Back before COVID, the conversations would take place in baseball stadium cafeterias in between bites of limp salads. Or they’d happen on the sidelines — two women, two sportswriters, speaking low and slow as we watched batting practice. On the road, the stories about inappropriate behavior would occasionally roll out at dinner, punctuated by a sigh or sip of wine.
"Do you know what he did?"
"Watch out for that guy."
"He wouldn’t leave me alone."
This would happen at least a few times a year. Sometimes we would be talking about a player, sometimes a team employee and sometimes a fellow reporter. It was always about a man. And afterward, we would all go back to work, some of the women wondering if this job was worth all the sidestepping, the avoidance, the hiding, and more than a few deciding it wasn’t.
I’ve had a few more conversations with my female colleagues since the news of now-former Mets general manager Jared Porter’s actions were made public Monday. They have been punctuated by anger, fatigue and the sort of unsurprised resignation common to people who have seen the same dispiriting play acted out too many times. Situations like these are not unique to baseball, but this week’s events have put a microscope on the sport.
Five years ago, Porter sent sexually explicit text messages to a female reporter, at one point sending 62 straight unanswered texts, according to an ESPN report. The story included damning details: The woman was a reporter from a foreign country who was afraid of reprisal in her home country, where blaming women for the faults of their tormentors was cruelly common. She did not speak English well. Porter was a source, meaning she couldn’t easily block him. She was vulnerable and had to ask a player for help.
I cannot imagine how humiliated she felt.
New Mets owner Steve Cohen fired Porter within hours of the disclosure and said there would be zero tolerance for this type of behavior.
But it is time for us to ask why this keeps happening. What is it about the baseball environment that fosters these bad actors?
We might ask why Porter was so comfortable doing what he did after only one in-person conversation with that reporter. We can question the vetting process that somehow didn’t turn up that Porter engaged in this type of behavior. And we can acknowledge that there’s a system in place that turns a blind eye to actions like these.
It doesn’t take much critical thinking to realize where things go wrong. Asked if the Mets had any inkling of Porter’s past, club president Sandy Alderson said he spoke to many people — people who had known Porter for decades — and nothing came up. Asked if he spoke to any women, Alderson said no, because there were none to ask.
"I don’t think this reflects a fundamental flaw in the process," Alderson said about the way the Mets handled the interviews.
I vehemently disagree.
There were women to ask. The Diamondbacks — Porter’s most recent home — had a female assistant director of scouting and baseball administration, and a female Latin America administrator of international baseball operations. The former, Kristyn Pierce, interned with the Mets for more than two years.
That’s not to say these women had any knowledge of the Porter incident, but it does show the Mets had options. If it feels like a blind spot, that’s probably because it was.
But let’s allow that it’s truly difficult to dig up information like this. There still are other methods that might have worked.
Alderson said the Mets had it in their ability to conduct an "FBI-style" investigation of candidates, as long as the team had the candidate’s approval.
And why wouldn’t they want to do that?
Let’s not forget this isn’t the first time the Mets have been burned by the vetting process: They hired Carlos Beltran last year and fired him before he managed a single game — all because they didn’t know about his role in the Astros’ cheating scandal.
This is an organization that is worth billions, and actions and messages like Porter’s are a gigantic liability for a franchise attempting to rebrand itself. The Mets did a great job in reacting to the ESPN report, but, though difficult, they could have done a better job compensating for the system that allows men to behave inappropriately.
There also is the clearer, if more difficult, solution: There need to be more women to ask, and they need to be in positions in which asking them is a matter of course. The power structure in baseball is overwhelmingly male, but there is an untapped talent pool of dedicated, intelligent women who know baseball and can make teams better.
They are women such as Kim Ng, the new general manager of the Miami Marlins, who can serve as advisers and assistants and even GMs. An added bonus is that they can serve as another line of defense against the rise of men like Porter — soufflé candidates who look wonderful at first glance but collapse when their actions are fully scrutinized.
But it’s unfair to put this all on the Mets. Porter messaged the female sportswriter when he was the director of professional scouting with the Cubs — the same club that touted its "growth culture" and then turned around and traded for reliever Aroldis Chapman, who was coming off a domestic violence suspension. It was the home of Addison Russell, who also was suspended under the domestic violence policy after an incident in 2017.
According to the ESPN report, at least one other Cubs employee knew of Porter’s messages, and that employee pressed the reporter "numerous times" about whether she would file a lawsuit. Protecting Porter from his own actions was more important than protecting a vulnerable woman from his advances.
She did not give ESPN permission to publish the report until she had left the country and changed careers — and only then because she felt Porter was not truly sorry and now was in a greater position of power than he had been with the Cubs.
None of these things point to a league or a system that protects or respects women.
And that’s why more women in sports don’t speak up. There’s fear of reprisal. Fear we won’t be believed. Fear, too, that some will think we’re using our stories to further our careers. We don’t want to be blackballed. We can’t afford to lose our sources. We’ve spent too long proving we can hack it for people to question our abilities.
But let’s not just blame baseball here. A reporter experiencing harassment likely first goes to her boss for help, but according to The Associated Press sports editors’ racial and gender report card, 90% of the time, that boss is a man. In fact, in 2018, only 11.5% of sports reporters were female — in no small part because this environment can be especially toxic to young women.
Many male editors do a wonderful job of protecting their employees, but we still can benefit from more female voices higher in the ranks — editors who not only understand the challenges of sports reporting for women but empathize with them.
Things are slowly changing. Like Ng, more women are infiltrating the higher ranks of baseball. We will always be in the minority, and that’s fine, but at least we won’t be invisible. And that gives me hope that all this won’t go on forever.
There’s an excellent chance Porter’s firing made a few people in baseball extremely nervous. Because that’s the thing about these quiet conversations we have about bad behavior — eventually the many whispers can start to become very loud.
‘... it is time for us to ask why this keeps happening. What is it about the baseball environment that fosters these bad actors?’