We’re on our fifth day of Hustlegate, and there’s no end in sight. If you have any familiarity with the Cardinals, you’re aware that John Mozeliak’s comments about Dexter Fowler’s effort level have reached a fever pitch in national sports news. As I’ve followed the story, I’ve noticed that it’s focused on a (large) excerpt of Mo’s narrative, offered by most outlets without context. Here’s Mo’s quote that’s getting reported on:
I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and question his effort and his energy level. Those are things I can’t defend. What I can defend is trying to create opportunities for him, but not if it’s at the expense of someone who’s out there hustling and playing hard. Really, everyone needs to take a hard look in the mirror and decide what they want that next chapter to look like. And in Dexter’s case, maybe taking a brief timeout, trying to reassess himself and give him a chance for a strong second half is probably what’s best for everybody. I’m hopeful to touch base with him in the near future and really just decide what makes the most sense. But clearly, he’s not playing at the level we’d hoped.
As we’ve surely established by now, there’s a lot to dislike in that quote. It also leaves a lot of questions. Who is questioning Fowler’s effort to Mo? Why is Mo defending opportunity creation? What did Dan McLaughlin ask in the first place to elicit this rare nugget of frustrated candidness from Mozeliak? We can at least get a better picture by seeing Mo’s statement in its fuller context:
McLaughlin: I know you know Dexter Fowler very well. He’s having a tough year. There’s no other way to put it. How do you try to get him going, Mo? What do you do, from the Cardinals’ standpoint, to try to get him on the right track?
Mozeliak: Yeah, I would agree, it’s been a frustrating year for everybody involved, and… here’s a guy that wants to go out and… play well. I think he would tell you it’s hard to do that when you’re not playing, and not playing on a consistent basis. Um, but I’ve also had a lot of people come up to me and question his effort and his energy level. You know, those are things that I can’t defend. What I can defend is trying to create opportunities for him, but not if it’s at the expense of someone who’s out there hustling and playing hard. And I think, really, everyone just needs to take a hard look in the mirror, and decide what they want that next chapter to look like. And in Dexter’s case, maybe taking a brief time out, trying to reassess himself, and then give him a chance for a strong second half is probably what’s best for everybody, so… I’m hopeful to touch base with him in the near future and really just decide what makes the most sense, but clearly he’s not playing at the level we had hoped.
(If you care about this story at all, you owe it to yourself to listen to the section of the podcast at issue; Dan McLaughlin starts asking the question at about 6:18. Mozeliak’s tone can’t be reduced to text, and it’s as important as the broader context.)
As coverage has developed, the narrative has emerged that Mozeliak spoke about Fowler’s work ethic with either bad intent or an accidental candidness that revealed a more sinister reality in the way he thinks about Fowler. The comments have been offered into evidence (gleefully at times) as reflecting poorly on everyone from the front office to the clubhouse management to the meth-addled racist hicks that ran Fowler and his wife off Twitter earlier this year.
But beyond the obvious, the premise of even a lot of the better commentary has been flawed. Josh Matejka offered a TL;DR of Mo’s comment Tuesday, and while I generally agreed with 99% of his article, I’d offer a slightly different summary of Mozeliak’s remarks:
Danny Mac: How do you plan on helping Fowler improve?
Mo: He needs more playing time to work out of this. It’s tough to justify that with some question marks on his effort level and Bader and O’Neill busting their humps with every chance they get. Hopefully Dexter will get a chance to reset his approach here in the near term, refocus, and we’ll give him another meaningful chance to produce in the second half.
If I’m right, and I’d like to think I am, that changes the coverage pretty dramatically. Mozeliak did not go out of his way to “single out” and gratuitously attack Dexter Fowler’s effort level as Fowler was on his way to the hospital to meet his beautiful baby Ivy Noor.
First, to the “singling out” bit–McLaughlin asked Mozeliak specifically about Fowler, acknowledging that his season to date has been terrible and asking how Mozeliak thought the team could get him back on the right track. Mozeliak answered a question focused on Fowler with an answer that also focused on Fowler. So far, so good.
Second, to the “gratuitous attack on Fowler’s work ethic” bit–Mozeliak was not focused on Fowler’s effort level at all here. He tacitly acknowledged that Fowler needs consistent playing time to even hope to play well, acknowledged an underlying anonymous attack on Fowler’s effort level that is apparently conflicting with that need for consistent playing time, and expressed a hope that Fowler could produce well in the second half following a “brief time out” and being given an appropriate chance. Mozeliak’s effort comment was incidental to his broader point that Fowler needs more playing time to try to get right.
The really ironic thing here is that the worst version of Mozeliak’s comments (that Fowler does not deserve playing time because he is lazy) was bookended by acknowledgements that Fowler “wants to go out and play well,” that that’s difficult when you’re not getting consistent playing time, and that the best case scenario involves Fowler getting a meaningful chance to produce in the second half after a brief reset period. Mozeliak, while feeling unable to defend against anonymous criticisms of Fowler’s effort level, apparently has every confidence in Fowler’s desire to succeed and a set intention to secure him an opportunity to play regularly in the second half, presumably after the All-Star Break.
Finally, while this context and cast throws a less awful light on Mozeliak’s comments, it doesn’t absolve him of guilt for his careless words. Mozeliak transparently repeated an opaquely sourced attack on Fowler’s work ethic, effectively ratifying the attack from the second-highest seat in the organization. Regardless of their veracity, I agree with John J. Fleming and Josh Matejka‘s sentiments that repetition of such claims (1) has no potential benefit, (2) is unavoidably fraught with racial implications, and (3) generates only (now self-evidently) utterly unprofitable discussions. The other ironic thing is that Mozeliak’s attempt to walk back his criticism–claiming that he was talking about the whole team and not just Fowler–was patently false, and has only thrown gas on this fire.
But just because Mozeliak chose his words very poorly, that doesn’t make him Hitler. It doesn’t even make the main thrust of his answer to McLaughlin wrong. Fowler has struggled mightily, and barring some undisclosed injury, he is going to need to play his way out of it. The success of Bader and O’Neill (as well as the unmentioned but important failure of the Martinez-to-1B experiment and the accompanying need to get him more time in RF) do make it difficult to justify giving Fowler the needed playing time at his current production level. The best outcome here would be for Fowler to take a deep breath, find a place of balance, receive regular playing time, and return to being the excellent hitter and cromulent outfielder that I suspect he still is at a true-talent level. Fowler’s effort level didn’t need to come into any of that, and while Mo’s allusion to it has likely made the ultimate goal more difficult for Dexter to reach, I’m hoping against everything that he makes it there.
Author’s note: For what it’s worth, I think that Dexter Fowler works hard and is a driven competitor. Anybody who thinks he’s coasting now that he’s hit paydirt – a sentiment I’ve only seen repeated by ignorant, loud boors, but just in case you’re reading, stop it – hasn’t paid any attention to how deeply he’s felt the personal attacks that have accompanied his struggles. Fowler and his wife Aliya are some of the best people and brightest personalities to have graced St. Louis in recent years, and their widely-reported departure from Twitter, as well as the obvious pain that fan mistreatment has inflicted on Fowler apparent in recent interviews, are tragic, senseless casualties that reflect very poorly on our city. While I fervently hope for a resolution to this that brings healing, the fractures in the relationship between the Fowlers and Cardinals Nation are too deep and sharp not to leave some lasting scars, come what may.