s worldview– or, at least, the worldview of the Nick-Kypreos-of-baseball he seems to be striving to refashion himself as this season.
“This attitude like, well, we’ve just got to go out there and have fun– you know what? That’s a bunch of crap,” he says. “You know, it’s fun when you win, but this is a livelihood, this is a business.”
Escobar incident notwithstanding, I think it would be much easier to agree with what he’s saying about the “consequence free” culture if the club was playing anything resembling meaningful baseball; or if injuries hadn’t essentially stripped the club of any credible threat to take a player’s job away, which Zaun believes would have helped rein this supposed culture in; or if it weren’t entirely understandable why the club opted for a player like Rasmus to return in spring with a clean slate; or why Farrell may have elected not to be an overbearing disciplinarian for every single damn inning of all 162 games.
But that’s not at all to say that Zaun is entirely wrong. He says this of Lawrie:
“How many dumb mistakes on the bases is he going to be allowed to make before somebody sits him down and says, ”You know what, kid, maybe you should watch a few big league ballgames and see how big leaguers run the bases.’ The fact that he was unapologetic about the way he ran the bases and the way his baserunning errors probably cost the team an opportunity to be playing with the lead in the top of the ninth. The way he says, ‘This is the way I’ve always played the game, take it or leave it.’ Really? Are you going to sit by and accept that kind of nonsense?”
That’s bang fucking on– as is his later dumbfoundment at Sierra’s unfamiliarity with flip-up sunglasses. But where he loses me is when he tries to put those legitimate questions about accountability for in-game fundamentals and details into the same league as accountability for the manager not providing a daily examination of every player’s uniform accessories, like he ought to be acting as some kind of damn drill sargent.
Frankly, while it may be difficult to believe for many to understand how this message was able to walk out onto the field, I can empathise with the club’s position, especially after it was articulated by Anthopoulos during his Wednesday morning segment with Brady and Lang. Then, the GM pointed out that, while it may seem damning of the entire clubhouse that none of the Jays’ players or staff stopped Escobar from wearing the offensive text on his face, it’s not like any opposing players, umpires, reporters, broadcasters, or TV viewers noticed either. It was only when a fan with a high resolution camera zoomed in on a shot of Escobar the next day that it came to anybody’s attention. Nor did anybody notice some of the questionable expressions he had written on his eye black earlier in the year.
Zaun agrees that at least Anthopoulous deserves some slack on this, but not for the sake of damn common sense. It’s because “he’s not a baseball guy. He’s a sabermatrician. He’s a bean counter. He is the new era– this is a guy who was never a baseball player, he was never a coach, but now he’s making baseball decisions.”
That statement, of course, is made with the Kypreos-like insight of someone with not only the audacity to hold up Gregg “Blank Cheque to Jason Grimsley” Zaun as an ideal of professionalism, but also the intellectual dishonesty to act as though whatever disaster he thinks he’s seeing in the clubhouse culture is symptomatic of a non-ballplayer’s stewardship– as though Brian Cashman, Andrew Friedman, Theo Epstein, Jon Daniels, Brian Sabean, Dave Dombrowski, or the majority of current GMs, and a damn lot of the most successful ones, aren’t precisely what he’s railing against.
It’s crass, idiot empowering, conversation-dumbing meat-head populism at it’s finest, and entirely the reason anybody sane has lost faith in Zaun so quickly after welcoming him as a breath of fresh air last year. Yet… he’s not wrong here either:
“When you’re the general manager and you don’t like the way things are, you say something to the manager– and whether or not he agrees with you, that’s where debate happens. That’s where a manager and a GM are sitting in the office with the door closed, and the general manager is telling the manager, I don’t like the way things are being done around here. I don’t like the culture of this ballclub. Do you have anything to say about that? Is this your doing? Are you as upset with the culture of this clubhouse as I am? Do you feel like you cannot go to these players and say, ‘This behavior, this kind of attitude is unacceptable’? Are you afraid to hurt people’s feelings? Are you afraid to bench a player for poor performance, a repeated mental error– what is the culture we’re creating in this clubhouse?”
All that is completely fair to wonder, and something one hopes Alex Anthopoulos is thinking deeply about right now, but… I find it’s just so ridiculously easy for this kind of clubhouse stuff to be magnified immensely in the light of such a terrible season, especially when we know it would be easily explained away by another narrative were things going better. Frustrated fans eat this shit up, though, and Zaun Cherry seems happy to be there to shovel it to them.
And let’s not forget McCown on that front, either. The host railed particularly hard against Escobar through his entire show on Tuesday, which I found especially odd given his own experience– in very different circumstances– with being labelled a bigot, years ago, by Cito Gaston.
“I think you gave him the bare minimum. I’m not satisfied with this suspension,” he told Anthopoulos in the segment following Zaun’s. “I do not want to see this player in a Toronto Blue Jay uniform ever again. I do not want him representing the city of Toronto ever again. And anything less than that, I think, will be insufficient. If that sounds harsh, that’s fine. But this is not a casual comment, this was a thought-about, pre-planned decision by Yunel Escobar to do this. He had the opportunity to think about it, to execute it, to change his mind if he wanted to, and he chose not to. I don’t buy, and I don’t think anybody buys for a second the BS he was spewing at his news conference today about he didn’t mean to offend anybody. He meant to get that message out, and to offend somebody. Was it a group or an individual, who cares? But even if he didn’t mean to do it, he did it anyway. Alex, if you did that, under the terms of your contract and your employ with Rogers, you’d be dismissed, and so would I, and so would Brunt, and frankly, I don’t understand why this guy, right now, is a member of the Toronto Blue Jays.”
Now, I don’t want to come off like I’m bending over backwards to defend Escobar, but this to me is mostly insanity. McCown is not wrong to point out that it would be grounds for dismissal had any other Rogers employee done such a thing– though Paul Beeston, in his segment the following day, admitted the like-it-or-not reality that these millionaire players are not simply the same kind of employee as most– but the core of what he says hinges entirely on the notion that “he meant to get that message out,” as though as though “that message” is entirely unambiguous.
The unfortunate truth seems to be that it’s not, and that such language is thought relatively benign, even by people who understand what the meaning is.
They’re entirely wrong to think it benign, of course, but it baffles me that so many sanctimonious fans and commentators could be so heavy-handed in their condemnation of a vile linguistic nuance of a culture that, if we’re being honest with ourselves, isn’t very different from where we were in the all-too-recent past, and in many ways still are, behind far too many closed doors (read a YouTube comment thread lately?).
Sure, Escobar has been in North America long enough to have damn well known better, but I’m sorry, if forced to decide whether I believe he is a hate-filled swine with full comprehension of our cultural standards who wrote a message of intentional bigotry on his face or a pampered athlete who, when here, has lived mostly in a bubble that’s kept him disconnected from our evolving social graces, I can’t help but kinda believe the latter.
“If you are mandated to give him a three game suspension, you are empowered with the privilege or the right, to decide that this guy will never put on a Blue Jay uniform again,” McCown pressed on. “Whether you have to pay him for the last twelve games of the season and act beyond that, you have that power independent of what the league or the Players’ Association or anybody else has to say–”
At this point, before the host could spit out his central question, involving why the Jays wouldn’t go, on their own, with a suspension beyond three decided-upon games for Escobar, Anthopoulos began answering, only to have his phone mysteriously cut out.
“We decided not to make that determination,” the GM explains. “You said you don’t believe it, you don’t care what he says, and ultimately for me to debate you on that, I’m not going to get anywhere going there, but–” and then he was gone.
But that wasn’t the end to this little bit of theatre…
AA’s phone “cuts out” during vicious McCown segment. He then calls Cybulski. UNBELIEVABLE!!!
— Glen MacDonald (@i_am_glennymac) September 18, 2012
It sure sounded like Anthopoulos didn’t like McCown’s line of questioning and hung up on him. 2 minutes later AA was on TSN radio. #panicOMP
— Glen MacDonald (@i_am_glennymac) September 18, 2012
Now, listening to the clip, before Anthopoulos was introduced on TSN Radio, we were told the time was 6:44 PM. That could certainly be a scheduled appearance, as he had been the guest during the 6:20 PM block with McCown. So it’s a bit rich to get overly conspiratorial with it. Clearly though, as was particularly evident from the more assertive posture he took the next morning with Brady and Lang, Anthopoulos wasn’t initially prepared for the tough questioning from McCown.
“Do you release him, do you trade him, do you suspend him for a year, do you suspend him for the season? Those are all things, to be completely candid, that went through my mind,” he claimed in reply to the morning hosts, setting the foundation of his adjusted PR defence.
“I think as we went through the process of all of it– we can come up with any adjectives: stupid, selfish, shameful, insensitive, which goes without saying– but I think, when it all came down, I think the culture– really not saying– this isn’t to discriminate or to point at any groups, but we had a lot of our Latin players talking about. Culturally, the way they communicate certain things and what words are said– I read something Ozzie Guillen had talked about: the word is used in his household every twenty seconds,” he explained.
“Now, obviously that doesn’t make it right, because we don’t play in Latin America, we play in North America, we play in Canada and the United States, and we have players from all different cultures, but you can’t bring things that aren’t accepted in our cultures– that goes without saying. What’s glaring about all of this is the lack of education,” he continued, hammering on what I agree is the key point. “I think that’s what this comes down to. And as angry as anybody wants to be, it’s stupidity and it’s a lack of education, and it’s on us.”
“This is not the only player that’s used that word,” he elaborated. “Obviously writing it on his eye black is, for lack of a better word, stupid– or maybe that is the right word. But I don’t think this is about clubhouse culture.”
Yes, with such phrases he’s clearly cutting his attackers off at the pass, so maybe there’s reason to see cynicism in his words. And there’s still something amiss about the way the clubhouse failed to handle this internally and passed the buck somewhat when it became public. But for me there just isn’t enough of a case to be made, without wild assumptions and pathological nitpicking that ignores a lot of broader context, that it’s time to burn whatever’s left of a rancid clubhouse culture and turn our heads away until the smoke clears. And maybe Anthopoulos is not throwing himself, or Escobar, down at our feet for flagellation the way some may feel is satisfactory, but I don’t think that, or anything else, makes him necessarily wrong here.
“I don’t believe one person’s bad judgement means we have a bad clubhouse,” said Beeston when it was finally his turn on the mic. “And I don’t mean just bad judgement, I mean egregious bad judgement.”
That last bit, at least, we can all agree on. The rest, obviously, is still terribly muddy, even if I feel I’m finally starting to kinda grasp where best to come down on all this.