TAMPA — Dexter Fowler was asked a question. He gave a heartfelt answer. And then as it so often does, all hell broke loose on social media this week.
Dexter Fowler is a smart and thoughtful man. He treats others with respect. He smiles. He engages. He plays with passion. He is everything that is right in the world of major league baseball.
To nobody’s surprise, he respectfully stood his ground this week as the computer jockeys slung their filth, and good for him. Because what he said wasn’t so much political as it was human.
B/R spoke with four players this week—all All-Stars, all friends of Fowler’s, two of them former Cardinals, two African-American, one Latino and one white—who all defended the outfielder and fingered the hatred and racist comments directed at him as a byproduct of social media, and not endemic to St. Louis.
“I don’t know about this thing you’re telling me about, but he’s not a guy who would try to hurt anyone else,” New York Yankees second baseman Starlin Castro, a teammate of Fowler’s with the Chicago Cubs in 2015, told B/R. “He’s a great person. He’s a great player. He comes to the ballpark and plays hard every day.
“He’s a really good guy. I don’t think he wants to hurt anyone’s feelings.”
Oh, but in today’s dynamite-stick society, where the mere mention of anything within five area codes of political lights the hideous Mr. Hyde in so many segments of our country, it doesn’t take much.
His wife, Darya, is from Iran. An ESPN reporter asked him about President Donald Trump’s travel ban—Iran is one of seven countries included—and Fowler said it is “unfortunate.” Unfortunate because he and Darya would like to take their young daughter to Iran one day so she can meet her cousins and other relatives for the first time. Unfortunate because Darya’s sister, according to Fowler, recently delayed her trip home to the United States from a business trip to Qatar because she didn’t want to be detained.
Fowler was not disrespectful to Trump. He did not rant and rave. He simply said the travel ban was “unfortunate.” That’s it.
Nevertheless, so-called “fans” took to the Facebook page St. Louis Cardinals True Fans and immediately began the public flogging with comments such as:
“Trump won mo. By 19 points keep mouth shut and play baseball.”
“I knew he was going to shame the cardinals uniform.”
“Trade his black ass”
“Just cry me a river Fowler trade him Cardinals is too good for his BS”
“He should just move out of the country! He has plenty of money. So sick of hearing this especially from people like him.”
The Twitter handle @BestFansStLouis, a sarcastic account gleefully dedicated to puncturing the long-held notion (especially by those in St. Louis) that the area is home to baseball’s best fans, immediately began stoking social media’s scalding hot stove by passing along many of the worst comments on its feed.
Nationally, it became easy to view the St. Louis area as one of the most racist locations in the United States.
“I’ve never seen anything like [racism] in St. Louis,” Castro said. “When I was with Chicago, we went there a lot. We’d hang out, we’d go out to eat, and they all seemed like great fans. They loved their team and they respected the other team.
“That’s my perspective.”
Castro is not alone. Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia said he’s “never” had racial issues whenever he’s passed through St. Louis.
“I’ve never seen any side of that,” said Matt Holliday, in camp with the Yankees this spring following seven-and-a-half seasons in St. Louis. “You know, sometimes we tend to generalize based on a couple of loud voices as opposed to how the mass of 99 percent of the fans feel toward him or about this.
“The ones who are loud are going to get the publicity. I don’t think that’s representative of how the city is or how they treat players. I’ve never seen that.”
While St. Louis was in the cross-hairs, it turned out there was something else going on, too.
“Keep America safe Dexter….and just worry about playing baseball”
“Just play baseball and STFU”
“Wow another overpaid minority has an issue with a Republican?? Shut your ass up”
“Good riddens you liberal piece of s--t. Pitch him high and tight”
Aside from the raw, unadulterated ignorance evidenced by the grammar and spelling on display, it’s Anti-Social Media, is what it is.
The trolls don’t just live in St. Louis. They live in Chicago and fill-in-the-blank-with-whatever-city-you-want-here. As essential as digital media is in so many ways to modern living, at times, there is no denying it becomes a scourge.
And it’s another obstacle course that today’s players must navigate. While Hank Aaron received racist hate mail and death threats during the run-up to his breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974, at least he didn’t have to see it on his computer screen or smartphone. Then again, when the hatred started again a couple of years ago after he was interviewed by USA Today, maybe he did.
“Half the things people say, some of that stuff they would never say to your face,” Atlanta second baseman Brandon Phillips, a longtime friend of Fowler’s and a very active Twitter user at @DatDudeBP, said. “It’s not just in St. Louis. It’s in general.
“That stuff motivates me. It’s an eye-opener to how the world is. The majority of the people, they’re not even real people. They’ll be making fake accounts. That’s what they do.
“Everybody’s catfishing on social media.”
Said Holliday: “You want players to be honest, but at the same time, if you don’t like their opinions, you don’t want them to be honest. I’m one of those guys, I’m very open to everybody having their own opinion and respecting other people’s places. I’ve never walked a day in those people’s shoes, so how would I know what’s right or wrong about how they feel? I think it’s always tricky, especially when you can turn it and make it look like whatever the agenda is.
“Dexter is a great guy and a friend of mine. I hope it’s just a small facet of people who are loud, and people appreciate who he is as a person and as a player.”
Increasingly, as politics have turned more and more divisive, athletes who go out on a limb to make a stand—such as quarterback Colin Kaepernick or the New England Patriots players who are refusing to visit the White House in the aftermath of their Super Bowl victory—find themselves on the business end of vitriol both online and, in some cases, in person. As the Fowler episode evidenced, we’ve reached the point where an athlete doesn’t even have to venture out on a limb before fierce blowback begins.
Always, social media has trended toward becoming nasty in a heartbeat, sometimes at the most unpredictable of moments. Consider actress Leslie Jones, who was attacked last summer by racists who called her an “ape,” among other things, because she dared be both a woman and black in the reboot of the film Ghostbusters.
As it is, wounds in St. Louis are already raw from recent events, sensitivity high and tension evident.
This was where the Ferguson, Missouri, riots began in August 2014, following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer.
This is where, last April, the New York Daily News reported outfielder Jason Heyward was the target of racial slurs in Busch Stadium upon his return there with the Chicago Cubs, slurs that were supposedly heard over the ESPN airwaves…until further examination revealed that, whoa, no they weren’t. Heyward then confirmed to Chicago reporters that, while he’s heard racial slurs at the ballpark, he did not hear them in St. Louis that night.
Holliday said the Cardinals obviously were “very conscious” of what was happening in Ferguson in 2014, but that it wasn’t an overriding topic in the clubhouse because “we have enough on our plates to try to go out and perform and manage our own families.” He also emphasized that he is no expert on the subject for the very obvious reason that he’s white.
“I think these are small fractions of the population that tend to get a lot of publicity,” Holliday said. “But in general, I’ve seen nothing but a positive experience for the African-American players [in St. Louis].”
Fowler handled things gracefully in the moment this week, taking to Twitter to announce “since I have a nice little chunk of people who hate me cuz I have an opinion, I’m going to do a nice giveaway for the good people.” The giveaway? Tickets to a Cardinals spring game in Jupiter, Florida.
“I don’t think people read the article,” he told me on Monday, noting how many people today simply see a headline and react both emotionally and instantaneously.
“A question was asked with empathy toward my family. Someone asked does the travel ban affect your family, and I said yeah. Someone shows genuine concern for my family, I’m going to give an honest answer. But people are going to be people. You’ve just gotta roll with it.”
Those who know him around the game cringe at what he’s gone through this week. And they also know that in today’s high-tech world, there but for grace, go they.
“Man, I try to steer clear of all that stuff and just play ball, keep my life simple,” said Holliday, who was teammates with Fowler in Colorado. “Dexter is a great person, a really good guy. I’ve enjoyed my time with him.
“He can have opinions being married to someone from Iran that I think a lot of other people can’t. He’s much closer to the effects of things like that than I am. “
Said Sabathia: “That’s his family. He has to defend his family.”
Hard as it is to argue with that, here’s something else that’s even more difficult to argue with: Every time an athlete, or just about anybody else in today’s world, opens his mouth about anything other than his chosen profession, he’s at risk to come under attack.
“He’s a thoughtful guy, a really good person, and I’m sure he meant no controversy about what he said,” Holliday said. “It’s just a really touchy time in the world. People are very polarized about a lot of what’s going on. I try to keep my life simple and leave politics for the people who know more about it. I don’t know much about that stuff. I try to keep my life simple, and pray for those who are affected in a negative way by how these things happen.”
Or, as Phillips said: “I don’t have trouble. Social media is just words. And words don’t bother me none.”
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.