Epstein Speaks Good Game, Now Cubs Must Back Words with Action

Own it now.

That’s Joe Maddon’s slogan for the 2019 season, but it should sound familiar to anyone who’s followed the Cubs for more than a day or two. That’s because it’s what fans have been exhorting the organization to do for months now, whether it’s their financial situation, Joe Ricketts’ racist emails, Addison Russell’s continued employment in the wake of detailed reports of domestic abuse.

Those situations dominated the season-opening press conference in Mesa Tuesday morning, with Theo Epstein displaying the gift of gab that has so many thinking he’s destined for bigger things in the future.

“Addison is well aware he’s been given a conditional second chance by this organization,” Epstein said after committing to having every employee in the organization participate in enhanced domestic violence training. “He has to continue to put the work in to become a better person, a better citizen, a better teammate, a better member of society, a better father.”

“We’ll continue to hold Addison to an incredibly high standard or he won’t play a regular season game as a Chicago Cub ever again.”

After devoting nearly 10 minutes to Russell’s status, talk turned to the racism and Islamophopia rotting Ricketts patriarch’s inbox. Epstein pulled no punches, condemning such toxic views and stating the obvious, which is that hatred has no place in society and certainly not in the Cubs organization.

While admitting that we all grow up in a bubble to some extent, Epstein talked about how baseball serves as a vehicle to escape small-mindedness and embrace diversity. He also made it evident that he had actually read the messages at the center of the recent controversy, which is a departure from how his manager handled things toward the end of the 2018 season.

“The emails were upsetting to read and especially upsetting to think that some of our fans were sort of put into a position where they had to even consider a connection between their favorite team and some of those types of views,” Epstein lamented. “And I just wanted to make that clear. That’s where we stand.”

Epstein didn’t mince words and he gave no reason to doubt the sincerity of his oft-stated desire for the Cubs to be part of the solution. Or solutions, since we’re talking about more than just one societal blight here. But just wanting to be a force for good and actually taking meaningful steps toward that end are not the same thing, so the Cubs are going to have to show us what they’re doing to improve.

Words alone are not enough, especially since so many of them have to this point have failed to hit the mark. Some have missed it entirely, like Maddon’s “Should I?” response to a question about whether he’d read Melisa Reidy’s blog post. Or when players talk about seemingly unconditional support for a teammate instead of really understanding their role in the bigger effort.

To be clear, I understand that Cubs players have been put in a relatively untenable situation because some of them simply don’t know how to address difficult topics without resorting to tropes and idioms. As much as it’s on them to improve their awareness, the organization bears the responsibility for directing the players in how to do that.

And while we’re on the topic of how not to address things, let’s stop with the highly ignorant notion that domestic violence is a “mistake.” Leaving the garage door up or forgetting to put the trash out is a mistake. Calling a business associate a “bag of dicks” as a corporate exec walks by is a mistake. Engaging in a pattern of physical and psychological abuse over a period of years is not a mistake.

Nor does calling DV out as heinous and unacceptable mean you are laying claim to the perfection of your own character. If you believe that’s how things work, I’ll ask you to kindly mash that unfollow button on your way out the door. Oh, and one more thing before I end this little rant: Can we not with the “What about the children?” nonsense.

All kinds of jobs have behavioral standards and all kinds of people can find gainful employment in a field that was not their original chosen career path. The real key in Russell’s case — and any other similar case, for that matter — is not that he makes millions of dollars to support his family, but that he becomes a better human being to support his family. And unless you’re serious about firing folks into the sun, no one’s saying Russell and so many others can’t still be productive members of society.

Which is where it comes back to the Cubs, who have the kind of national platform to really affect the narrative and determine how similar situations are handled by other teams in the future. Whether and how they’re able to do that remains to be seen and won’t be until they can move past the public rhetoric and into action. And even the most well-executed plan won’t bear fruit immediately.

This isn’t a temporary thing, or at least it had better not be. A commitment to making a legitimate difference requires a very intentional cultural shift, which will take patience and vigilance to see through. So while I applaud Epstein and Company for being forthright and somewhat transparent Tuesday, this isn’t something that will go away anytime soon. Nor should it.

These issues don’t go away just because you push them to the back of the closet and shut the door. Real change requires the whole organization, including fans, pulling in the same direction, so here’s to hoping “Everybody In” means more than a catchphrase for memes.

Ed. note: Action has begun in earnest throughout the organization, so I don’t want to present this as though that is not the case. My concern is more for the long-term, though Epstein did detail some specifics of the plan as it is currently unfolding.

The following text was culled from Sahadev Sharma’s write-up in The Athletic ($):

Every major league player, every major league coach, every major league staff member, every minor league player, every minor league staff member, every member of the front office will have gone through a pretty rigorous domestic violence program to increase education and awareness. That process has already started with the folks back in Chicago. I think we’ve already had over 130 employees who have gone through the training. It’ll continue here in Mesa in spring training. We’ve added an elective healthy relationship program for the players’ families. It’ll be part of sort of the initiation for players’ wives. I think that’s important.

We’re also making sure that those who face the players’ families outwardly, such as the head of our family program, go through even more training. A 40-hour training program which is the standard to become as expert as you can in domestic violence detection, awareness, prevention, education. We’re going to make sure that also someone that travels with the team goes through that same 40-hour training program.”

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