“The drunk” and “the rapist” are labels that sting, ones that once applied, can’t be torn off or rubbed away; they’re there to stick. As humans, we are prone to judging, and fitting things squarely into nice labels makes this a much easier task. Josh Lueke is an alleged rapist; Matt Bush is sitting in a jail cell until further notice. These are nice, simple labels, and they make further discussion seem pointless. Josh Lueke raped someone—why does anything else matter?
We’ve been conditioned to to extol the virtues of the Tampa Bay Rays. They are Moneyball taken up a notch; unlike the Athletics the Rays compete directly with the Yankees and the Red Sox, so their disadvantage is that much greater. Everyone loves an underdog, especially if the underdog comes equipped with stories that are easy to like—the Legend of Sam Fuld, for example.
The Rays are the genius of Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon; they are lovable, they rise to the challenge, they can perform miracles (like the last night of the 2011 season, when, as you’ll remember, they came back from a 7-0 deficit to win the game, and the AL wild card berth). They (at least, the 2008-and-beyond version) are not supposed to be the team that hires players with dubious off-field records, ones that you have to work to root for, even if somehow you can will yourself over the moral hazard of doing so.
There is the argument that sabermetrics are about exploiting market inefficiencies, and one joke common among sabermetrically-inclined fans is that “____” is the new market inefficiency, with the blank being whatever the flavor of the day happens to be (speed guys, power guys, defense guys, guys who are supposed to be washed up..). The thing is, saying that baseball players with unsavory pasts are the new market inefficiency becomes problematic when these pasts involve criminal records—and accusations of offenses that qualify as felonies, not minor misdemeanors.
Baseball players—good ones, anyway—are celebrities, and celebrities often get a free pass where many others don’t. How many times has (insert young Hollywood star) been arrested for driving under the influence, and how many times has the result been actual, serious jail time? Other athletes in other sports have been accused of heinous crimes, but with the notable exception of Michael Vick, few ever seem to pay the full legal price. We put people we admire on a pedestal, and we forget that they, too, are not untouchable.
Neither Lueke nor Bush’s past legal troubles were unknown to the Rays. At some point, the desire to win, or at least the desire to field as competitive a team as possible overtook the desire to sign players who did not have such troubles. The Rays, of course, are not the first team to do it, nor will they be the last, but with so much emphasis placed on the Rays as a “likable” team, they may be the most striking.
The Rays need fans. This is one of the most well-known quandaries prevalent in the majors today on a team level. Despite the team’s ability to go from worst-to-first, there are still serious attendance problems. As Jonah Keri mentions in The Extra 2%, the location of Tropicana Field itself is a problem; few believe the Rays will be able to stay in St. Petersburg long-term. Winning is supposed to be the way to get said fans; the correlation between winning teams and attendance would be obvious to even the least sabermetrically-inclined audiences. Unfortunately, for the Rays, winning—even being American League champions as they were in 2008—has not done enough.
Last season, the Rays ranked 29 of 30 teams by average attendance, just under 19,000 per game, while the majors’ most successful team attendance-wise, Philadelphia, averaged over 45,000. If winning cannot help bring fans to the ballpark, a team’s options to increase attendance become limited, and whether the team in question can afford to take on less-than-savory characters becomes magnified.
It would be one thing if Bush or Lueke produced like Albert Pujols or Miguel Cabrera (indeed, one might argue that the latter’s legal troubles have, rightly or wrongly, been outweighed by his on-field production). This, however, is not the case: Lueke pitches out of the bullpen, and Bush is only the third player to be taken first overall in the MLB draft to have never made the majors (Brien Taylor and Steve Chilcott being the others).
The Rays ostensibly signed these players with the belief that they could help the team win in 2012, but the question that has to be answered is whether it’s more likely that the efforts of these players to help the team win will draw fans, or that their personal travails will keep fans away. Baseball fans tend to have a lot of patience and there’s no rule that says baseball players have to be saints off of the field, but one can’t exactly imagine running a marketing campaign centered around Lueke or Bush.
In fact, Bush’s troubles are such that Andrew Friedman has acknowledged he won’t play for the Rays this season:
“I think it’s safe to say that he’s not going to play for us on the field,” Rays executive vice president Andrew Friendman said (via the Tampa Tribune). “But even that, with the ongoing criminal investigation, with all of the different dynamics in play, it’s hard to talk about the 40-man [roster] spot and everything else, because until things advance more, it’s difficult to know exactly which way we will be able to go.”
Bush’s story might be the most tragic. Bush’s tragedy comes not from his crime, but because his attempt at redemption failed. Stories of redemption are popular (look at Josh Hamilton) and can become the stuff of legend, but they only work when the promise is fulfilled. It’s not enough merely to attempt to redeem oneself; one has to actually proceed to do so. Hamilton’s story works because not only did he work his way back, but because he became an All-Star, put on a Home Run Derby performance for the ages, and has helped his team make back-to-back World Series appearances.
Lueke’s story is not any easier to read. The alleged rape of a California woman in 2008 will follow him the rest of his life, though, on his acquisition Friedman stated:
We researched the 2009 incident that Josh was involved in thoroughly and in great detail. We’re satisfied that he is going to be the kind of person and teammate that we look for and we expect him to contribute positively to our group.
However, as Mr. Destructo argues, there is no easy way for a fan to work around the so-called incident:
A Rays fan can root for every batter to have a good day and for Josh Lueke to give up some walks, without penalizing the Rays offense or giving away a game on defense. But making choices like this unavoidably sounds like making excuses. A simpler fan choice is simply not rooting, not handing over money until Lueke is gone. An even easier choice awaits the Rays front office, which is to decide that the benefit of a marginal bullpen arm is neither likely to provide the difference between going to the playoffs or going home, nor worth the possibility of alienating fans.
Victim-blaming and non-reporting of sexual assault are issues in society at large, and Lueke’s talent as of right now does not appear to be such that the Rays would be paralyzed without him.
There is an interesting point to be made here: despite their off-field issues, Lueke and Bush are far from the first or only players of questionable character to be hired by the Rays. Jae-Kuk Ryu intentionally killed a bird, Elijah Dukes has a long history of domestic violence, as does Willy Aybar (the latter doing time in a Dominican jail for domestic violence while a member of the Rays). The first two were members of the Rays prior to the team’s 2008 turnaround, but Aybar was on the Rays from 2008-2010, firmly Friedman territory, and played at least 95 games each season.
Indeed, baseball history at large is littered with unsavory characters—Ty Cobb, for one, Ben Chapman another, and Marty Bergen was actually an axe murderer. There’s no character test necessary to pass for admittance to the major leagues; whether this could potentially create an image problem (as is occasionally assumed with other leagues) is of secondary importance to an ability to do things with a small spherical object that the vast majority of humanity cannot.
Earlier, perhaps, while the Rays were still a team synonymous with losing, the character faults of their players could be overlooked, the thought process being that the team wasn’t drawing because it wasn’t winning. Now, however, that excuse doesn’t hold. The Rays have finished clearly over .500 every year from 2008 on; they have won the ALCS, the AL East, and appeared in every postseason save 2009. They’ve been successful on the field, but, as noted above, they still don’t draw. Whether it’s because of the inaccessibility of their stadium, the by-consensus ugliness of the stadium, or because a city with a large transplant population has a hard time shedding their old teams for a new one, the problem remains.
Perhaps questioning whether the recent additions of Lueke and Bush will help the team is the wrong angle—instead, consider (with apologies to Mr. Keri) the dark side of The Extra 2%: maybe a team that doesn’t worry about keeping fans in the seats is the one most suited to a win-at-all-costs philosophy. The idea is slightly unsettling if only because it would indicate, to some extent, giving up on its ability to draw fans, and while acknowledging one’s weaknesses is important, there are few teams with the financial clout to be able to afford to pursue this strategy long-term. Still, for all their success, the Rays have yet to win a World Series, and that remains the sport’s holy grail. Whether Lueke and Bush are good enough players to push the Rays over this edge (well, Lueke, anyway, given Friedman’s statement that Bush won’t pitch for the Rays) is doubtful, but then again, there aren’t many who would have expected Cody Ross to hit five postseason home runs, either.
The Rays are still a young enough team to be building the mainstay of their fanbase; this includes not just the adults of the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, but the children as well—how many of us, after all, decided upon liking a team because it was who our parents or our grandparents liked? Maybe there are some parents out there who can figure out how to tell their children that it’s okay to root for baseball players accused of indefensible felonies, but it’s hard to imagine that’s a widespread skill.
The Rays still have a lot of talent and a lot of likeable players. Evan Longoria is a household name, Matt Moore is one of the top prospects in all of baseball, and few managers have received more praise in recent years than Maddon. Whatever the issues of their roster additions off the field, the team is unlikely to be hurt on it. Unfortunately, as we have seen, the team’s on-field success won’t succor their attendance woes, and some of their recent additions will have quite a long way to go before the team will be able to use them to help in this regard.
Note: Lueke was optioned to triple-A Durham on April 14th.