The suspension is largely symbolic, because the season had a mere 10 games remaining, and Clevenger wasn’t going to be part of them anyway. But in a sport that prides itself on inclusion, and a team filled with a variety of ethnicities in its clubhouse, symbolism matters.
Who would have ever guessed that Steve Clevenger, a weak-hitting, injured, backup catcher, would overnight become the focal point of a team on a last-ditch playoff drive?
Clevenger almost certainly was not going to play again for the Mariners this year, having suffered a broken hand in late June and then a flexor strain in his right elbow last week. He has not appeared in a game, in fact, since June 29, and before that played in just 22 games in 2016. He’s a career .227 hitter in parts of six seasons across three organizations.
Clevenger in every way has been a fringe player — until Thursday, when he took to his computer or cellphone, pecked away with his fingers and suddenly became the latest front-and-center entrant into the cultural and political hotbed that is percolating, and fomenting, at the intersection of sports and the so-called real world.
The Mariners did the right thing Friday when they suspended Clevenger for the remainder of the season for two offensive tweets. One, an apparent reference to the protests in Charlotte, N.C., called the victim of a police shooting a “thug.” The other, after referencing President Obama and the Black Lives Matters movement, stated: “Everyone involved should be locked behind bars like animals.”
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The suspension is largely symbolic, because the season had a mere 10 games remaining, and Clevenger wasn’t going to be part of them anyway. The lost salary for Clevenger amounts to about $33,000, less than 6 percent of his $516,500 salary for the season.
But in a sport that prides itself on inclusion, and a team filled with a variety of ethnicities in its clubhouse, symbolism matters. The word “thug” is racially charged. You can’t liken African-Americans to animals without repercussions.
It’s not a First Amendment issue; Clevenger has the right to tweet whatever he wants. But he also has to face the consequences for doing so, particularly when his words are repugnant to so many. A lackluster apology doesn’t erase that.
The consequence for Clevenger was the premature end of his season — and most likely his Mariners career, and possibly his major-league career. Though he remains in the organization and will be arbitration-eligible next year, I would be surprised if the Mariners don’t cut loose Clevenger, 30, after the season, making him a free agent. But that was a possible outcome even if this incident hadn’t happened.
There will be those who call this suspension political correctness run amok, and that Clevenger merely did an inelegant job of presenting a viewpoint held by many.
If Clevenger had expressed opposition to Black Lives Matters without using such incendiary language, I don’t think the Mariners would have had grounds to discipline him. We desperately need to get to the point where disagreements in political philosophy can be aired civilly and debated thoughtfully.
But Clevenger crossed a line — and just because some people happen to be there with him on the other side of that line doesn’t make it acceptable. Especially for someone representing a Major League Baseball team. Ballplayers have been counseled that they indeed are reflecting on their team when they take to social media.
Of course, there also will be those comparing this to Colin Kaepernick and others who protest the national anthem by taking a knee or raising a fist. Aren’t they offending some people, too?
Clearly they are, and unless you’re living under a rock you’ve heard from those offended people. You might well BE one of those people. But I think there’s a rather sharp distinction between a silent and peaceful expression of a social cause, and hateful words that demean an entire group of people.
Feel free to disagree. Everyone wants hot takes, but that’s what has gotten us into this mess — the inability to see nuance, the lack of respect for differing points of view and the failure to recognize that most of those complex issues are gray, not black and white.
Clevenger might catch on with another team if the Mariners cut him, but it’s also possible that no ballclub would want to deal with the baggage. At any rate, this likely closes the book on the Mariners’ portion of the most unfortunate trade during general manager Jerry Dipoto’s first year, one that cost the Mariners Mark Trumbo, who hit his major-league-leading 44th home run Friday.
Will this furor affect the Mariners as they begin their critical final stretch? It shouldn’t, if they are mentally strong. It’s not as if they suddenly lost an integral part of their lineup. This whole incident happened on the periphery, and ballplayers have a well-honed ability to tune out the noise.
Hopefully, it will be a cautionary tale that reminds other ballplayers to think before they tweet.
I have a feeling that the Clevenger case will be taught in social-media workshops around the sporting world at all levels, including the lessons in social-media etiquette the Mariners offer as part of their media training to all players.
And if you’re hitting .221, like Clevenger was this year, you should think even harder, and then hit delete.
Would the Mariners, two games out of a playoff berth that the organization desperately craves, have given the same suspension to a star player who had tweeted what Clevenger did?
We’ll never know, but I’d like to think the ballclub would have done the right thing, regardless of the impact. As it was, they made the move that was inevitable the moment Clevenger hit send.