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On Overheards, Outsiders & Otherness

One National League East Narrative Reinforcement comin’ right up!

While the Braves were doing everything they could on Wednesday to earn their fans’ gratitude, the Mets were finding new, characteristically clumsy ways to show they’re as sorry as any organization can be.

Atlanta invested more than $14 million in Ervin Santana, the best available pitcher on the open market, to fill the stud-sized hole in their rotation left by the recurrence of pain that flared up in the previously surgically repaired right elbow of Kris Medlen. Despite mounting an inspiring comeback since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2010, the Brave righty’s fate has to be taken in Flushing as a cautionary red flag against anybody confidently penciling in Matt Harvey as he misses all of 2014 antsily rehabilitating his right elbow from the same kind of procedure. Mets brass were already visibly uncomfortable with how Harvey has conducted his rehab. This latest of turn of events can only add to their unease.

But it wouldn’t be spring in Port St. Lucie without the Mets visibly squirming and their fans feeling none too good about them either.

Nearly two hours to the east of Braves spring HQ in Kissimmee — and presumably dozens of games south of Santana’s new pennant-minded team in the standings — the Mattless Mets not only continued to maintain they’re fine with their present assortment of subpar in-house shortstop and first base candidates, but had to be publicly shamed into acknowledging a private apology with racially charged ramifications wasn’t suitably contrite.

The Braves train at a complex adjacent to Walt Disney World, the so-called happiest place on earth. It’s a title the barren east coast wasteland of Port St. Lucie isn’t likely to vie for anytime soon — and you can add it to the list of titles Mets-related enterprises don’t look to be competing for this year.

Except, perhaps, sorriest team ever. The Mets seem to have that locked down in every sense of the word.


If you haven’t read something like that in one of your fancy professional sports columns, you probably will sooner or later. Everything comes back to haunt the Mets and make them look like amateurs, whether they deserve it or not.

Do they deserve grief for the Braves being the Braves and deciding winning is so important that they’d go above budget and replace Medlen with Santana [1]? No. That’s the Braves’ business. Is there an unflattering parallel to be drawn between Atlanta not sitting still and New York’s stubborn inertia in the upgrade department [2]? Probably a Granny Smith and Valencia comparison, though you’d like to think somebody would closely examine the Tejadas, Davises and Dudas, notice they’re not particularly ripe and find us crisper, juicier produce, even if it costs a little more than anticipated.

And whither Warthen? Remember when you didn’t think about Dan Warthen whatsoever? Remember when he was the pitching coach who was either doing a perfectly adequate job, assuming somebody was pitching well, or needed to be replaced because somebody got lit up? That’s usually how we are moved to think about coaches.

That was yesterday.

We don’t think about coaches at all unless a reason arises. A reason arose in what I’m tempted to say was the most Metsian way possible, but only because I’ve been conditioned by events to assume if there’s something counterproductive to come out of something vaguely positive, the Mets will find the counterproductive. Or, at the very least, they’ll meet in the murky middle.

The vaguely positive is Warthen, the Mets’ pitching coach since 2008, was observed apologizing to Jeff Cutler, Daisuke Matsuzaka’s interpreter, for having used an archaic ethnic slur [3] in his direction. It wasn’t a staged or lawyered apology. It was somebody coming up to somebody else at work saying, in essence, “I’m sorry I said that to you.”

How could that little slice of internal interaction turn counterproductive? Well, let’s see…

• The person who did the observing was a reporter.

• The reporter, Stu Woo of the Wall Street Journal, is a self-described Chinese-American.

• The phrase for which Warthen apologized was “Chinaman”.

• The apology was observed by the reporter as “I’m sorry I called you a ‘Chinaman’ yesterday,” and was followed with “I didn’t mean to insinuate — I know you’re not Chinese” and “I thought it was a good joke, though.”

• Cutler is described in the story Woo wrote about the encounter as Japanese-American, leading Woo to wonder about the context of Warthen having said he was sorry.

Was he saying that he wanted to apologize for saying “Chinaman” only because he’d said it to a man of Japanese, rather than Chinese, descent? Did he think that the word itself was OK to use — or that it was acceptable material for jokes?

It’s a question that apparently nagged at Woo, who observed the encounter Monday morning and asked Cutler about it Tuesday morning. Cutler told him he wasn’t offended by Warthen’s joke and otherwise deferred to the pitching coach on its content. (If somebody doesn’t want to repeat a joke, you can assume it has transcended its potential to elicit laughs in polite/on-the-record company.)

Woo wrote he later “caught up” with Jay Horwitz, presumably to seek clarification. Horwitz, in his role as vice president of media relations, arranged a meeting that was to include the two of them plus Warthen early Wednesday morning, “[b]ut when I got to the Mets facility Wednesday, Horwitz said Warthen wasn’t going to comment. Cutler wasn’t in the locker room.”

That’s where Woo’s story ended when it first appeared on the Journal’s site Wednesday night. Soon enough, in this world of microscopic news cycles, the Mets were moved to respond via written statements, which have since been added to the originally posted article. Warthen apologized for “thoughtless remarks”; a “poor attempt at humor”; and words that were “wrong and inappropriate in any setting”. The pitching coach was “very sorry”. Sandy Alderson apologized “for the insensitive remarks made by one of our staff members,” describing what Warthen had said to Cutler in front of Woo (and perhaps to Cutler via the joke in question) “offensive and inappropriate”. The organization, the GM added, “is very sorry”.

This morning, the Mets moved into to putting-it-behind-them mode, save for an unusually feisty Jon Niese, who, according to Newsday’s Anthony Rieber, told “a group of reporters: ‘Stop Tweeting about our clubhouse. That —-’s gotta stop.’” (Rieber, naturally, Tweeted that nugget [4].) They could’ve avoided it altogether had Warthen chosen to speak to Woo Wednesday morning. Or if Warthen wasn’t moved to use words like “Chinaman” in conversation in 2014. Or if Jared Diamond hadn’t gotten married over the offseason.

Diamond normally covers the Mets for the Journal. He was taking a few days off to be with his new bride. If Diamond is on the beat, whatever conversation Woo — who mostly covers football — has with Cutler doesn’t take place and is therefore not interrupted by Warthen’s overheard conditional apology. It could be Warthen seeks out Cutler with nobody around, Cutler nods and says “it’s OK,” just as he did with Woo on hand, and nobody ever knows anybody ever made a poor attempt at humor.

But Woo was there and the makings of a story coalesced. Spring Training is enough of a production to merit not just continual beat coverage but fill-in beat coverage. As Jason pointed out most insightfully [5] the other day, nothing much of enduring significance happens in Spring Training, so therefore anything and everything becomes a potential story. (There are only so many times in six weeks you can read David Wright pledge fealty to the front office’s long-term vision.) Then consider the media outlet. The Journal, in particular, pursues angles that the New York dailies don’t, generally seeking the less obvious ones. A fantastic example came a few years ago when Brian Costa wrote about the logistics involved when a ballplayer is called up from the minors [6]: where they sleep, how that works, who pays for what. It was a fascinating glimpse inside a sliver of the major league existence that we don’t normally see. Similarly, Woo tackled the Senior Bowl [7] not through the prism of scouting reports but how the college all-star game serves as de facto job fair for potential NFL players.

So you have the Journal ethos of striving to cobble the interesting amid the mundane. And then you take into account that Woo is not a regular on the Mets beat. In a way, that could be a disadvantage in that there’s no base of familiarity from which to deal, but it also means he’s looking at the clubhouse and the players with fewer preconceived notions. Continued access to sources doesn’t loom as an unspoken concern. If someone has to be around the Mets most every day, he’s probably going to be more hesitant to spill what feels, after a while, like family business. He may also be more inured to it. As Woo himself acknowledged in his story, he knows how athletes talk in clubhouses and locker rooms. Still, he came to this situation as an outsider. An insider and an outsider may hear the same thing, but they’re likely to process it quite differently. One reporter’s “that’s nothing new” is another reporter’s “that’s something else.”

And there’s no overlooking Woo’s ethnic identity here because Woo emphasized it himself:

As a 27-year-old Chinese American who grew up in San Francisco, I couldn’t remember the last time I heard the term “Chinaman,” a derogatory word originally given by white Americans to Chinese immigrants in the 19th century. I might have heard it used on the grade-school playground, but never before in dozens of NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball locker rooms I’ve been to as a sports reporter.

Woo admitted he had a first-person interest in this story. The phrase Warthen uttered caught his ear. It wasn’t enough for him to think, “that’s something you don’t hear every day,” and then share it only on the sly. He indicated he decided to pursue it as an angle in print as opposed to an anecdote passed on opaquely because, “Warthen had used the term in front of two people who had every reason to be offended. And he did so in a casual way in a work environment — one where he holds a position of power. I didn’t want to be complicit in tolerating the use of a slur that should have been retired long ago.”

You wouldn’t necessarily think of the Wall Street Journal’s sports section as a platform for social advocacy journalism, but Woo (and his editor) went in that direction, and today you have a Metsian contretemps.

To be cynical about it, Warthen probably should’ve waited until Cutler was done speaking to a guy with a media credential hanging around his neck during open-clubhouse hours to approach him. Having failed to do that, Warthen shouldn’t have blown off the appointment Horwitz made with Woo. That it took Woo’s story being posted on wsj.com to flush out prepared statements of regret makes the Mets look a little craven. Then again, Warthen did offer Cutler an apology in the first place…and the Mets did play catchup as quickly as they could in condemning their own behavior.

It would be easy to write off Warthen’s “Chinaman” slur as a symptom of age. I won’t. Warthen is 61. He’s not from the Stone Age. Sixty-one probably sounds ancient to many of you. To me it’s my age plus ten years. Warthen’s old enough to know better and not so old that an unfortunate choice of words can be winked away.

On the subject of age, I find Woo’s more intriguing. He’s 27, pretty young, all things considered. Is he old enough to “know how things work,” that men who coach other men are sometimes salty in their speech and say things that are indelicate? He basically says so in his story. But he decided not to care, and that’s probably an encouraging sign in a societal sense. Woo wrote he didn’t want to be “complicit” in going along with the program, the one that that silently certifies otherness as something inherently worthy of derision. At 27, he’s adhering to a higher standard. It takes a bit of courage to do that, especially in an industry that’s traditionally looked the other way when its protagonists have routinely ostracized otherness.

And if we’re cheering on Jason Collins and Michael Sam as they attempt to blaze new paths of acceptance in professional sports, I find it hard to ignore vestiges of the old ways that make otherness so pronounced. Stu Woo is entitled to do his job and not hear “Chinaman” from someone in a position of authority. So is Jeff Cutler. So are the clubhouse attendants and interns and lackluster first basemen. So is everybody who comes in and out of the Met sphere, regardless of descent.

Dan Warthen is entitled to think whatever he wants. If he sees Cutler and thinks, “there goes that Chinaman who interprets my advice to Dice-K [8],” that’s extraordinarily sad, but that’s a heart-and-mind issue. If he’s desperate to ask somebody away from his place of employment, “did I ever tell ya the one about the Chinaman who walked into grocery store…” that’s unfortunate, yet that’s his right. But if Warthen’s going to come to work and throw a word like that around, whether in the form of a joke or a relatively benign reference, geez, what’s wrong with that guy?

Never mind that there’s a considerateness aspect to life that is too often dismissed as overly sensitive or (speaking of offensive phrases) politically correct. Baseball is a business predicated on teams attracting all the people they can to buy tickets to their games. The Mets needn’t come remotely close to offending any potential customers on any basis that has nothing to do with not acquiring a better shortstop. The Mets play in Flushing, for goodness sake. Ride the 7 one stop to Main St. and meet your neighbors.

If we’re a forgiving people, then we forgive Dan Warthen for saying something cloddish and let Alderson decide on merit if he’s the pitching coach best suited to further develop Harvey, Wheeler, Syndergaard, Montero and all the other young arms in his care. If the results Warthen yields are outstanding — starting pitching seems to be the one Met area about which nobody has any real complaints — the slur fades until the next time somebody says something anachronistically stupid. If team ERA wafts to intolerable levels, what Woo reported Warthen saying to Cutler probably doesn’t help his cause.

The great Dan Jenkins (probably not someone who’d have a problem [9] with how Warthen expressed himself) built a career on observing truths and turning them into fiction. In a terrific profile [10] synced to the release of Jenkins’s autobiography [11], Grantland’s Bryan Curtis discusses how the author of Semi-Tough would linger over drinks in the company of colorful characters and gather what became his prose.

“He would disappear once in a while,” said David Israel. “You knew nobody had to take a leak that often. He was off writing down all his overheards. That’s what he would call them. Just writing down great lines overheard in bars. He didn’t want to write them down in front of somebody.” Jenkins knew if he didn’t write down those lines — that material — they would float into the ether and he’d never remember them again.”

Jenkins, Curtis continued, absorbed “locker-room philosophizing” from the likes of Don Meredith and Sonny Jurgensen, stuff that was “too interesting for Sports Illustrated. By placing their words in the mouths of Billy Clyde [Puckett] and Shake [Tiller], Jenkins could show readers what the life of a pro football player was really like.”

“I wrote a novel with people talking the way I know they talk,” Jenkins told Curtis. Woo wrote a brief news feature with Warthen talking the way he knows he talked, and we saw a little of what the life of a major league clubhouse is really like. Sometimes these narratives write themselves. Sometimes somebody has to decide to write them.