On Tuesday afternoon, the Detroit Tigers signed catcher Derek Norris to a minor league contract. By most accounts, a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training should only merit one or two lines in a news release.
However, in the case of Norris, there is a giant asterisk next to his signing, something that has left a sour taste in the mouths of many. Norris, who most recently played with the Tampa Bay Rays, was suspended in September and placed on the restricted list as a penalty from the MLB Joint Domestic Violent, Sexual Assault, and Child Abuse Policy. He additionally forfeited $100,000 of termination pay from the Rays with the promise it would be donated to domestic violence charities.
Norris was investigated by the MLB after accusations from his ex-fiancee Kristen Eck surfaced online, first in an Instagram post — which has since been deleted — and then in a blog post where she detailed one particular instance of alleged assault.
It is important to note that Norris was never formally charged with anything, and was never arrested. Nevertheless, Eck’s statements were considered serious enough to get the attention of MLB commissioner Rob Manfred. After completing the investigation, which included an in-person interview with Norris, during which he denied the allegations, Manfred determined that “Mr. Norris’s conduct warranted discipline under the Joint Domestic Violence Policy.”
Norris agreed to forfeit the $100,000 and did not appeal the ruling.
These are the facts of the case, and the only details made available.
Norris was just another name in a seemingly ever-growing list of baseball players who have been accused of domestic violence, with players like Aroldis Chapman, Juerys Familia, and Jose Reyes being among the highest profile.
Major League Baseball has come under fire in the past for how it handles domestic violence issues, and how the punishments are often far less severe than those for a player being caught abusing steroids. This is a problem that has been going on for far too long, and one-month suspensions and minor fines won’t help make it go away.
In recent months we have been witness to a shifting social climate, wherein victims of abuse are suddenly being given the benefit of the doubt. Women and men are coming forward to open up about harassment, abuse, and the worst kinds of mistreatment, and they are being believed.
As a result, we’re also seeing swift and decisive action made against the accused abusers. Kevin Spacey, after being accused of assault by Broadway star Anthony Rapp, was quickly pulled from the Netflix series House of Cards and his character completely removed from the upcoming season. He was recast in an already completed film. Danny Masterson, accused by multiple women of rape, was likewise fired by Netflix from his series The Ranch. Russell Simmons, John Lasseter, Matt Lauer, and most famously Harvey Weinstein, have all either been fired, stepped down, or placed on leave from their jobs.
Real life consequences, happening in real time. Because people are being believed.
Like Norris, many of the men above have not been arrested. They have not been formally charged. They may never face legal repercussions for their past actions. But their employers looked at their behavior and saw, like with Norris, that their “conduct warranted discipline.”
Here’s another truth: many of the actors above may never find work in film again. Their reputations will now be forever linked to the actions of their past. Most of them have admitted culpability for their actions, others have denied the accusations.
We are not here to determine Norris’s guilt or innocence. We aren’t here to decide what should happen to him from a legal point of view.
But in signing him on Tuesday, the Tigers made something very clear: they don’t care about bad behavior.
This is hardly the first time the club has given a contract to a player with a history of abusive behavior. Former Tigers pitcher Alfredo Simon was accused of rape in 2013, and settled out of court. Former Tigers closer Francisco Rodriguez was charged with domestic abuse in 2012, and was previously arrested in 2010 for beating his father-in-law. Another former Tigers pitcher, Evan Reed, was accused of rape in 2014, the charges were dismissed, then four days late the dismissal was reversed. Simon and Rodriguez both continued to play in the majors following their accusations. Reed has continued to play independent ball.
The Tigers have established, in trading for Simon and Rodriguez after the fact, that a player’s history of abuse has no bearing on the team’s willingness to sign them.
It’s time for baseball to stand up and demonstrate that it really won’t make allowances for abusers. That the punishment for assaulting another human being should be harsher than the punishment for taking steroids. The MLB should hold itself to a higher standard than the Screen Actors Guild. It should say, “We have a zero tolerance policy for abuse. Period.”
And the Tigers shouldn’t have signed Derek Norris. Nothing in his numbers makes him such a vital player they couldn’t have found a better option elsewhere. Last season his batting average was .201. The season before it was .186. His advanced statistics aren’t much better. This isn’t a player they needed. And by signing him anyway, they have made a strong statement of their own.
“We don’t care.”
Well, we do. And teams should not get to value a handful of potential wins over a partner’s right to feel safe, to feel believed, to feel like they are heard.
Norris shouldn’t be given an invitation to spring training. The Tigers have made a mistake here, by ignoring his past. We can’t ignore their history of these decisions, though.
Bad move, Tigers. Do better.