Rookie utility player Brendan Donovan has been one of the St. Louis Cardinals’ most pleasant surprises in 2022–a robust-hitting twenty-five year-old who has proven an adept and capable fielder across the infield and in the corner outfield spots–and on Saturday evening, Donovan had arguably the finest game of his young, flourishing MLB career. Manning left field, not the ideal maximization of Donovan’s talents but a spot where the Cardinals simply needed a position filled, Donovan notched three hits in five plate appearances, two of which were doubles, and he drove in four runs, including the go-ahead run to give the Cardinals the lead in the top of the tenth inning.
But Brendan Donovan’s postgame press availability was not focused on his recent success, but rather on some skeletons from his teenage years. As the action unfolded on Saturday, some Twitter users uncovered some tweets sent by Donovan when he was fourteen and sixteen years old in which he used homophobic slurs. And while his immediate response did include some of the “sorry to those who were offended” language that is often a harbinger of insincerity, the first four words he told the press were, “I take full responsibility.”
As a heterosexual man, I am uniquely unqualified to tell anyone whether or not they consider Donovan’s level of contrition sufficient. That Donovan posted his homophobic tweets a decade prior to his ascent to the Cardinals is both a relevant factor in determining his punishment–none (the same applied when Milwaukee Brewers reliever Josh Hader’s violently homophobic and racist old tweets came to light, and does not apply when Thom Brennaman was fired for contemporary, on-the-job homophobia)–and a red herring deployed to minimize the hurt caused by his words.
Of course, that the words, mired in anonymity for years, were brought to light is a bit of a contradiction–say what you will about the offending tweets, but that they were unearthed during a heated rivalry series suggests that they were brought into the public eye not as a sincere exploration of the sport’s homophobia during Pride Month but rather as a weapon to make a rival look bad. The same could be said of the Josh Hader tweet controversy (relatedly, can we not make a point of cheering Brendan Donovan louder, as Milwaukee fans embarrassingly did for Hader?). And in the end, the tweets still did happen, and the fact that Brendan Donovan was young does not make them right.
In addition to a few fairly formal news articles, the Brendan Donovan story provoked much take-ier posts from the usual suspects. Fox News wrote that a “woke mob cancels Cardinals rookie Brendan Donovan after standout performance“. Outkick The Coverage, the website Clay Travis runs when he isn’t getting kicked out of his kid’s Little League games, ran the headline “Woke Mob Tries to Cancel St. Louis rookie Brendan Donovan after standout performance“. Because words lack any semblance of meaning anymore, referring to the “cancellation”, a term which exploded in popularity after widespread efforts to literally cancel reruns of Bill Cosby’s television shows, of Donovan, a player who was not punished at all but merely faced relatively mild criticism over actions for which, unlike almost all people who could reasonably be dubbed “cancelled”, he apologized.
Perhaps the criticism of Brendan Donovan would have been more vigorous if not for a higher-profile MLB story over the weekend. During the Tampa Bay Rays’ Pride Night on Saturday, five players opted out of wearing rainbow-colored logos, a seemingly unique option that has not applied previously to pacifist players wishing to opt out of Military Appreciation Night uniforms, for example. Although most Rays players, notably franchise standard-bearer center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, happily wore the jerseys, those who did not were conspicuous in their absences.
Those who criticized the Rays included St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty, fresh off of a promising injury rehab start with the Springfield Cardinals, who tweeted “Absolute joke” in response to the players. Flaherty, who is no stranger to vocal social activism, took aim the next day at a transphobic Ohio law which is invading the privacy of girls wishing to play youth sports in the state. With few exceptions, notably Curt Flood and Ted Simmons, the Cardinals have long been a small-c conservative organization, shying away from taking any vocal public stances on social issues, but Flaherty is not only willing to comment on social issues, but he is willing to do so when it means specifically and critically commenting on the league which employs him.
To position Brendan Donovan and Jack Flaherty as adversaries is unfair–Flaherty’s “absolute joke” tweet came two days ago, while Donovan’s tweets came at a point in American history, despite not being all that long ago, where support for same-sex marriage, for instance, was a minority-held opinion. Prior to Saturday, I had never given a single thought to Brendan Donovan’s social views, and three days later, I still have no idea whether they have actually changed, or whether he is simply smart enough to not publicize his more basic impulses. I am inclined to say that Brendan Donovan made mistakes, period, but that those mistakes should not condemn him to lifetime bigot status, as people are capable of change. But again, I’m a straight guy. It’s really easy for me to say that.
In baseball, and in the broader world, you are going to find Jack Flahertys, you are going to find Brendan Donovans, and frankly you are going to find a ton of people who fit into both camps–those who would casually hurl homophobic slurs because that was the vernacular of their Dumb Idiot Teenager contemporaries but who as fully-formed adults recognize the error of their ways. There will be the Clay Travis types who try to treat Brendan Donovan, whose tweets sound like what the tweets of most fourteen year-olds I knew as a kid if Twitter had existed in 2003, as some sort of sacrificial lamb, despite the fact that the extent of his sacrifices were an uncomfortable postgame media scrum and, if he has truly changed his ways, having to be co-opted as an avatar by modern media’s greatest grifters.
There is nothing heroic about what Brendan Donovan did–at best, he made a fairly routine atonement for his past sins, which to be clear is a good thing but which also isn’t exactly something that makes him a true martyr for a cause. And I truly hope he learned, not from getting caught (though old social media curation is rarely a bad thing) but from his learned experiences growing up in a country which has made great progress on embracing equality but which has not reached a point which could be reasonably called the finish line.