Jose Reyes and the Question of Responsibility
The baseball community must still contend with how best to punish, rehabilitate, and, now, cheer for a player who harmed someone he had pledged to love and keep safe.
Photo by Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
Many years ago, when I made my first visit to the sexual assault and domestic violence care center, the intake nurse sat down with me at her desk and searched online for the face of the man I loved who had harmed me.
Her gesture was a meaningful one. I had seen in the news how awful the process of criminal justice can be for survivors, known how hard it had been on people in my life who tried to pursue it, and I had no intention of going to the police. This was her way of showing me that, regardless of what I decided to do, who I decided to tell, and what played out over the coming months and years, at least one understanding person would know the identity of my abuser and what he had done to me. I remember she told me, with that picture of him on her computer screen, that she knew the names and faces of so many perpetrators of violence. Businessmen and journalists. Schoolteachers and professional athletes. Friends, husbands, and fathers. "Really nice, likable guys."
I now go through my life holding on to the memory of that woman, what her acknowledgment of violence meant to me at the time, and what it still means now. I remind myself that while the man who harmed me is happy, has a successful career, and a life unimpeded by the violation that upended my own, at least someone, somewhere will always know what he did.
For those of us who have endured abuse at the hands of someone we loved and trusted, the discussion around Jose Reyes' recent reunion with the Mets is fraught with personal emotion. It's is not an abstract baseball debate, or some logic puzzle to be solved. It's more like opening an old wound that will never completely heal.
For every fan who knows all too well how difficult the aftermath of abuse can be, it can be painful and upsetting to hear fans enthusiastically chant Reyes' name and beg for his autograph. There's a mix of rage and sadness in watching the media and MLB powers that be blot out his actions with euphemisms, stats, and manufactured narratives. It's heavy with the understanding that it takes both time and open dialogue to discern what is the best, restorative course of action—and reaction—for victims and abusers, for fans and teams. As much as we would like it to, the story of violence against women doesn't end at punishment; instead it continues in the daily reality of what cannot be undone.
Though many readers will be aware, it is important to reiterate why we are discussing these things in the first place. On October 31, 2015, José Bernabé Reyes grabbed Katherine Ramirez, his wife of eight years, by the throat, and shoved her into a sliding glass door at the Maui hotel where they were staying. I'm deliberately not using the term "allegedly" here, because Reyes, in coded language, has taken some ownership of the incident, and offered a lackluster public apology for it at least twice. (Most recently he said, "I feel sorry for what happened. I'm a human being. People make mistakes.") Further, he served an uncontested MLB domestic violence suspension, suggesting he has no objections to claiming responsibility. In short, he has admitted to being guilty of a crime for which he will never see legal repercussions.
In the 911 call from that evening, a hotel security staff member told the dispatcher that an argument occurred, and that Ramirez suffered injuries to her face, neck, and leg. Reyes was arrested, and Ramirez was aided by medics before being taken to Maui Memorial Medical Center for further treatment. Five months later, prosecutors moved to dismiss the charges against Reyes on the grounds that his wife was refusing to cooperate. He had been scheduled to go to trial less than a week later, on MLB Opening Day.
Ramirez, of course, deserves no judgment or blame here, and her decision is one that many survivors of violence will deeply understand. While I won't endeavor to assume any of her motivations, I readily acknowledge that her emotional well-being and financial security, and that of her children, certainly were at stake. Like so many before her, not pursuing criminal justice became the better personal choice. It was one that was hers alone to make—just like forgiveness is hers alone to give.
So what, then, is the responsibility of baseball fans when it comes to Jose Reyes? The standard chorus of "innocent until proven guilty" has abated now that he is claiming his "mistake," but the baseball community must still contend with what to do with—or how to appropriately punish, rehabilitate, and, now that he has been unloaded by the Rockies and snapped up by the Mets, cheer for—a player who harmed someone closest to him, someone he pledged to love and keep safe.
We don't currently have a roadmap for these kinds of conversations. Had Ramirez made the difficult decision to cooperate with investigators, and had Reyes been convicted, it would be different, and perhaps easier to talk about. Culturally we often rely on the courts to tell us what to believe about a person's character, but with a crime like intimate partner violence—one so underreported, and with so many barriers to prosecution—we have to find new ways to discuss appropriate resolution.
Reyes was one of the first major cases to fall under the MLB's newly implemented domestic violence policy, with its revolutionary clause that a conviction is not required for the league to take action. It's a policy that seems to understand that while the justice system doesn't always properly serve victims and rehabilitate offenders, our cultural institutions have a responsibility to do so. Though Reyes never saw a conviction, commissioner Rob Manfred handed down a suspension without pay that spanned the Rockies' first 51 games of the season, and further ordered Reyes to donate $100,000 to the prevention and treatment of domestic violence.
While the current MLB policy is certainly not perfect, oft-criticized for dishing out more punishment for performance enhancing drugs or gambling than incidents of domestic violence, the league's handling of Reyes thus far has admittedly been a huge step forward. Despite numerous arrests and accusations in the previous twenty-five years, no player had ever been suspended by the league for domestic violence, with only a handful disciplined by their teams. In March, Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman became the very first to be penalized, receiving thirty games primarily for "his use of a firearm and the impact of that behavior on his partner." (Chapman also did not see legal repercussions for his actions.) It's worth mentioning here that the Yankees and the Mets were able to get these talented players at bargain prices, taking advantage of terrible circumstances under the guise of giving someone a second chance.
In the case of both Reyes and Chapman, it has been difficult to discern what exactly is "fair," given this is uncharted territory for sports at large. Sadly, real justice is not quantifiable in days, years, or dollars fined. But now that the punishment for Reyes has been served, the talk now is less about implementing policy, and more about what kind of reception a player deserves post-suspension, and the flawed narrative that is being written about Reyes return to the Mets—a place where he was much beloved.
As a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays, I can understand the challenge of reconciling the likable, jovial face of Reyes, and the talent he displays on-field, with the reality of what he has done. I cheered exuberantly for him during the two years he was on "my team," and was disappointed when he was traded to the Colorado Rockies. Yet none of those prior warm feelings negate the act of violence he committed. Those seeming opposites can exist in the same person—and, very often, they have. Abusers can be "nice, likable guys."
A key component of MLB's policy—the necessity of counseling—remains somewhat shrouded in mystery, though Reyes has shared with the media that the process has aided in helping him become a better husband, father, and man, and that he's willing to talk to other players about making sure other incidents like this don't happen. "I am encouraged by Mr. Reyes' commitment to the treatment provisions of the Policy in order to ensure that such an incident does not occur in the future," Manfred said upon suspension.
We know we can't be inside Reyes' relationship. We can't know if he is genuinely sorry, or if he really will endeavor to change. We can simultaneously understand that we want him to disappear completely from baseball, and recognize, as it stands now, that is simply not possible—just like it's not always possible for our own abusers to disappear completely from our lives. Instead, we have to focus on ongoing restorative and preventative action, one that serves survivors and rehabilitates offenders.
Yes, Reyes should absolutely be given the tools to become "a better person" via the institutions that have accepted him back into the fold. If they seek to benefit from his athletic skill, they have to accept valid criticism and take responsibility for what he has done—for what he has the capacity to do. Fans should also continuously hold these institutions, and the outlets that cover them, accountable, because if not us, who will? Language is important, and Reyes's actions shouldn't be rewritten, as is so common in sports media, as simply adversity to overcome. His act of violence shouldn't be referred to, as a New York Times headline clumsily called it, "baggage." What has happened should not be blotted from memory by his performance on the field, and despite what the scrum sound bites tell us, he didn't make a "mistake"—he made a choice. This isn't a "public relations problem," this is about the vital recognition of an act of violence, one that doesn't go away simply because we want to cheer for a team we love. Our team loyalties, and our desire to be comfortable watching the game, don't supersede the violation of another human being.
My gut says that if it were up to me, Reyes would no longer be allowed to play major league baseball. He would never again be allowed to enjoy the game loves, to be cheered on by fans and teammates, or to enjoy the fame, money, or glory that goes along with that. He would not be allowed to tarnish what for me and so many other survivors acts as a source of solace and escape. But I also understand that's not my decision to make, and instead of lamenting the easily detestable choices of the Mets organization and blindly cheering fans, I am trying to see a positive way forward.
As hard as it is to acknowledge, if Reyes was not in professional baseball he would simply be somewhere else—likely somewhere where he is held less accountable for his actions, and somewhere that lacks the necessary resources and systems to ensure that his abuse doesn't happen again. Rehabilitation and prevention are important things to keep in mind when faced with the knowledge that close to five million women in the US will experience physical violence by an intimate partner every year, and one in four will become victims of severe violence by an intimate partner in their lifetimes.
The painful reality is that there is no satisfying, tidy resolution to be had here, but there are ways forward via ongoing, open dialogue. There is also our very human responsibility to create a space where education, change, and the prevention of violence are finally possible in sports. And despite how much fans just want to turn away, have a good time, and win some games, there is a real onus on all of us to keep talking, and never forget what has been done.
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