When I first heard about the anti-hazing and anti-bullying rule added to MLB's new CBA, I got nostalgic. Twenty years ago, in 1996, I was a rookie on the Chicago Cubs, and I had heard rumors about major league newcomers having to pass ritualistic tests at some point in their first year. I kept waiting for it to come, but all I saw were little quizzes. Sit in the bus bathroom for the ride from the airport to the hotel, be someone's personal valet. That's it? Wow, this rookie thing is easy.
For our late-season road trip to St. Louis -- where what seemed like a million fans hovered around the hotel all day -- we were told to "dress up." More specifically, we would have to dress as "waitresses" to serve the coaching staff and veteran players (and walk through that large crowd, mind you). We were given creative license to wear whatever, but the key word was "waitress," which meant dressing as a woman.
A wave of anxiety hit. I hadn't dressed as a woman before. It wasn't on my bucket list. But I understood the prevailing sentiment -- the big leagues are a place where you do just about anything to be part of the club. You needed to show undying loyalty to your team.
If virility came into question because of your first, and possibly only, foray into dressing contrary to your male gender identity, it was understood that you could compensate by indulging in the riches of temptation island that are the big leagues -- conquests and cars could make up for any lost manhood points. So what were a few hours of humiliation or discomfort?
The Cubs veterans gave us advance notice because we had to shop. I was told to go to Halsted Street near Wrigley Field and find the rainbow flags. So a few of us went and found some clothes. I decided I would dress as "Funkweeta," a rough and tumble woman with her midriff (I will dare say "six-pack midriff") exposed. I wore shades, which helped mask my horror. I may have even shaved my signature John Oates mustache.
Then, for good measure, we served food and drinks and performed karaoke. I wore flip-flops over socks and kicked them off a la Patti LaBelle during En Vogue's "Giving Him Something He Should Feel." I remember teammate Scott Bullet jumping back when one of my shoes almost landed on his steak, knocking over a few waters instead.
Bob Patterson, our veteran left-handed reliever, I believe genuinely felt bad for us. He whispered advice in the days prior. I remember my frugal side talking about the cost of the costumes and reimbursement, so I think he voted hard for Funkweeta to win first place because this madness was also some sort of twisted "The Voice" competition. I won, so to go with my tips, I got some extra cash. Made a couple hundred bucks or so. Nice.
Baseball has a Fraternal Order to it. A little bit of break you down and build you up. I generally resisted this approach. (Just ask my buddy Sammy Sosa what happened when he tried to make me get him water midgame during my first full season.) I recall a few players over the years digging in and not wearing the ritual clothes. Then-Phillies rookie Vicente Padilla had his suit cut up at Wrigley so he couldn't opt out, but he found another suit, declaring that there was no way he was going to wear a tutu. I, personally, didn't take joy in it as a veteran.
After a full career, I found that there are so many ways this game humbles you, and veterans can be big brothers to build young players back up, inspiring loyalty through other means. But I did have fun in my rite of passage. It was funny, and I broke out of my shell to pull it off. I think my teammates respected that in a player. But that was many years ago.
I am the chair of the School Governance Council at my kids' school, and like any school, bullying is always a topic of discussion. There's the fine line between "kids being kids" and someone with a pattern and practice of tearing other kids down. Hazing and bullying will always be terms we need to modernize and address.
As an old-time player, there are experiences I miss that the current generation doesn't have, but I don't feel like the get-off-my-lawn guy. Things evolve. And it's good that our game is taking a leadership role in our social environment. It will not be perfect in its first rendition, but it's on the table now to be addressed. Sure, there will always be the past saying how soft the present is, but baseball has a rich history in taking on society's challenges. Our narratives on women, the LGBTQ community, race and religion are in sharp focus, and locker rooms have always been one of the worst culprits of indulging some of the stereotypes that plague us all.
Yet I'm optimistic. Baseball is full of talented and creative young players who are in tune with the amazing diversity that surrounds the game. This rule is a bold first step in addressing what all of us try to navigate in our everyday lives. And as I have learned as my kids grow up in elementary school, bullying and hazing do not have to manifest along the constructs of only protected classes, as outlined in the new policy. We may find that this first step will require refinement over time if we want to stay in line with our society at large.
Even so, players are going to still have fun in whatever loophole they find, even if there will no longer be "Funkweeta" kicking off her flip-flops. Expect to see major leaguers as Godzilla, a giant hot dog, Trolls, Jabba the Hutt, Hatchimals, Bart Simpson, Pikachu or any of the Fantastic Beasts. Then, after commissioner Rob Manfred pulls his hair out with a smile, back to the negotiating table they will go.