In 2015, when Bud Norris played for the San Diego Padres, comments made by the veteran pitcher to USA Today’s Jorge L. Ortiz raised many eyebrows and have followed Norris for the next three years, and will likely continue to follow him beyond that. In an article exploring that the majority of baseball brawls involve players of different ethnicities, Norris’s comments, which included the statement, “If you’re going to come into our country and make our American dollars, you need to respect a game that has been here for over a hundred years”, were generally regarded as at best clumsy and at worst overtly racist.
Bud Norris, a player who had never played on my favorite baseball team (and had developed a mostly hyperbolic reputation for pitching well against my favorite team), was an easy player for me to dismiss as a stodgy old crank (in reality, Bud Norris is less than four years older than I am, but this is more about a state of mind than one’s actual age). And the next season, when white-as-mayo St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Matt Adams punctuated a 16th inning walk-off home run against the now-Dodgers reliever with the exuberant histrionics that Norris vilified from a different messenger, I was extremely there for it.
This was on a Friday (technically a very early Saturday). By Sunday night, the Chicago Cubs had completed a trade for New York Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman, sending acclaimed prospect Gleyber Torres to the Bronx in order to load up for one grandiose run at the team’s first World Series title in 108 years. While Aroldis Chapman is one of the most dominant relievers of his era, he is also a man who had been suspended earlier in the season for 30 games for allegedly choking his girlfriend and shooting at her eight times at his home.
Aroldis Chapman was just about as undisputable of a villain as existed in Major League Baseball. But for fans of the Chicago Cubs, there was more than a bit of morality juggling to do. Many Cubs fans were openly outraged at the trade for non-baseball reasons and feared the possibility that the man who would record the final out of their long-cherished World Series championship would be such despicable scum. Of course, Chapman didn’t record the final out, because this happened. Let’s watch this video daily until we die.
The events of that one weekend in July 2016, that the Cardinals had destroyed The Fun Hater with their own joyous moment and that the Cubs had ceded any argument they had of moral high ground by acquiring human garbage, directly contrasted with the persistent narratives looming over the franchises. The Cardinals were the supposed arbiters of doing things “the right way”, a postseason mainstay that seemingly existed to remind the rest of Major League Baseball that fun is illegal and that the way to succeed in baseball is by assuring that nobody would ever want to watch it. The Cubs were the fun upstarts who got by on the sheer joy of Joe Maddon’s Fun Uncle vibe.
When the Cardinals signed Bud Norris a year and a half after Matt Adams destroyed his soul, I wasn’t thrilled about it. But then Norris went on to become the rare consistently reliable arm out of the Cardinals bullpen, I found myself able to ignore my negative feelings on Bud Norris as a person rather easily.
Flexible morality has always existed in sports fandom if one’s fandom is attached a team. One cannot assure that a team will consistent of twenty-five people who fit one’s criteria of acceptability. And there is a difference, at least for me, between Bud Norris, who is essentially a get-off-my-lawn grump, and Aroldis Chapman, whose actions were egregiously beyond the pale. Where a fan draws the line of weighing a player’s off-the-field demeanor is a personal decision, but drawing it somewhere between actions and words is a common one.
Cubs fans who two years ago had to wrestle with the ethics of rooting for Aroldis Chapman faced a new conundrum last week when the team acquired Washington Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy. On the scale of player likability, Murphy is closer to Norris than he is to Chapman, but after his 2015 comments in which he stated that he “disagreed with the fact that” former MLB outfielder Billy Bean was gay. While there have certainly been more overtly homophobic comments that Murphy’s–former NBA player Tim Hardaway’s comments from a decade ago certainly qualify, not to mention those of Milwaukee Brewers reliever Josh Hader from before his professional career–the shadow of what Murphy said have followed him from New York to Washington and now to Chicago.
How should Cubs fans feel about Daniel Murphy, a man most found very easy to vilify for his views on homosexuality when he was destroying their World Series hopes with the Mets in the 2015 NLCS? The honest answer is that I’m not really sure. But the truth is that if the Cardinals had acquired Murphy, once I got past not liking the move from a baseball perspective (though with Kolten Wong’s injury on Saturday, I might warm up to it a little), I’d probably find myself able to root for him pretty easily. He would certainly not be my favorite Cardinal, just as Bud Norris isn’t my favorite Cardinal, but I wouldn’t root against him to spite my favorite baseball team.
To be clear: this is an objectively stupid opinion. It makes absolutely no sense that I would root more for Daniel Murphy than, say, seemingly good guy Javy Baez. But it also makes no sense that Cubs fans currently, for the most part, will root for Murphy more than Kolten Wong. Baseball fandom is stupid and we all make our exceptions in the name of it.
I probably wouldn’t have made an exception for Aroldis Chapman as easily (Cubs fans did some moral bargaining by donating money to domestic violence charities when Chapman recorded saves), but the truth is that being emotionally invested in a baseball team tends to make one dehumanize players to some extent. It’s the reason when we discuss free agency, we tend to view “worst contracts in baseball” through a prism of “which players provide the least production for the most money?” rather than which players are not receiving what they deserve (here is the exception to that rule).
And the only compelling reason for any Cardinals fan to cite Daniel Murphy as some kind of reflection on the Cubs is to show that teams only care about winning and losing (games and money). The Cubs front office saw Daniel Murphy and decided that he was worth the cost, that his contribution to the team would outweigh any negative press that came from acquiring him. The Cardinals did the same with Bud Norris, and if the Cubs knew that Norris was going to be as productive as he had been, at a cost near what the Cardinals paid, the Cubs certainly would have signed him.
Had Daniel Murphy been traded to the Cardinals, the Deadspin/Best Fans St. Louis chorus would hyperventilate and try to make the story about how the Cardinals are an evil organization while completely missing out on the real story–that all thirty baseball teams are evil organizations. That the Cubs can acquire Murphy and it be viewed and judged in a vacuum may be a bit irritating, but ultimately, while I can get mad at the Cubs, fans who are going along with the flow, while not being their most enlightened possible selves, aren’t doing anything out of the ordinary. The problem isn’t one fan base or another; it’s what we’ve chosen to accept as ordinary.