Living

The Trouble With the Mets: A Superfan Reckons With Baseball’s Domestic Abuse Problem

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A couple of years ago, when the New York Mets made a playoff run that ultimately ended in defeat to the Kansas City Royals in the World Series, I found myself, for the first time since childhood, interested in baseball.

I grew up not in Mets country, but in the suburbs of Boston, where baseball is inescapable. When I was a kid, in the 1990s, my friends would bemoan the decades that had passed since the last Red Sox World Series victory, in 1918, as though they personally had lived through them. The Sox, though, weren’t my team. My mother was a Long Island transplant, and so the Mets ruled in our house. Women make up only 30 percent of Major League Baseball’s regular audience, a statistic that always surprises me: Some of the most fanatical baseball fans I know are women. After all, my mom caught the bug from her own mother, who — during that 2015 playoff run — emailed us, “I have my Mets ’69 shirt on, drank my coffee from my Citi Field Inaugural mug & am about to put on a Mets hat to go to the PO.”

Despite my mother’s fanaticism, my interest in baseball came later. Perhaps more than other sports, baseball engenders a kind of personal involvement with individual players: Its appeal comes largely from the narratives that unspool on the sidelines. When I became a fan as an adult, watching the Mets four nights a week, it was largely for the human-interest side of the sport. My mother and I routinely discuss not only player performance but also, for instance, Mets righthander Noah Syndergaard’s love life. But that kind of personal involvement can cut both ways.

On April 20, Mets closer Jeurys Familia took the mound against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citi Field, his first appearance of the season. Familia, who notched 51 saves for the team last year — a franchise record — hit 98 mph on the radar gun, striking out two and not allowing a run. But he also walked two and labored through thirty pitches. The Mets lost that game 6-4.

Familia’s debut was delayed not because of injury, but due to a fifteen-game suspension he was handed at the end of March under Major League Baseball’s Joint Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, and Child Abuse policy, instituted in 2015. The suspension stemmed from Familia’s arrest last November after his wife, Bianca Rivas, called 911 and summoned police to their Fort Lee, New Jersey, home. When officers arrived, they found Rivas with “a scratch mark on her chest and a bruise on her right cheek.” She later denied that Familia hit her, and no charges were filed.

With Familia and infielder José Reyes, who was suspended for fifty-one games last year for allegedly assaulting his wife in a Maui hotel room in October 2015, the Mets have the dubious distinction of featuring on their roster two of the four players who have been suspended under MLB’s updated domestic violence policy. The first, New York Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman, was banned for thirty games last year for an incident the previous October in which the then–Cincinnati Red allegedly choked his girlfriend and fired eight gunshots inside the garage of his Davie, Florida, home. The most severe penalty was dealt to former Atlanta Braves third baseman Héctor Olivera, who was sidelined for eighty-two games after an apparent altercation with a woman at a hotel near Washington, D.C., in April 2016. Chapman, later traded by the Yankees to the Chicago Cubs, was
part of that team’s 2016 World Series–winning playoff run; he returned to the Yankees as a free agent in the offseason on a five-year, $86 million deal. Olivera is currently an unsigned free agent.

Neither Familia nor Reyes has been convicted of a crime, but Familia’s case is more ambiguous. It is, of course, entirely possible that he did not hit his wife: According to Rivas, her one-year-old son was responsible for the scratch on her chest, and the bruise “came from resting her hand on her face while she was lying down.” Familia did admit to damaging a bedroom door but denied having assaulted his wife. It was, his statement read, “important that it be known that I never physically touched, harmed, or threatened my wife that evening….I did, however, act in an unacceptable manner and am terribly disappointed in myself. I am alone to blame for the problems of that evening.”

Reyes, however, did not deny having assaulted his wife, Katherine Ramirez, following his arrest in Hawaii in October of 2015. Ramirez declined to participate in her husband’s prosecution, but sustained more serious injuries than
Rivas did — Reyes allegedly choked and slammed her against a glass wall — and Reyes’s suspension was correspondingly more severe. Widely viewed to be past his prime, Reyes was released by the Colorado Rockies in the wake of his suspension and subsequently signed by the Mets, the team that discovered him as an amateur out of the Dominican
Republic in 1999 and for whom he had played for nine years as a fan favorite. For New York, plagued by injury last summer, re-signing Reyes represented a low-risk investment: Because the Rockies had released him, the Mets would only be responsible for a prorated portion of the $507,500 major league minimum salary, while the Rockies paid out the remaining $38 million Reyes was owed under a deal he’d signed with the Miami Marlins in 2011.

The issue of domestic violence has long plagued sports. It has received
increased levels of attention in recent years, however, in part due to the reverberations of the Ray Rice scandal in 2014, in which two separate videos of the star NFL running back assaulting his fiancée circulated endlessly online and on cable news. In the wake of the episode, the NFL, under the auspices of commissioner Roger Goodell, hurried to implement a new domestic violence policy, but it rapidly came under criticism and has, many feel, proved less than effective. Last year, Giants kicker Josh Brown was suspended for just one game after his 2015 arrest for repeatedly beating his pregnant wife, abuse he’d described in journals and letters. The Giants eventually released him, but only after significant public outcry.

Perhaps inspired by the NFL’s failure to reckon with domestic abusers, the NHL last year implemented mandatory domestic violence and sexual assault prevention sessions for all teams. During negotiations for the NBA’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement in the fall, it was reported that that league’s CBA would “likely clarify the disciplinary procedures in dealing with domestic violence policy violations.” Baseball, meanwhile,
continues with its 2015 policy, which includes suspensions; treatment for players involved in domestic violence incidents; and training, education, and resources for all players in the league.

A satisfying solution to the problem of domestic violence and sports, and
indeed for the problem of domestic
violence in society at large, is not forthcoming. Simply blacklisting players who may or may not have committed spousal abuse can backfire: Brown’s wife, Molly, and Chapman’s wife, Cristina, both worried that their husbands (or, in Molly Brown’s case, ex-husband) would be cut from their respective teams. Many players’ wives depend on their husbands financially, and as Dr. Beth Richie, who served on the NFL’s policy group for domestic violence education and prevention, told Jezebel in 2014, “it’s never a one-time incident” — so “isolating someone from their meaningful community just means that they displace their violence onto someone else.” On the other hand, Bethany P. Withers, who conducted a study on domestic violence in sports, the results of which she detailed in a 2010 article for the Harvard Law School Journal of Sports & Entertainment Law, found that the vast majority of athletes accused of
domestic violence are not punished at all, and many cases go unreported.

I remember Reyes in his heyday as an All-Star shortstop with the Mets. When he made his major league debut on June 10, 2003, one day short of his twentieth birthday, he was electric — young, buzzing with energy and an infectious smile, demonically fast around the bases. Even I, famously baseball-agnostic, liked José. So did everybody else — so much so, in fact, that many people seemed happy to have him back in Queens even years later, his best baseball behind him. That signing did spark some minor controversy — press coverage was mixed, and New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said that the Mets “should be ashamed” to bring him back into the fold. But when he appeared in his first game back with the team, on July 5 of last year, fans at Citi Field greeted him with a standing ovation.

Watching at home, I felt less welcoming. In fact, I was furious. Reyes’s public apologies were unsatisfying; though more explicit than Familia’s — whose sheepish claims that his “unacceptable” behavior had caused “problems” rang more evasive than sincere — Reyes’s statement strikes me as similarly awkward and vague. “I deeply regret the incident that occurred and remain remorseful and apologetic to my family,” he offered.
“I am happy to put this all in the past and get back to doing what I love most, playing baseball.”

The Mets appeared to share that eagerness to move on. The day of Reyes’s return, SNY ran a hagiographic montage at the beginning of the broadcast, and commentators Gary Cohen and Keith Hernandez talked themselves into knots attempting to justify his presence on the team. Cohen seemed to be convincing himself as he spoke; Hernandez, meanwhile, pointed out that domestic violence also occurs
outside the United States.

I was desperate for anybody involved with the team to take a firm stance against Reyes’s signing even as I knew that no one was going to break rank. I do not doubt that many of the men in the organization felt sympathy for Reyes’s wife, but the message they were sending was clear: She was less important than winning a few more baseball games. Familia’s wife has likewise been absent from the conversation in the wake of his suspension and return to the game. Though Reyes’s re-signing did prompt some debate, Familia’s suspension has inspired almost none: Cohen, Hernandez, and fellow analyst and former Met Ron Darling have discussed it almost exclusively as a practical impediment to the team’s success. On the
evening of Familia’s return, Darling
cursorily noted that he had been “taken off the suspended list,” as if player
suspensions were akin to being placed on the disabled list or taking leave for bereavement. It is as though, by having one brief and superficial conversation about Reyes, the Mets and those around the team have decided that there is no need to ever do so again.

Baseball players, like all professional athletes, are public figures, subjected to scrutiny as well as adulation. Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, for instance, inspires awe across the country for his astonishing skill on the mound. Syndergaard is beloved by fans not only for his fastball, which routinely reaches 100 mph, but also for his affinity for Game of Thrones, his Twitter account, and his nickname, “Thor,” bestowed upon him because of his six-foot-six, 250-pound frame and flowing blond locks. When fans pledge their loyalty to a player, they are drawn to personality and persona as much as to athletic prowess: Wilmer Flores, who memorably cried on the field in 2015 when he learned that the Mets were planning to trade him to the Milwaukee Brewers — a deal that later fell apart — remains
especially beloved.

Public figures inevitably also become objects of fantasy. I don’t mean sexual fantasy (although that is often a factor), but something more straightforward. My mother and I have never met Syndergaard, nor his good friend and fellow long-locked Mets righthander Jacob deGrom, but we have spent enough time talking and thinking about them that it sometimes feels like we have. Most players on the Mets are likable public presences, but Syndergaard and deGrom are particularly endearing. If you spend enough time watching athletes on television, you start to feel like you know them, even though all you’re seeing is men at work. But baseball is a leisurely sport, full of downtime and dugout antics, and players like Syndergaard and deGrom encourage its central fantasy, which is that the team coexists in
perfect male-bonded harmony.

To some fans, especially some women, this impossible fantasy can
be seductive. The world of baseball is entirely male, and in the absence of women, sexuality exists off-field and off-screen. The players, despite being specimens of athletic masculinity, remain boys in perpetuity — and boys, unlike men, cannot hurt you. Something about the all-male environment seems to encourage this sense of arrested development: While some players are very serious people, others, like Syndergaard and deGrom, pass the time by, for instance, playing hockey in the dugout with two large shovels and a spare ball. Familia is himself a great jokester around the clubhouse, known for pranking teammates, reporters, and visitors alike. Last summer, Adam Rubin tweeted that Familia “brought fake dog poo to work today and was trying to fool people into thinking it was real.” This is all very charming, until, all of a sudden, it isn’t anymore.

But the fantasy of baseball is not only for women. More than any other major American sport, baseball trades on self-mythologizing; its entire stock-in-trade is a fantasy of a collective, nostalgic American past, emblematized by Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth — and of our own individual pasts. When I started watching as an adult, I was shocked to discover how much baseball had infiltrated my childhood, despite my best intentions. Baseball, inherently, feels like the past; as much as it may want to modernize, it depends upon our nostalgia to survive. When a player is suspended for allegations of domestic violence, then, it is in the best interest of the league to minimize the story and get back to making viewers feel good.

But that is not always so easy. For me, the experience of watching a player who has been suspended because of an incident that involves domestic violence, even an alleged one, is alienating. Baseball players do not play in a vacuum: When the Mets signed José Reyes to play baseball, they also signed up their other players, employees, and broadcasters — as well as their fans — to participate in his rehabilitation. I knew that nobody was going to speak out against Reyes’s signing because I understood that the team had made up their minds for them. The few players who did discuss it publicly — including David Wright, Matt Harvey, and even Familia — uniformly condemned Reyes’s actions but supported his being offered a second chance.

This was disappointing, but unsurprising. The central problem for female fans — or at least for this female fan — is that the myth of baseball has been written, for the most part, by men. I wanted somebody to decry Reyes’s return, or to even fully acknowledge the reasons for Familia’s absence, because a player or commentator taking such a step would mean a baseball professional fully acknowledging women as people. Most chilling to me last year was the sight of Reyes hanging out in the dugout with the rest of the team, working, as he had said, “to put this all in the past.” He was warmly received by seemingly all the members of the team to whom I had grown so attached. For the first time, they and their antics did not seem charming or merely silly — they, too, seemed alien.