On Jonah Keri, and how the domestic violence epidemic is rotting baseball

This year, I’ve written at some length about the innumerable problems with Major League Baseball’s domestic violence policy, and proposed a solution. At the same time, however, it’s becoming increasingly impossible to ignore just how deeply the cancer of domestic abuse and intimate partner violence is spreading – or has already spread – throughout the league.

Just this year, we saw the Pirates’ Felipe Vazquez arrested for sexually assaulting a 13-year-old. Roger Clemens is being considered for the Hall of Fame with little or no discussion of the fact that he allegedly sexually assaulted a 15-year-old. Former Astros assistant General Manager Brandon Taubman thought nothing at all of shouting “thank f*****g God we got Osuna!” at Sports Illustrated reporter Stephanie Apstein, simply because she wore a bracelet bringing awareness to intimate partner violence. Most recently, former Rangers and Giants reliever Sam Dyson was credibly accused of abusing not only his girlfriend, but also their cat.

It’s important to note that the fault for domestic abuse lies – in each case – uniquely and entirely with the abuser. That said, however, it’s impossible to examine the league without wondering what, exactly, contributes to this cultural lack of accountability which continues to permeate the sport. Unfortunately, we don’t need to look far to realize just how complicit we in sports media have been in excusing this behavior.

Bob Nightengale, for example, earlier this year wrote a paean to Addison Russell extolling him in terms which should be reserved for philanthropists rather than abusers, even purportedly repentant ones. Earlier this year, I noted that a number of members of the media had been strongly persuaded by the Cubs to publish only positive articles, a directive with which far too many people complied. Not committing intimate partner violence should be an expectation, not a praiseworthy accomplishment. (The Cubs organization, it should be noted, responded by calling me a liar.)

That said, it’s hardly surprising that we in the media are carrying water for teams on this issue, particularly when we have the same problem. Earlier this year, longtime baseball scribe Jonah Keri was arrested for domestic abuse, including threatening to kill his wife – charges his attorney did not deny but instead chalked up to things that are “sometimes said in a moment of anger.”

The response from the baseball world was sadly predictable: men saying that they had no idea Keri would behave in such a reprehensible manner, and women and non-men telling their stories about how Keri acted towards them for years before, in plain view and yet entirely ignored or dismissed. Just four months later, Keri violated the terms of his release by calling his former spouse, an act his attorney said was an inadvertent “pocket dial.” The baseball universe collectively shrugged, and went back to discussing non-tenders. One of those non-tenders was Russell, cut loose by the Cubs not for throwing his ex-wife into a concrete floor, but for his on-field performance.

That’s a problem for many, many reasons. The link between domestic abusers on the field and intimate partner violence committed by those who cover the sport off of it is not at all tenuous. Baseball writers contribute heavily to the culture of baseball – if you don’t believe me, just look at Bill James and the analytics movement. At the same time, though, it’s tempting to blame the epidemic of intimate partner violence on analytics dehumanizing players into assets to be bought and sold, but that oversimplifies things in the extreme.

Intimate partner violence was a problem for baseball long before WAR or even secondary average. The difference now is that analytics are simply the latest excuse for ignoring it, eagerly aided and abetted by a baseball media all too willing to embrace the idea of domestic abuser as redemption story. We saw this even with confessed child molester Luke Heimlich, whom the Astros were going to sign before Jeff Luhnow was “talked out of it.”

So where does that leave us? Some weeks ago, I pointed out that MLB’s domestic violence policy was targeting men of color to the exclusion of white offenders. Keri epitomizes that gap – a white offender, excluded from coverage under the domestic violence policy because he isn’t a player (even though the Baseball Writers’ Association of America is a party to other parts of the CBA), and a white cishet male sportswriter, typical of the overwhelmingly white, straight, male writers covering baseball to this day.

By some estimates, ninety percent of writers covering professional baseball are white and a similarly dismal percentage are male. It is therefore no surprise whatsoever that a white, male corps of journalists would act, perhaps even unintentionally, to protect its own. The result contributes to the sport’s lackadaisical attitude towards intimate partner violence generally, and to the disproportionate targeting of players of color when discipline and scorn are meted out. As I wrote earlier this year, for example, Felipe Vazquez is facing criminal charges for sexually assaulting a teenager, whilst Roger Clemens is being considered for Hall of Fame induction and Luke Heimlich was nearly signed by both the Astros and Royals after pleading guilty to raping a toddler.

All of this is contributing – and not at all quietly – to the rotting of professional baseball. When you learn to dehumanize one person in favor of a more powerful cohort, you can dehumanize anyone. It’s a paradigm repeatable over and over again. Dehumanizing the survivors of intimate partner violence leads inexorably to the dehumanization of other underprivileged groups – players of color, immigrant players, and eventually, players generally – in favor of the more powerful. The dehumanization of domestic abuse survivors is just another turn in that inexorable cycle, both cause and effect.

That’s why we in the baseball media need to do a better job of breaking that cycle. People are more than assets. Some actions are just wrong. Some things should not be turned into redemption stories for clicks. We owe it to the fans, the players, and ourselves to be more representative; white people should not be the primary disseminators to the public of information about a system which still retains vestiges of its deeply racist roots, and men should not be the primary disseminators of information about toxic masculinity and its effects. We need to have the humility to know when our writing will do harm, and how. We need to have the humility to know when not writing will do harm. And we need to decide what the cost of our unquestioning fealty to this sport is, and whether we can live with that in the years to come.

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