Francisco Rodriguez takes a staggered stance on the pitching mound of Citi Field, his left foot about 18 inches closer to first base than his rear, slightly bent at the waist, mouth open, cheek puffed with a wad of tobacco. Both hands are stretched belt-high in front of him, his right gripping a baseball inside the glove on his left. Rocking back and forth lightly, he turns his head to glance at the runner at second base, then back towards home plate.
Then he kicks his left knee up as high as the letters on his uniform as he raises both hands, and lunges towards the visiting dugout with his left leg as his left arm extends nearly straight out in front of him, landing on that leg as he lifts his right elbow to shoulder height with the forearm and baseball still pointing straight down – this is an uncomfortable arm position to assume even if you’re just sitting down – and pushes off the dirt incline with his rear leg as he swings his hips forward, tucking his left arm into his body and bringing the ball up behind his head with his right elbow still shoulder high, and then snaps his arm across his body as he releases the ball towards home plate, his momentum causing him to pirouette on the tip of his left foot and swing his rear leg all the way around so that he lands in a genuflecting position on the other side of the mound, facing first base, left knee almost touching the dirt. This all takes place in less than two seconds; it is explosive, violent, and looks a little out of control.
Rodriguez’s pitch, a changeup that looks as if it’s going to catch the corner before diving away, is swung at and missed by Arizona’s Chris Young. He strikes out, stranding runners on second and third. The game ends. Mets win 6-4. Rodriguez, still crouched and facing first base, screams and raises a clenched fist as he rises. The sparse crowd cheers, brought to life on a rainy day by the ninth inning tension. He raises his glove hand as he looks up and blows a kiss into the misty evening sky. He mouths something, still looking skyward, then kisses either his jersey or a necklace around his neck. Rodriguez embraces his catcher as the stadium PA plays the opening riff of BTO’s “Takin’ Care of Business.” Everyone’s clapping slowly coalesces with the rhythm of the song.
I am standing on one of the lower patios to the left of home plate, 1 clapping and high-fiving the people around me, but also feeling a particular tinge of confusion that has bothered me all season. I can’t stop wondering if this is okay — is it okay to cheer Francisco Rodriguez? Really. Is it okay to root for someone with a history of violence to succeed at his job because that job happens to be pitching for a certain team? Am I alone in wondering about this? And, a related note, do these questions just come off as annoying on a silly little baseball blog?
As you might guess, I’ve found it difficult not to think about these questions since Rodriguez was arrested for assaulting the father of his girlfriend last August. As a fan, it’s more-or-less something that didn’t need to be dealt with until this season: Rodriguez pitched in two games after the incident, 2 then missed the rest of the year as he had torn a ligament in his right thumb during the fight.
I assume most have some idea about what happened in August, but for the sake of completeness, here it is again: According to various reports (that sometimes contradict each other), Rodriguez engaged in a shouting match with 53-year-old Carlos Pena in (or outside) the room for player’s families at Citi Field, either after Pena said something about Rodriguez’s mother (who may or may not have been present, but probably the latter 3), OR after Pena came to his daughter’s defense when Rodriguez was shouting at her. Rodriguez – some reports indicate he may have been pushed by Pena – pinned Pena to a wall (or the floor) and repeatedly punched him on (or about, if that’s somehow different) the head before being dragged away by team security. Pena was taken to the hospital, where he was treated for lacerations and a bump on his head. Rodriguez was arrested, charged with assault, and ordered not to contact his girlfriend, Daian Pena, or her father.
Then, in September, Rodriguez was charged with criminal contempt after sending Daian – also the mother of two of his children – 56 text messages, a violation of the aforementioned order. He was brought into court again, where the Queens district attorneys reportedly noted that Rodriguez had a history of controlling and violent behavior, mentioning a 2005 incident in Venezuela when Daian was assaulted by Rodriguez, an incident that left her hospitalized.
I don’t see much for anyone to argue here in terms of right and wrong. I think it’s safe to say that, as a society, we agree that punching someone is generally not an okay thing to do. We also seem to agree that punching someone twenty-five years your senior is worse, particularly if you are a professional athlete in your twenties and your target is in his fifties. 4 Matters are usually made worse if the older man is the grandfather of your children, for reasons that should be obvious. And, as if all that wasn’t enough, I think we all agree that if you absolutely must punch your girlfriend’s father, it’s probably best if you don’t do it in front of the wives and children of your co-workers, and preferably not do it at work at all. Rodriguez’s actions in August are reprehensible on all kinds of levels. I don’t think there’s any question about that.
And then, if what the DA said was true, about Rodriguez sending a girlfriend to the hospital . . . the word monster comes to mind. Among other things. Again, if true, there is nothing to debate there either.
So these are the things I think about whenever Francisco Rodriguez has entered a game this season, or when I saw him in Port St. Lucie, or when I see him in the clubhouse at Citi Field now. 5 Even if I don’t want to think about them.
And this being the case: What the hell am I supposed to feel about this guy, as a fan and as someone who writes about the team? I don’t mean that hypothetically, or in a preachy way or anything like that. I am genuinely confused about what a reasonable person is supposed to feel in this situation. I mean, Rodriguez’s actions are obviously horrible in just about every way. But he’s still here pitching for the Mets. I kind of like the Mets. So now what?
When an athlete is arrested, it presents a particular problem for fans — how do you reconcile the real world with the sports world? There’s a real temptation to dismiss all this as “not a sports story,” something that sort of feels like a cop out. (Or, even worse, discuss how the athlete is “overcoming” something.) But who really wants to think about this stuff, anyway?
Here’s the deal: Sports are escapist entertainment. Like movies, like books, like video games, they serve as a break from the world, from jobs and school and stress and those creeping feelings of boredom and the worries about wasting precious moments and just that nonstop flow of stuff that just presses down from the moment we wake until the moment we go to bed . . . for six months a year, baseball is a three hour break from that. Nine innings of men running around in funny clothes, swinging pieces of wood at leather spheroids, everyone pretending it matters so we can forget about the stuff that really does for a little bit. It’s a world with consequences that don’t actually matter all that much. If David Wright strikes out 200 times this season, it will be frustrating as a fan. But it will not be frustrating in any meaningful way. Nothing truly bad will happen if David Wright strikes out 200 times. No one will die, no animals will be harmed in the making, no houses will fall over. Which is why baseball is so much fun. It’s a fantasy world, for lack of a better word – fantasy here being used as in “fantastic,” and not “dwarves fighting robots.”
And the fantasy universe of baseball is a definitive one. Someone makes a play or they don’t. The runner is safe or out. The pitch is a ball or a strike. There are absolute winners and absolute losers, and a scoreboard to keep track. It’s all black and white, which in turn makes it easy to understand. It’s easy to see what’s right. If in a replay you see that an umpire blew the call, you can yell and scream and be ABSOLUTELY SURE that you are right and he is wrong. In my (admittedly limited) experience, the real world rarely offers opportunities for such confidence — you generally can’t yell at your boss or your teachers or other authority figures with such certainty. Partially because they are authority figures and that sort of thing has consequences, but partially because you might be wrong. In sports, there isn’t as much ambiguity. There are no bigger questions to be pondered at baseball games; there aren’t a lot of philosophers sitting around wondering, “But what does it REALLY mean to be out?” 6 You can yell safe or out with relative certainty, for baseball is a simple world.
The problem is that this fantasy world is exactly that: It’s a fantasy. Sports take place in the real world, and the games are played by real people. And while human beings are often beautiful and brilliant creatures, we are just as often messy and impulsive things. Which means all that stuff we want to forget about while in the sports world sometimes does barge in, often uninvited, usually unpleasantly. Assault, rape, drugs . . . dog fighting, to get really specific. Sometimes those things find their way in. All the ambiguities of the real world are thrown into the fantasy, and it gets all mixed up. It’s unpleasant in a way that goes beyond the greater emotions of basic empathy felt for the victims and disappointment felt in the person committing the crime. When a player does something bad, we are forced to consider the sort of things sports are usually an escape from. The fantasy is broken once those real life questions start cropping up. And that’s not fun.
This is obviously the problem between Mets fans and Francisco Rodriguez. He’s here. He’s pitching well. He also invaded the sports world with all that stuff he did, 7 forcing everyone to think about the questions we’d rather not think about while watching baseball. Questions about crime, violence, justice, forgiveness, punishment, and second chances. Questions that don’t always have answers as definitive as safe or out.
And personally I have found it extremely difficult NOT to think about these sorts of things when considering Rodriguez. Just the way he plays is a constant reminder. His pitching motion can only be described as wild and violent. He performs his job with a demeanor that screams “I’m a crazy person,” yelling and pumping his fist after every strikeout. He pitches as if he is constantly on the edge, harnessing barely contained emotions in order to psych himself up. 8 Even before the events in August, he had a history of verbal skirmishes, getting into arguments with coaches, opposing players, and management during his time with the Mets. Rodriguez presents a particularly difficult case of separating the player from the person, making it difficult to not be reminded constantly about the off-field stuff while he’s playing.
I should probably mention somewhere here that, like most humans, Rodriguez has redeeming qualities. So: Rodriguez has redeeming qualities. He seems to be liked by his teammates, both former and current, and his mentoring of younger players in the Mets’ system is both well documented and admirable. He keeps an eye on the teenage Juan Urbina at the bequest of Urbina’s father, Ugueth (who is in jail in Venezuela for attempted murder). Then there is the difficultly of Rodriguez’s childhood to consider as well: growing up in poverty in Venezuela, Rodriguez was basically abandoned by his mother and father and raised by his grandparents. He remains more-or-less estranged from both parents and some of his siblings. And his home country, the place he grew up, has all sorts of issues that aren’t issues here.
So there is all that to think about as well, if you are so inclined. And it complicates matters: It would be easier to reach a conclusion about all this if Rodriguez was purely evil. Which of course he is not.
But here again one sees the problem. The black and white sports world is awash in shades of gray whenever Rodriguez enters a game.
So I guess the real question for Mets fans is this 9: When that synthesizer riffs cuts through Citi Field, the reggaeton beat drops and the bullpen gates open, what should a reasonable person do? When Francisco Rodriguez jogs onto the field, should fans cheer or boo? Or just sit in silence? Or what? Because it’s really the only thing we can make a choice about. We can’t release him. We can’t void his contract. All we can do is use our voices.
I’ll note here that when Rodriguez entered the game last week his reception seemed a mixture of all cheers, boos, and anxious indifference.
Cheering him would seem a tactile admission of approval, and, well . . . I can’t feel anything but uneasy when I imagine 30,000 people all cheering for someone who (allegedly) sent his girlfriend to the hospital, and assaulted her father just a few months ago. It doesn’t make me proud to be a sports fan. On the other hand, Rodriguez is undergoing court ordered anger management: Isn’t that the debt we have agreed as a society that he must pay for his crime? And once he’s paid that debt, shouldn’t we all just move on? And if we should move on, shouldn’t we treat him like anyone else? And therefore cheer for him? Or if none of that sits well, can we just cheer for the Mets without cheering for Rodriguez, even if he’s the pitcher at the moment?
I don’t know.
How about booing? Is that appropriate? What if everyone just booed K-Rod all the time, whenever he showed his face anywhere? Would that be better? Rodriguez was booed on Opening Day, quite loudly. But Mike Pelfrey was also booed because he had been pitching poorly. All the Philadelphia Phillies are booed all the time – and rightly so – merely for being Phillies. Players are booed for all sorts of reasons, most of them related to their performance or the color of their jersey. Even if booing could be appropriate in this case, it seems almost trivial.
Or perhaps booing him once on Opening Day was enough. Letting him know his actions are not condoned, but then cheers after that because he’s a Met. Send a message, but then let it pass. Or is that just a collective slap on the wrist?
Again, I don’t know.
What about nothing? Everyone sitting in silence when Rodriguez enters the game. Not cheering because it feels wrong, but not booing because it seems insignificant. Just a wall of awkward silence, a hush that’s more alarming than any noise could ever be. Nothing but the sound of airplanes taking off overhead.
Or just doing nothing, not making a decision about it. Not thinking about it. But then that raises the question if not making a choice is really the same as making choice.
Maybe it’s all just personal, and there is no general answer.
I don’t know. I sort of don’t want to think about it anymore. I do know that I really just want to watch a baseball game without thinking about any of these things. And I know Francisco Rodriguez makes that extremely difficult.
1. Footnotes, y’all. If you clicked your way down here, pressing back on your browser should take you back where you were on the page before. Anyway, footnote 1: I was attending a cousin’s surprise baby shower — yes, at Citi Field. My family really likes baseball and, I suppose, babies — which is why I was on one of those patios down behind home plate, along with twenty or so family members and friends. There’s a swanky indoor concessions and bar on that level, though it’s actually fairly weird to be able to go inside during a baseball game. But the view from the patio is amazing.
See, I’m slowly coming to realize that baseball, as seen from behind home plate and on the level of the field, looks like the same game no matter the level of play. I think this effect is lost on television and almost everywhere else in big stadiums. So it’s easy to forget that these guys out there are playing the same game high-schoolers play. But from right behind home plate, it’s easy to remember — the game looks the same. If you ever get a chance to sit anywhere, go for right behind home plate on the field level.
2. I was away the week this went down and never got a chance to write about this, so this is a bit delayed, but . . . the Mets suspended him for two games? Are you kidding me? Pitchers are suspended more games for throwing too far inside on a batter. Rodriguez assaulted someone. At the stadium. In front of other player’s families. That HAD to have been at least an indefinite suspension until he was sentenced. That they only suspended him for two games shows that the Mets’ organization last year was delusion all sorts of ways. They either failed to recognize the seriousness of what happened, or they did recognize the seriousness and choose to ignore it because they thought they needed Rodriguez for the pennant race. If it’s the first scenario, it’s both pathetic and in no way surprising. If it’s the second one, it means that they both overvalue closers and, sadly, actually thought they were in a pennant race; it’s also pathetic and in no way surprising.
3. It seems highly unlikely that Rodriguez’s mother was actually there, considering that the two have been estranged for most of Rodriguez’s life. But we’ll get to that later. Unless you’re reading the footnotes last, in which case, we already got there.
4. Though I think it’s worth pointing out that had Pena not been Rodriguez’s sort-of-father-in-law but instead, say, the uniformed coach of another team, and Rodriguez has punched him during a brawl, we’d all probably feel differently about it all. For a reverse example, imagine how we might feel if Pedro Martinez had side-stepped-and-or-thrown-down Don Zimmer in a parking lot outside Fenway Park instead of on the field during the 2003 ALCS. The actions are the same in either case, but I guess we’ve deemed it more-okay to fight people during on-field brawls (which, by the way, take place in front of way more families and children than what Rodriguez did).
Which isn’t to say that Rodriguez is intimidating in person – I saw him every day for a week in Port St. Lucie, and he was usually sitting at his locker, wearing glasses and playing with his phone or laptop. He actually seems sort of low-key. (Also, I think I almost detect embarrassment whenever he’s talking with the media.) So if I didn’t know all that other stuff, I probably wouldn’t find him the least bit intimidating. But I do, and, well . . . you know.
7. And Rodriguez literally invaded the sports world by attacking Pena at the ballpark. The only possible thing worse would have been beating up Pena on the pitching mound, or going into the stands after him during the game, ala Ron Artest. Or going into the stands, grabbing Pena, dragging him to the mound, and then punching him there.
8. Think about it: If someone had told you back in August that a Mets player had attacked a member of his family at the ballpark, but without telling you who it actually was . . . is there any way you wouldn’t have guessed K-Rod? Who else could it have been?
9. Unless I am the only one thinking about these things, in which case . . . I’ll shut up now. The reaction Rodriguez got a week ago caused me to believe I wasn’t the only one uneasy with this whole thing, but maybe I’m just reading too much into everything.