Yunelgate Continued: Thoughts after some time to stew

Now that I’ve had time to sleep on the trade and think about it, just some scattered commentary…

When a player suddenly starts playing far below his normal level, there are basically three classes of reasons: Luck, Physical, and Mental. I think that while luck has played some role in Yunel’s poor performance in 2010, it is probably not the sole cause, and likely not the primary cause. Luck does not, generally, lead to not only not hitting any home runs but not coming close to hitting any. Luck probably doesn’t cause you to suddenly start popping up in a sixth of your plate appearances.

That leaves physical and mental, which are to some degree overlapping. The physical can be an injury or illness, or could be a mechanical issue. The mental can range anywhere from a serious (and to some degree physical) illness such as clinical depression to just being unhappy. I would not count out an injury. Remember, he spent two weeks on the disabled list earlier this year and has had injuries in each of his full seasons in the majors. However, the general consensus seems to be that Yunel’s problems are mental in nature, and that they are also reflected in the attitude problems that frustrated the Braves.

I am not going to attempt to diagnose Yunel Escobar. Obviously, I am not trained for that, and I furthermore don’t have anything but distant and second-hand reports of his behavior to go on. I could go get the DSM-IV — there’s one about twenty feet away — and come up with something that meets the observed facts, but that’s really not necessary.

What is necessary is to remember that if Escobar is mentally ill, that mental illness is very real — and that Major League Baseball has a very poor track record in dealing with players suffering from mental illness. If you can, pick up a copy of Marvin Miller’s A Whole Different Ball Game and read the section on Alex Johnson. Johnson, who was legitimately mentally ill — as anyone who spent any time around him and paid any attention could tell — got a reputation as a malcontent. “He was known for being surly and difficult to get along with. After his breakout season in 1970, he was involved in a number of incidents in 1971, leading to successive suspensions.” That was forty years ago now, but I see little evidence that baseball has changed its attitude towards mentally ill players much, and the Braves are perhaps the most traditional organization in baseball.

One thing about Yunel Escobar that has not gotten much comment is that he is a refugee, that while other Latin ballplayers can go back to their homelands in the offseason that he and his fellow Cubans are effectively banned from their country until the situation changes. (This is not a place for discussion of Cuban-US relations. This means you.) They don’t fit in very well with the Cuban-American community centered in Miami. To a large degree, Yunel’s “people” are the other Cuban ballplayers in organized baseball, and the closest thing he has to family is his boyhood friend Brayan Pena.

It’s not a life I’d want to live, even if it is more desirable than continuing in Cuba, and before you condemn, remember what he’s gone through. This guy got on a leaky boat manned by human traffickers he couldn’t afford to pay and got dropped off in Miami hoping he could make it in baseball — and pay off the smugglers. In the space of a year, he went from Havana to Miami to Danville, Virginia, to Rome, Georgia, while not knowing anyone around him. I expect that you’d wind up a little messed up too.

195 thoughts on “Yunelgate Continued: Thoughts after some time to stew”

  1. Great perspective. I hope the kid has much success in Toronto.

    And just in case I was JC’d IMHO jjschiller’s summary of the trade in the last thread is spot on.

    I got the same thing after reading the Olney blog post. jj did a much better job of summarizing than me.

  2. Agreed that MLB stinks in its capacity for empathy but one positive example does come to mind; I think (as does the consensus) that the Reds handled Joey Votto’s bout with depression last season very well. The fans and media? Not so much.

  3. Nicely done, Mac. Just a while ago I was kind of gleefully telling my wife about how the Braves gave AAG a standing O because they hated Yunel so much . . . but now I feel like kind of a prick.

    But, assuming that Yunel was/is mentally ill, what would you have done if you were in Wren’s shoes? Get him therapy? Is it possible they actually did that (after all, Smoltz worked with a sports psychologist)? And after having this time to reflect, do you like the trade any better? While others wailed and gnashed their teeth, I noticed you were kind of quiet–though you did say initially you didn’t like the deal. Have you changed your mind at all?

    I do now feel bad for the guy. But I don’t feel that bad for the team. I’m kind of caught between . . .

    Oh one other thing. I think a lot of professions in our culture don’t deal well with mental illness. It’s a reflection of the culture, to some degree.

  4. I was discussing the refugee impact with my friends just yesterday although apparently not as eloquently as yourself.

    I just hope he figures things out. The kid has talent so he’ll keep getting chances.

  5. Like so many things you write, Mac, this is a thought-provoking perspective on something I really hadn’t even thought about.

    Anyway, it’s over. Cito Gaston has a very good reputation with hitters, so it’s very possible that he’ll help Yunel rediscover his stroke. I wish the guy all the best, but I’m also glad he won’t be causing us any more heartburn. This isn’t a move that makes me cheer, but it’s a move that, in the end, may have had to happen. I give kudos to Frank Wren for having the stones to try to make the best of a bad situation.

    I only hope that Yunel can do the same. What it took for him to come to this country required courage nothing short of heroism. I admire his life story even while I hate his boneheaded plays. I hope he can pick up where he left off last year, and start beating up on the Red Sox and Yankees.

  6. They’re just old-fashioned in a lot of ways, from stuff like the high emphasis on scouting over statistical analysis to more incidental things like the jackets-and-ties rule. Even if he’s not in charge of day-to-day operations anymore, the Braves are still very much in John Schuerholz’s image, and he’s a traditionalist.

  7. so who fits in at manager knowing how this franchise is run?

    TP
    Perez (seems like a long shot)
    Fredi

  8. Props. Been thinking this for a few years about Escobar. The language and cultural barriers alone must be devastatingly isolating.

  9. One of the very first things I learned about managing people is that when an employee fails, it is as much a reflection on the employer/manager as the employee, FWIW.

  10. Mac, good food for thought and always good to remind ourselves that we aren’t walking in anyone else’s shoes. I would remark though that (1) it’s just speculation whether the on-the-field behavior/attitude problems may be due to illness rather than simply within the range of normal (although unacceptable) behaviors, and (2) there have been many other Cuban players who have successfully navigated their way to the majors without any (outward) sign of the troubles that we’re talking about here. Mac mentions Pena and among the Braves there’s also Canizares. There are our old friends Eli Marrero and Danys Baez. Of course there’s El Duque and Livan Hernandez, Contreras, and Betancourt.

    Of course, on the other side of the evidentiary ledger, there’s Jose Canseco.

  11. And @3, I thought of that very thing when I heard the wailing of the Cleveland faithful regarding their betrayal. People don’t give a damn about athletes other than when the athlete is indirectly propping up their self esteem by helping the home side. That “worship” that is supposed to make you owe the locals some slack come contract time somehow disappears when you’re having a bad season.

  12. I can think of a couple other promising young careers derailed by mental illness. Tony Horton’s attempted suicide in 1970 was kept secret. Jimmy Piersall was shipped to the minors when he couldn’t cope. Willy Aybar was apparently afflicted with depression which led to dependence on alcohol.

    I don’t know if Yunel is in the same boat as these guys. Mental illness manifests itself in different ways in different people, but Yunel’s issues never seemed…clinical? Maybe you have to have some distance from a situation to fully appreciate it, because Yunel just seemed immature for the most part.
    But if he is, I really hope the Jays have somebody who can help him out. There’s a good baseball player in there somewhere.

  13. And they laughed when Piersall ran the bases the wrong way, and when Horton crawled back to the dugout. And the Braves did not handle Aybar well at all, though the Rays rescued him.

  14. What I recall about the Aybar situation was that he disappeared from treatment for several days and his own agent acknowledged drug and alcohol abuse. The Braves kept with him through it until he returned from drug rehabilitation, but he broke his hand and was traded. Maybe I missed something, but I didn’t get a sense that the organization let him down.

  15. Of course, none of us (presumably) can know what went down between Escobar and his teammates, his manager, his organization. We also can’t know what was and is going on in his head. That said, it is probably safe to assume that things were bad, and that things reached something of a breaking point, at least insofar as the organization was concerned.

    What gets me is the gloating over his departure from both fans and media, especially from people like DOB. It’s unprofessional, in my opinion, and more importantly betrays an ignorance of privilege and an absence of empathy. I truly hope Gonzalez works out–I’m a Braves fan, after all–but why some folks insist upon “hating” Escobar is beyond me. We don’t know these people. And even if we did know them on some cursory level, many of us would have to cross a massive cultural and experiential gulf to feel, legitimately anyway, “hate.”

  16. @20, DOB has changed dramatically in tone since he came here. It has mystified me for some time to watch him go from saber friendly reporter to total company man.

  17. One thing to remember about other Cubans is that they mostly were older (not Pena, and not Canseco who grew up in Florida) and mostly veterans of international competition, whose minor league careers were in AA or AAA, not low-A. Danville has a population of about 45,000 with an Hispanic population of 1.3 percent — or about 600 people.

  18. About DOB,

    well, according to the glossary, we like him, but I, for one, have never liked him (or his writing, I should say) much to begin with, and right now he has trouble keeping his head above the Peanut line.

  19. I think term limits for beat reporters is a good idea. Every five years, they have to change jobs and go to a different sport or a different city or become a columnist.

  20. DOB had access in other places too. I think it’s more that, after spending all this time talking to Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz and so forth, it’s hard not to come to around to their way of thinking. After all, they’re extremely smart and extremely successful and the last 30 years have done nothing so much as prove that if Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz think something, they’re probably right. On the other hand, the AJC sports section is far from progressive. If he had younger editors and colleagues, he might have a better perspective about where Bobby and JS’s baseball worldview might benefit from some sabermetric insight.

    As it is, he does a decent job. But yeah, he is a bit of a company man.

  21. @27 – Didn’t know Canseco grew up in Florida — that explains it!

    Fair enough points about the potential for difference experiences, but I guess I’m skeptical that there are unique environmental explanations for his problems. The Braves are pretty widely regarded as an organization that has a player-friendly, supportive environment. That’s not to say that he didn’t fall through the cracks (if there are cracks), but it seems less likely than the other plausible explanations — none of which are flattering (or even neutral) to Escobar.

  22. Danville, VA can be one depressing place, and not just because my grandmother passed away there a few years ago (she lived in Chatham, just north of Danville, for 60 years — she was a nurse at Hargrave Military Academy, where UGA has stashed many a non-qualifier over the years). Danville is an old textile town — here’s a recent picture of the most noticeable structure in the middle of town:

    http://www.uer.ca/locations/viewgal.asp?picid=235054

    Yes, the sign is collapsing. I have no idea whether it’s still there, but it looked like that for years.

  23. 23—Ditto, spike. I don’t think being the president of the BBWAA helped his perspective any.

  24. @32, My sister went to school at Averett. To say there is nothing in Danville grossly overstates the case. There is far, far less than that.

  25. I’ll say that I am quite close to someone who is a beat reporter in a sports section. I can definitely see how it would be easy to get a little too comfortable in that kind of position. I think you either grow to really hate or really love the team/program you are covering. It never seems like it is somewhere in the middle.

    I will say that I am pretty sure that Escobar was quite a pain to cover for the media. Not saying it’s right or wrong, but I am sure some of that is coming out right now in the gloating over him getting shipped out.

  26. It’s possible Yunel never recovered from the emotional whiplash of Cuba-to-Miami-to-Danville.

  27. Hey, did you guys hear that JC gave Mac a standing ovation? I for one think that speaks volumes about Mac’s predecessor, whoever that was. Mac’s laid back attitude and can-do spirit makes him a breath of fresh air compared to the poopy head who came before him.

  28. Man, Eric Campbell had a really good season in 2005 and another good one in Rome the next year. What ever happened to him?

  29. @41 – Our 3B of the future was sent packing for a bad attitude after being suspended a few times. Tough road for a 2d round pick. Sounds strangely familiar:

    “Defensively, Campbell is an agile, sure handed fielder with a strong arm built for the hot corner. The big problem…and it is a big one, is a continued track record of insubordination that has led to a couple of substantial team-induced suspensions over the past two seasons. Campbell has been described as someone who marches to the beat of his own drum, defying requests by the Braves organization to adhere to a specific rehab program following his shoulder injury in ’07. It has also been well documented that Campbell’s effort is often inconsistent. At times, he plays with a great deal of energy and grit, while other times he appears lackadasical and unfocused. This has manifested itself in his plate discipline as well. He makes good contact with pitches in the zone, but often gets himself out trying to pull pitches out of the strike zone.”

    p.s. – It also looks like the high-A breaking balls were too much for him.

  30. Back to the manager wish list (of the three you listed), I go Eddie Perez, Fredi and then TP in that order. Personal preference, but I just like Eddie. The bullpen loves him too.

    Outside the organization, what about Scioscia?

  31. My father, who is a nurse with a specialization in psychology, thinks that Yunel is depressed, from how his face has looked on TV. Depressed people tend to have really flat affects; they don’t show much emotion on their faces, and my father has been looking for (and finding) that on Yunel, compared to how animated he used to be. It certainly would explain his performance this year, and it would mean that it was unlikely to get straightened out this year.

  32. per DOB…

    Due to the Braves schedule and the All-Star break, Medlen last started on July 7, when he beat the Phillies. He will go 17 days between starts. The Braves did use Medlen for an inning of relief on July 11 against the Mets.

    “We’ll keep Medlen resting a little bit in the bullpen,” Cox said. “That’s worked out perfect.”

    In his 11 starts since joining the starting rotation, Medlen is 5-0 with a 3.41 ERA. The Braves have gone 10-1 in his starts.

  33. If Yunel moves to Toronto, would he be able to go back to Cuba rom there? Or would the Cuban govt. try to detain him?

  34. WRT to travel to Cuba, it will depend on his citizenship, not his residency. US Citizens are banned from spending money (although not actually banned from travel per se) in Cuba. There is a direct flight from Toronto to Havana. I couldn’t say what the Cuban government would do, if anything, if he came back.

    edit – Well I will defer to PWH on his status with Castro.

  35. I can just hear John Kincade’s response if he were to read this post. “This is just a bunch of politically correct excuse making. What ever happened to personal responsibility.”

    In all seriousness, excellent post, Mac. The most thought-proviking thing I’ve read regarding this trade.

  36. I think Mac hits on a good point about the isolation and the Braves “traditionalist” attitude. To build on that slightly, Escobar (and Cuban baseball in general, from what little I know) plays a, for lack of a better term, flamboyant game. Showmanship is a part of it. That’s the tradition he grew up in, and for most of his life, was lauded for it and given encouragement to continue. Then he shows up with the Braves, and that DOES NOT fly. Remember his first year up, when he’d just take off from first while the pitcher was walking around muttering to himself? Escobar probably saw it as something natural to do. But I’ll be Cox didn’t. Those kind of things (the bat flip, etc.) probably got him many a chewing out. If you want to talk about isolation, how about having the things you’ve done all your life, the things that have made people think you’re special all your life, suddenly thrown in your face as absolute “don’t”‘s?

    Now, I’m not saying those behaviors shouldn’t have been discouraged or that Cox should have treated Escobar with kid’s gloves when doing so. But I can see how that might tend to alienate the player from the manager, which in turn would isolate him from his teammates, the rest of whom like Cox and liked playing for him. So yeah. Shame it went down this way, and I hope he gets it back together.

    One thing I’ll miss in particular was his arm. Man, was that a cannon. It’s tough for me to compare, but I’d say better than Furcal’s.

    But enough armchair psychology! Let’s beat some Brewers!

  37. I’m glad that someone finally recognized Yunel’s circumstances. I’m not saying they excuse anything, but it felt like a lot of people were frothing with hatred over Yunel while ignoring or being ignorant of the fact that he went through some pretty rough shit to get here. He’s a major league player now who makes hundreds of thousands of dollars to play a kid’s game, but that wasn’t always the case.

    I guess that was my biggest problem with the trade – that I felt like people were just being selfish and inconsiderate of what the guy went through while they were calling him a “bonehead” or a “cancer.” I don’t think that many people outside of baseball really cared about it, and neither did a lot of people inside of baseball. It was like “Okay so he sailed over on a boat. He’s in America now so shape up, kid” which is not a view I can agree with about anything – baseball related or not.

  38. Yunel satisfies something called “confirmation bias” for any number of pre-existing ideas. It goes a long way to explaining the intensity of opinion about him. I’ll just leave it at that.

  39. Well, Fidel won’t live forever, and everybody assumes that defectors will be allowed to travel back at some point after he dies. At least in Canada, he can possibly be in contact with the home country.

  40. Some medicinal marijuana would probably be helpful to Yunel so Canada or California are probably the best places for him to go.

  41. I can see it now:

    BLOGGER THOMASON CONFIRMS
    ESCOBAR INSANE
    Trade Nulified
    ————-

    Die, Phillies, die!

  42. Yunel satisfies something called “confirmation bias” for any number of pre-existing ideas.

    I’m with you there. Posnanski had Yunel ranked as one of the 100 most valuable properties in baseball (#90). But he’s had a bad first half with the stick, doesn’t speak the language, plays with a little different flair than most…

    And now he’s gone. What a turn of events from bursting on the scene with that bold steal of second.

  43. Does anyone know if Chip Caray has had his role reduced? I recall reading in horror that he would be calling +/- 90-100 games this year, but we’ve seen an awful lot of Ernie, Jr. lately. Not that I’m complaining — just curious if there’s been anything said about it.

  44. Nah. Peachtree is owned by Turner, which fired Chip during the offseason. It’s just that we’ve had a lot of Peachtree games lately. Chip still works all the Fox games.

  45. A-Gonz and Cabrera team up to show how a positive clubhouse attitude translates into on field performance.

  46. #70 – Yeah, if that play had not been made about a week ago it would have been characterized a little differently.

  47. Used to be’s don’t count anymore…they just lay on the floor at the end…of…the…day……

  48. Liner hit him on the leg just below the knee on the last play of the inning, deflected to Prado, who threw out the runner.

    He appears to be okay.

  49. Hanson seems to be the only guy on our staff with the balls to hit somebody after a homer.

  50. The Brewers hitting coach said they were going to attack Hanson’s fastball early in the count.

  51. I don’t think I’d burn Medlen down 4-0, esp. since they’re supposedly skipping his turn in the rotation to hold down his innings.

  52. It’s almost getting to the point where there’s a “good” Tommy and a “bad” Tommy. I thought after HoRam left we were done with this.

  53. Kawakami went to the bullpen instead of Hanson…why? Seems now every other start Hanson does this.

  54. I sorta agree at least on the surface about KK vs. Hanson. KK never blew up like Hanson tends to…but you can’t send a Hanson to the bullpen.

  55. He’s just leaving too many pitches up in the zone. His fastball has always been somewhat straight so when it isn’t going downwards it’s easier to hit. He was also leaving all sliders up until the Weeks at-bat in the 4th.

  56. Shoulda thrown Hanson in on the Escobar deal to get a few more live arms out of Toronto.

  57. What the hell was with McCann screaming fuck and walking away before a strike was even called. Jeez.

  58. If I were facing the Braves in the World Series tomorrow, I’d round up as many LHP I could find and just throw them all out there.

  59. Damn a bunch of getting dominated by Randy freaking Wolf. The boys need to get something going this inning.

  60. I say trade Hanson for Strasburg even up. That sounds fair to me.

    The Brewers have one of, if not the worse staffs in the league. Struggling against them is not a good sign

  61. Which bravesjournal ad has better boobs: LatinAmericanCupid.com or Evony?
    It’s clear that either is preferable to those Mets paraphanalia spots that we sometimes get.

  62. Freeman surprised me too, but that’s because the only other Freeman I know is Morgan Freeman.

    EDIT: I think I just spoiled it for Spike…unless he doesn’t know who Morgan Freeman is.

  63. Good posting, Mac. Generally, I’m with you.

    If you have known or not, I’d like to tell you…you said one thing to remember about other Cubans is that they mostly were older. I think that thing has been involved in Cuba’s circumstances.

    There were some reasons.
    They were struck with poverty and had a bunch of families and siblings who were not educated. They didn’t know how to register the birth of a baby. Even the babies early died from starvation and diseases, etc. So they postponed registering a birth on purpose.

    Nowadays, They have realised “The American Dream” is all their hopes and more since baseball scouters have been interested in Cubans. They intentionally lied to their real ages cause the youger is better or they don’t know their real ages themselves.

    To be frank with you, I haven’t watched games so much. However, Escobar clearly didn’t happy on tv. I don’t want treat Escobar like a Francoeur. I hope he is ok there.

  64. Which bravesjournal ad has better boobs: LatinAmericanCupid.com or Evony?

    The only ads I think I ever seen here are for Allstate insurance and another featuring a Roman soldier.

  65. I’ve discovered recently that the chop is more effective if you chop left handed for lefties and right handed for righties.

  66. I should never have bought that MLB.tv subscription. If I hadn’t, I would have been oblivious to all these times the Braves have looked worthless in sac fly situations.

    For such a good team, they really make it look difficult to get runners in from third with less than two outs.

  67. The Braves’ vaunted pitching didn’t show up tonight. Hopefully Barry Zito does show up in SF tonight.

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