I’d like to ask your permission to depart from my normal subject. Usually, I tell you what the law says on a given matter. It may not seem like it, but the law doesn’t really account for what I think. Some of what I tell you is what I think is right, and some of the law I tell you about is the sort of thing that, were I able, I would strike as immoral, or stupid, or both. But the law generally doesn’t care what Sheryl Ring thinks of it, and while I do, in some of my cases, advocate for changes in the law, I’m not going to do that here.
This time, with your permission, I’m going to talk about feelings. My feelings. About why I love baseball. About why I have always loved baseball. And about how it impacts me when baseball doesn’t quite love me back. This piece is about the human cost of major league baseball teams employing alleged domestic abusers. This isn’t about policy; what MLB should do about the issue, I will leave for another day. This is about my stakes.
At its best, baseball can transport us to the place of hopes and dreams, where impossibly high barriers no longer seem insurmountable and mortal humans become giants. Baseball writing can do much the same, done well. Earlier this year, in a piece that still resonates with me, Meg Rowley said this:
Communities are home to all kinds of folks engaged in different bits of sin and kindness, all experiencing different stakes. We’re knit together by our sins and our kindnesses, sometimes quite uncomfortably. One such sin is the everyday kind, the sort of casual meanness and lack of care we all wade through all the time. It’s a smaller kind, but we still find ourselves altered by it.
It’s a passage I’ve found myself reflecting on this week after the Cubs made the decision to tender troubled and suspended shortstop Addison Russell a contract; earlier in the offseason, it seemed as if Russell wouldn’t be back with the team in 2019. Following the decision, both Russell and the Cubs’ President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein released statements to explain their decisions. To define the path forward. Russell spoke of being responsible for his actions, using words like “therapy” and “progress.” Epstein spoke of accountability, and partnership, with Russell and organizations committed to domestic violence prevention. They spoke of the future. But the discussion left me unsettled. And as I thought about it, I came back to Meg’s piece.
That was the everyday sin, the sin of disrespect and unfeeling. It is what makes our community less than perfect and less than perfectly welcoming. It is troubling, this lack of care.
I fell in love with baseball when I was a little girl. But back then, it wasn’t from watching games. I didn’t watch my first baseball game until the Yankees’ short-lived 1995 playoff run. The next year was when I came out to my mother for the first time. My mother didn’t want a trans daughter, and so she hid me away. I became the family secret, kept in my room for days at a time and brought out at night, after my sisters were asleep, for my mother to try the latest “de-transing” technique she had learned. Sometimes they were physical. Sometimes they were worse. She’d hit me, or have my father hold me down whilst she held a towel over my head and poured vinegar on it – yes, that is what we now call “waterboarding.” She chose vinegar because the fumes made it hard to breathe. One of my mother’s favorite games was to have my father hit me with a belt. But not by starting off that way; that wasn’t her style. She would hold me down at the kitchen table, and start by hitting the table with the belt. And then again, a little closer. Again, a little closer. Again, a little closer. I’d flinch, each time, as the belt drew closer, until the impact finally came.
Afterwards, confined to my room again in the early hours of the morning, my father would sneak in after my mother was sleeping. He’d regale me with stories about the game the Yankees had played the previous day, telling me about pitcher’s duels and mammoth home runs. And he’d always end the same way: “Don’t tell your mother.”
I became a Yankees fan because of my father – because of what those stories did for me. As the years passed, my father’s stories became my lifeline. He would, on occasion, talk my mother into letting me watch a baseball game on television. Usually, he would slip me box scores without her knowing, or leave the newspaper’s baseball pages underneath my pillow. And when he persuaded my mother to let me go outside, I would spend hours with a yard-sale softball bat and a tennis ball, throwing up a ball and hitting it, over and over again, pretending I was the first woman on the Yankees.
I started to write my own stories and tell them to myself, about players I’d read about in the newspaper clippings my father left for me. When I was 13, my father arranged for me to help Bob Socci, the play-by-play announcer for the local minor league team, the Frederick Keys (the Orioles’ High-A affiliate), with his radio broadcast. Bob let me announce a couple of innings, which was the high point of my childhood. (My father convinced my mother to allow this by agreeing that my birthday would thereafter go unacknowledged.) I announced the game like it was another of my stories. I announced that game over and over to myself in the months that followed.
When I was 16, broken from years of abuse, I became actively suicidal. I went to my mother and begged her for help. She told me she hoped I did kill myself, because then she would be rid of her family shame. And then she told me to be sure I left no marks on my body, because it would make her look bad at my funeral. She recommended that I hang myself, because she could hide the marks with a collared shirt. It was in that moment that I realized that if I was going to be saved, I would have to save myself. I did it by telling myself a different baseball story every day, over and over. I made teams, spent hours projecting fictional triple-slash lines and standings, doing all the math by hand. That was my life between the ages of 8 and 16, when I started college. There was no school, there was no outside world. But there were the stories.
So when the Yankees acquired Aroldis Chapman — who was the first player suspended under baseball’s domestic violence policy — when they acquired him not once, but twice, it felt, oddly, like a personal betrayal. It felt, as Meg so aptly stated when describing our community’s sins, like disrespect and unfeeling. I felt unwelcome. The Yankees had gone from an escape from my pain to a reminder of the same. It felt as if the Yankees didn’t care about that pain, or the pain of other survivors. I don’t mean to compare myself to Chapman’s victim, nor to claim that our experiences, what we went through, are the same. But I do know what it’s like to have a member of your family inflict physical pain. I know what it’s like to have a family member try to kill you, on purpose. I know what it’s like to be smaller, weaker, unable to fight back except by simply staying alive. I know what it’s like to want to end it all, and have a family member hate you so completely that she openly wished for you to die.
There are an untold number of Cubs fans who understand the pain I’m talking about. It’s the type of pain that only comes from having a spouse, a domestic partner, a loved one, a parent, treat you like you are unworthy of love and deserve nothing, nothing but that pain and hardship. There’s something Melisa Reidy-Russell, Addison Russell’s ex-wife, wrote on her Instagram that captures this feeling.
But, somehow he could ALWAYS find a way to make me feel like it happened because of me, or because I wasn’t listening to him. It was ALWAYS my fault – You don’t realize it, but its a sick mind game that you get sucked into – All your source of happiness somehow is controlled by that one person, depending on how they decide to treat you on a daily basis. Feeling the need of affirmation from him became the main source of how I felt happiness. Always trying to please him to show him I was good enough, strong enough, worthy enough… it consumed me & before I realized it, I was so far gone from the person I used to be.
She might as well have been describing how I felt as a little girl about my mother. It is the feeling an abuser creates in their victim. Bruises heal, and scars fade. The emotional pain can last a lifetime. And, like an old wound that aches when it rains, it crops up every so often. The Cubs’ decision to retain Russell did that for me.
It’s easy to forget sometimes, but there’s a human side to baseball. Not just that players are human beings – they are, of course – but also that we, the fans, are human. We don’t watch baseball because we have to. We watch baseball because it brings us joy. It brings us happiness. It mimics life, yes, but it’s also an escape from that life. Baseball doesn’t owe Addison Russell a job. But it does owe us, the fans, a game that takes us away from our pain and into a better world, one where everything is possible, even 100-mile per hour fastballs and frisbee sliders. Keeping Addison Russell elevates the push to create the perfect baseball team over the perfect baseball experience.
When I was a little girl, baseball loved me when no one else did. For that, I will forever love baseball back. But I wonder sometimes if baseball still loves me. It’s a difficult feeling. It’s a hard question to ask. I’d like to be able to stop asking it. Russell and Chapman, Roberto Osuna and Derek Norris – they remove me from the stories. They turn the stories dark, and remind me of the monsters that can people them. I’d like to have my stories back. But more than that, I’d like to have baseball think my stories matter.
Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.