Ultimately, I think we realize that baseball doesn't matter. It's a fun sport -- even a beautiful sport -- but baseball doesn't add anything tangible to our lives. We can't eat it, can't use it to build anything, and most of us aren't paid by or because of it. Instead, we follow baseball for the joy it brings to our lives, and because life is too short to fill it with things that don't bring you joy.
That's why I've decided to stop rooting for the Tampa Bay Rays.
The Rays have been sabermetric darlings for the last few seasons, since Stuart Sternberg and Andrew Friedman took over the club in in the mid-aughts and transformed what had been one of the worst organizations in Major League Baseball into a shining model of organizational efficiency in just a few seasons. Their rise was gleefully catalogued by Jonah Keri in his excellent book, The Extra 2%, which explained how Sternberg and Friedman not only remade the product on the field, but also the culture of the Rays.
Friedman and his club effectively exploited undervalued resources in the game, creating a rotating door of elite prospects who could make an almost immediate impact on the major-league club, and built a perpetual powerhouse in the American League East. Despite having one of the lowest revenue streams and payrolls in the game, the Rays have not finished below .500 since Sternberg and Friedman took the reins. Theirs was the quintessential underdog story -- the Bad News Bears against the real life Yankees, as well as the Red Sox -- and coming out on top. As Americans, we have come to love these underdog stories of unlikely heroes, who succeed by working harder and better than their more bloated competitors. The Rays story is the story of Bill Gates. Of Steve Jobs. It's Villanova basketball, the Miracle on Ice, and Hoosiers.
It has been a joy watching the Rays maneuver to beat the giants in their division, making smart move after smart move to uncover the next inefficiency. They were and are rightfully seen as industry leaders. I will not take a single thing away from what Friedman and Sternberg have done to make the Rays better. They've been tremendous.
But I don't enjoy it anymore. It's not because the Rays have suddenly gone from being the underdogs to the favorites. With their financial constraints, they will always be the underdog on the verge of collapse, and will have to tread twice as hard as any other team to keep their heads above water. It's that their latest inefficiency has been to acquire some of baseball's more questionable personalities.
First, it was Luke Scott. I'm not going to get political, but I doubt that Luke Scott and I agree on anything. I would say the sky is blue, and he would accuse me of being an environmentalist liberal hippie who is skipping our country southward on the road to hell. But that's neither here nor there. I don't care that Luke Scott is a conservative. I care that he generally seems to be a jerk, if his treatment of Felix Pie and his assertions about the President are anything close to representative of who he is as a person. Fine, though: any team can have one jerk on it, and I don't begrudge Luke Scott the opportunity to earn a living. I could just ignore him.
Then they willingly acquired Josh Lueke in 2011, who pled no contest to forcibly imprisoning a woman at his apartment in 2008, and who almost certainly sexually assaulted her, and who has never publicly discussed what he did that night or apologized for his actions. In fact, he has deflected responsibility whenever possible, talking about the importance of not reading the newspaper, and how his "mom has had it the hardest." Unlike the Mariners, the Rays can't claim they didn't know about Lueke's legal history. Instead, they acquired a player they thought was undervalued (for John Jaso!) because of that same legal history. Now Lueke is back in the major leagues. He has nine strikeouts in seven innings, but also six walks, so hopefully he won't be up for long. Still, I can't root for anything for Lueke except for greater self-awareness or, perhaps instead, an exceptionally debilitating case of jock itch.
This offseason, the Rays acquired Yunel Escobar, who painted an anti-gay slur on his eye-black last year for the Blue Jays, and who laughed it off as "just a joke" until forced to apologize by the Jays management and to sit out for three games by Major League Baseball. The Rays were also employing Matt Bush, a shortstop turned pitcher with a long history of off-field problems when he borrowed a teammate's SUV and ran over a motorcyclist. He fled the scene and was arrested a short time later outside of a strip club with a blood-alcohol content of .18. Too late (and probably unnecessarily, given that he'll be in jail until 2016), Friedman announced that Bush would never play in the Rays organization again.
Finally, there's Josh Sale, a 21-year-old former first-round pick who was suspended at the end of 2012 for having amphetamines in his system, and who just bragged on his Facebook page about throwing change at a woman, saying "Threw 50 cents at a stripper tonight. First time. Got kicked out and she got so pissed thought she was gonna cry.......your a stripper. Be thankful. Hoe." [sic.] He has since been suspended indefinitely by the Rays organization, according to Marc Topkin.
I suppose that's a good start. But what bothers me about Sale is not that he was a jerk who disrespected a woman. It's not that he abused her and treated her as if she wasn't even a person. It's not even his atrocious grammar. What bothers me is how proud of himself Sale is in the aftermath. At some point after he had thrown change at a person for laughs and gotten kicked out of the club he was at, he decided it was important enough to tell the world about how funny it was that he almost made a stripper cry with his cruelty, and that she should be grateful for the scraps he gave her out of whatever is left of the $1.62 million signing bonus he got in 2010. I find that abhorrent, and I doubt that any amount of time off is liable to make Josh Sale sorry about anything he did, except for posting his exploits where the public could get at them.
I'm grateful that the Rays are acting here, and I want there to be a place where players can earn a second chance to play ball after they screw up. But I'm just not able to cheer for them anymore. Players like Scott, Lueke, Escobar, Bush, and Sale take the joy out of the game for me. Instead of watching a ballgame, I'm stuck thinking about all the
terrible things they've said and done,* and all the other terrible things going on in the world. Baseball is supposed to be my escape from that. I'm sure other clubs have and have had players who are even worse, but they have not been as systematically public or proud about their behavior, and it's not a fan's job to go digging for it. It's a fan's job to watch the game and applaud and have fun, and I can't do that when the Rays are on the field anymore. Some underdogs aren't worth rooting for.
*Paul Sporer and Jason Colette point out that I may be lumping what Luke Scott said/did/believes in with the actions of Lueke, Bush, and Sale and making them morally equivalent. I want to be clear that I'm not equating their actions with Scott's beliefs (even if I believe those beliefs come from an inhernently racist narrative about the President and about foreign-born players). But Luke Scott's beliefs and actions make me not want to root for him, and take me out of the game, which is my overall point and why he's included here.
You don't sign players based on how they act off the field. Yes, it would be nice to sign players that were cordial and polite and provided a good image for the organization but it's a pipe dream to think you can have a system without a couple of assholes. In no way am I defending what any of them have done but to a certain extent, the Rays aren't a part of what these guys choose to do off the field. What Lueke did was disgusting, what Bush did was even worse, what Sale did was not a shock in the slightest but still inexcusable, and what Scott continues to verbally vomit is face-palm worthy, but the fact of the matter is that the team doesn't win games based off of the public image of its players.
On the other hand, the Rays did my team, The Nats, a big favor by dumping off Elijah Dukes off on them. The Nats learned from that debacle and for the most part (other than Rob Dibble's brief reign or error in the broadcast booth) have been relatively jerk-free since then.
I was just making a similar point on Twitter a week or so back, so I appreciate this well thought-out take on it. I think the thing that has bothered me the most if that it's not even a particularly defensible business decision to hire some of these guys. I get the concept of getting a value on a player that other teams may not want for some reason, but Scott hasn't been worth what he's been paid and I find it hard to believe they couldn't have gotten a prospect with less down side than Lueke for Jaso, just as an example. The whole thing just leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and like you said, baseball serves a purpose in my life for bringing joy, not for making me have even less faith in humanity than I do normally.