It’s been a tricky few days navigating the landscape of the Chicago Cubs acquiring former New York Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman.
I don’t think I was opaque about my feelings, at least not intentionally so; it’s just that those feelings were a muddied mess of dissonance as a fan, responsibilities as a writer, and my own sense of always wanting to be as fair as possible. I’ve known since thing one that Chapman always struck me as one of the most impressive baseball players in the game today – a freak in the best sense of the word. His baseball performance would make the Cubs much better.
But, at the same time, he was suspended 30 games under baseball’s domestic violence policy for an October incident that, over the course of various stories in the police investigation (which did not result in a prosecution), seemed to involve an altercation between Chapman and his girlfriend (which may have been only verbal, but may also have been very physical), and then definitely involved Chapman going into the detached garage at his house and firing eight bullets. I know enough about domestic violence to know that I don’t know enough to comment intelligently on what this all means. I do know that, absent more specific facts, it’s hard to judge, morally, what happened, but I also know that it might be really bad. I’m open to being better informed, and letting that guide me forward.
So I’ve struggled with how to process this acquisition. I needed to hear more from the people at the center of this this transaction.
Yesterday, when announcing the deal, the Cubs took the extra step of having both Chapman (the traded-for player, mind you) and owner Tom Ricketts release statements. Chapman expressed contrition for the first time since the incident, and Ricketts indicated that the trade was not going to happen until after they’d had a chance to meet with Chapman and discuss these issues. For me, that was a positive step in helping me understand how to get from there (is it really worth making this trade? are the Cubs risking being too “win at all costs”?) to here (maybe I need to be even more fair in evaluating what did or didn’t happen in the October incident, what has happened since, and how the Cubs processed that information in making this trade).
Still, it was always the front office I wanted to hear from most. After all, they are charged with constructing, maintaining, and improving the roster in a way conducive not only to on-field success, but also in a way that doesn’t lose sight of the fact that the reason winning matters in the first place is because fans enjoy sports. No one should be asking that the Cubs’ roster be filled entirely by perfect people, but the way fans are – or are not – able to connect with the players in a joyful way beyond their playing ability is, to me, inarguably a big part of the fun of sports. I care most that Anthony Rizzo rips the ball. But it also makes me smile to know that he’s a really good dude in the community. I know the old saying is that you’re just rooting for laundry, but, you know, I don’t really want to be. It’s nice when there’s more, especially when this is a season that could have the most forever-ever stamp of history put on it. If and when it happens, we’re going to remember these players. And these players have been carefully and thoughtfully brought into the organization by this front office.
So, against that backdrop, I offer you Chicago Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein’s comments on the trade, which you can see/read here, here, here, here, and here, among other places. There is also a full transcript of his comments here at The Athletic. I really think you should read the whole thing – he spoke for more than 30 minutes – but I want to single out this portion for emphasis:
“[W]e understand that there would be lots of different perspectives on this, that there would be lots of strong feelings on this and that people would feel differently. We understand that and we respect it. In the end, it was our decision and we decided that it was appropriate to trade for a player who has accepted his discipline, has already been disciplined by Major League Baseball, who expressed his sorrow and his regret for the incident in a statement at the time, in a meaningful statement [yesterday] and even more importantly, to me and Tom [Ricketts] directly [yesterday], over the phone, before we were willing to consummate the trade. A player who is active currently in Major League Baseball and pitching for another team and was pursued by countless other teams across the league. So we decided that under the circumstances, after careful consideration, even understanding that people would see it differently, we decided it was appropriate to trade for that player. It doesn’t mean we’re turning our back on the importance of character at all. I think because we’ve emphasized character in building the core that we have, we have a tremendously strong clubhouse culture, we have great character down there and we think it will help Aroldis as he moves forward. Again, after expressing sorrow and regret for the incident, and expressing that’s he learning from the incident and continues to grow as person, I really we think this could be a good environment for him, given the culture that we have ….
I guess the best evidence of how much we deliberated and how much thought we put into it is we weren’t willing to make this trade until we got a window from Major League Baseball with the Yankees’ permission to speak to Aroldis. We have that conversation [yesterday] and the trade was contingent on that conversation. If we had not been satisfied by what we heard from Aroldis, we would not have moved forward on those grounds. Aroldis was really heartfelt in that conversation and I think you can see from his statement that he’s taking responsibility.”
Epstein also, of course, discussed the baseball impact of the trade, and the importance of taking advantage of this window to win, even if it means thoughtfully sacrificing some good young players and/or prospects. For me, I was already pretty on board with the baseball reasons for the trade, but again, you can read the above-linked articles for much more from Epstein.
I’m still digesting this all a bit.
In the end, can I still cheer for this Cubs team without feeling like a hypocrite? I can. Full disclosure: I didn’t expect that would be an issue.
Can I celebrate a blistering Aroldis Chapman fastball that strikes out the final batter of a late September or – dare I say – late October game? Only time will tell, but I think I can. I can’t promise there won’t be a part of me that pauses or catches myself or feels a twinge of discomfort.
But, so far, in the process of disclosing how this deal came together and the process that went into unpacking the merits of a Chapman addition when considering the domestic violence suspension, Chapman, Tom Ricketts, and the front office have done about as much as fans reasonably could have asked. They’ve certainly done what I hoped they would do when the first wave of serious rumors hit.
The rest – for me, I mean, because I’m not telling anyone else how to do their own fandom – will just take time.