On Tuesday, the Tigers announced a number of signings. The headliner was outfielder Leoyns Martín, but the notable minor league name was Derek Norris. Norris is a catcher who last year was suspended for the final month of the season after his former fiancé described him as physically and emotionally abusive, and detailed a time in which he put her in a choke hold, grabbed her hair, and restrained her as she tried to get away.
This is the man the Tigers have chosen to sign.
Now I have heard reasonable and evidence-based arguments against a zero tolerance policy. In certain situations, harsh sanctions on abusers can put victims in more danger, and ultimately any policy from MLB should focus on victim safety and changing societal attitudes ahead of simply punishing the player. I understand that banishing players from the game entirely may not be ideal or reasonable, even if that’s what my gut wants to do. The problem I have seen time and time again is that it’s not just that MLB can’t get the punish right, it’s that MLB teams don’t take domestic violence seriously.
The Tigers are no different. Here are some quotes from Tony Paul’s story:
“When we consulted with (MLB), they were like, ‘The guy served his penalty, he should be able to sign, that’s the way the process works,’” Avila told The News. “We do know the guy, David Chadd has known the guy for a long time, he knows the father, he knows the issue.
“We signed a good kid.”
Norris, as Avila pointed out, was not charged.
“We know this kid,” Avila said. “It’s not his character.”
Avila makes a couple of major mistakes in those comments. The first is that he essentially denies Norris’ fiances’ claims. Avila does nothing to indicate he thinks the claims are true, and hints that he doesn’t believe they are consistent with who Norris is.
Second, Avila says good things about Norris’ character and does not say anything negative about his actions. It’s one thing for a baseball executive to say “this guy is good at baseball,” but he specifically calls him a “good guy.” I don’t expect baseball teams to care more about morality than they do about winning, but they should at least be willing to discuss the moral failings of the people they employ to play baseball.
Al Avila is not a politician, a clergyman, or a public intellectual. I don’t expect Avila to solve the problem of domestic violence. He wasn’t selected for his ability to do that. But he is a public figure who has been given stewardship of one of our most treasured institutions.
Avila’s comments reflect a man who does not take domestic violence seriously. Full stop.
As I said, general managers aren’t responsible for solving the problem in society but it’s hard to root for a team that doesn’t even seem to care about the issue. Avila dismissed the victim’s experience, lauded Norris’ character, and didn’t even say anything about how domestic violence is bad in general. This is all compounded by the fact that the Tigers are going to be bad this year and that Derek Norris, excuse my language, kind of fucking sucks. What’s even the point? This isn’t like Miguel Cabrera, who provides immense value on the field and brings with him significant personal flaws. This is a bad player and a bad guy. And the Tigers signed him without seemingly giving it much thought.
Believing women and working to stop domestic violence are important. Sports franchises have the power to shift public opinion. I’m not naive enough to say Al Avila taking a stand on Derek Norris would have changed the world, but meaningful change is always the product of a lot of small actions.
From a fan perspective, though, the only way I feel comfortable cheering for an organization is if they demonstrate they understand the seriousness of the offense. You don’t have to sacrifice winning for the sake of your morals (although I’d respect the hell out of that), but there’s no reason you can’t be forceful in your language and clear in your message that what Norris did was wrong and doing what he did makes him a bad person.What I want to hear is “Player X did a horrible thing. An unforgivable thing. But he insists he wants to change and he is doing A, B, and C to work toward that goal. We want to support his efforts to become a better person.” I don’t want to hear about “mistakes” or that he’s a “good guy” or that “well we don’t really know what happened.” No victim blaming. No discussion of baseball as a road to salvation. No “obviously I don’t condone it, but…” No efforts to minimize what he did.
I want institutions like MLB and the Tigers to use these cases as an opportunity to model behavior. And I understand there are people who say it’s not the job of teams and leagues to police society. That’s a fine position. There’s a difference between a quasi-judicial approach and simply taking the time to learn about domestic violence and how to speak about it intelligently. I don’t need players to be blacklisted automatically, but if I’m going to cheer for their team, I need to know the team is on the right side of the issue — that they care about the victim and the millions of victims who aren’t in relationships with pro athletes.
When you defend Norris or minimize his actions, you are essentially saying what he did isn’t a big deal and that attacking women is acceptable. You don’t have to send him to Siberia where he can never play again, but please, please, please take this seriously. Devote some time to learning about this problem and how to talk about it in a way that makes the world a better place to live.
Avila and the Tigers have failed that test. When you combine this with other previous problems on similar issues (i.e., Simon, K-Rod, Reed, Cabrera), it gets harder and harder to wear the Old English D with any sort of pride. Maybe someday soon I will simply stop wearing it.