What Thom Brennaman said mattered…and why it’s important to me and other Royals fans

I do not know Thom Brennaman very well, if at all. In fact, my knowledge of Cincinnati Reds baseball is pretty minute beyond the surface level stuff. I know about “The Big Red Machine”; the Reds “beating” the 1919 “Black Sox”; Marge Schott and her racist tirades; Ken Griffey, Jr. growing up in Cincinnati and playing for the Reds after leaving Seattle, etc. As someone who grew up on the West Coast and was never really attracted to watching Reds baseball (sorry, Drew Stubbs didn’t do it for me), the organization has always been a bit of an afterthought, even though I understand their historical significance to baseball.

That being said, as I have gone through different summer grad programs over the past four years, I have been lucky to meet a lot of people from Cincinnati and this much is certain: they love the Reds. Much like St. Louis, Cincinnati feels like a “baseball town.” They love talking about Great America Ballpark and how it sits right across the river and in the heart of downtown. They speak with a lot of pride about the Reds in ways you don’t really get when they’re talking about the Bengals. It’s a key difference between Cincinnati and Kansas City: for most people in KC, if you could give them Royals or Chiefs season tickets, I would say 9 out of 10 people would choose the Chiefs tickets. I’m not sure that would be the case for people from Cincinnati.

So I find it ironic that this incident happened with a Reds announcer: the main commentator of the favorite sports team of many close friends of mine who hail from a city that I’ve become more intrigued about over the past half-decade or so. The Reds are synonymous with the city of Cincinnati and are known for doing many good works in a city that has its own share of social and cultural problems, much like Kansas City and other small market Midwest cities. And I know Brennaman has been a part of those efforts as the voice of the city’s “pride and joy” sports-wise.

But what he said was unacceptable. And if you didn’t catch it (or if you live under a rock), here it is below, even if it is cringe-worthy to behold.

And if that wasn’t enough, mid-way through the second game of the scheduled doubleheader in Kauffman, Brennaman, knowing his job with the Reds and in broadcasting was in hot water, ended up giving the following apology below, which now seems destined for “meme” status as it was interrupted by a Nick Castellanos home run:

I don’t know Brennaman, personally. Maybe his apology was genuine. Maybe it was the typical “I’m sorry I got caught” deal. Reds fans and my friends who are from Cincinnati would know better than me. That being said, what he said struck a chord with me, and brought back some rough experiences with the word back when I was younger, specifically during my college and early post-college days.

I went to an all-boys high school in Sacramento, and honestly, in many circles I hung out in, that word was used pretty frivolously. I was a football and baseball player in high school, and as typical for many high school athletes, many of my friends exuded all the stereotypes of “jock culture.” Not that they were bad people, far from it. But “macho” behavior was common and “macho” language that was insensitive to people of different sexual backgrounds also proved to be routine, unfortunately. It was bad enough that many of us who attended that high school got grief from other high school students for attending an “all boys” high school (many would ask us from different schools “Don’t you miss girls?” as if we never saw girls ever in our lives like the dudes from “Dead Poets Society”). And thus, we compensated with overly “macho” and “bro-ish” behavior in response, typical for any insecure male teenager at the time.

However, when I got to college, things changed my freshman year. One of my close friends in my group, John, was gay. He was the first friend I knew, and was close with, who was openly gay. And I learned a lot from him, learned a lot about the difficulty of him growing up homosexual in a small, rural Washington town, and learned a lot about the flaws of stereotypes I had been hit over the head with while growing up in an unfortunately conservative family. But one moment stuck out to me the most…I remembered one time when we were drinking with a group of friends in the dorms (underage of course, not my proudest moment), one of our friends said that “F” word in regard to sexual orientation (I can’t bear myself to type it because it makes me cringe).

And I remember the look on John’s face. He cringed with a combo of helplessness and frustration. But he didn’t say anything. He didn’t do anything. I remember I was walking with him at a party and asked him if he was mad about what was said, and he said “yeah.” When I asked him why he didn’t say anything to our friend who said it, he said “I’m used to it. I don’t want to make it a big deal.”

He was used to it.

A hateful, derogatory term, directed at who he was…and that was just part of his life.

That really stuck with me. It showed me words do matter, even if the people who are affected may not show that they are explicitly.

Much like John, I didn’t say anything to my friend who said the derogatory phrase either.

My next poignant experience with the word came nearly four years later, during my first year out of college. Many people may not know this about me, but I actually studied to be a Jesuit Catholic priest after college for about a year and a half (I left after that time span and pursued a career in education instead). Their novitiate, which is like the first years of seminary, was located in Culver City, California (which is in the heart of Los Angeles). One of my best friends and novice brothers at the time was also openly gay, which is difficult to be in a religious order due to the stigma and contrast with what is “explicitly” said and taught in some Catholic circles. But he loved God, he loved people, and we clicked because we weren’t traditionalists by any measure in our religious order. We were odd ducks of sort, but I could rely on him, and he could rely on me as we lived vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience.

However, one night, we were kind of bored, and we went to a local bar in Culver City. It was Game 5 of the NLCS between the Dodgers and Phillies, with the Dodgers down three games to one. As expected in LaLa Land, there were a good number of Dodgers fans in the bar, with a few of them of the more “macho” variety (i.e. in Andre Ethier Dodgers jerseys). To my glee (growing up in a Giants household, I despise the Dodgers, even though I consider myself a Royals fan now), the Dodgers lost Game 5 and thus were eliminated from the postseason, missing out on another chance to make the World Series. And as expected, those few Dodgers fans who stayed were pissed and surly and looking for more alcohol to help them get over another postseason of disappointment.

And of course, there was karaoke after. Such an LA move.

Ever the showman and a former musical theater performer, my friend took the mike and belted out a version of Liza Minelli’s “Cabaret”. The bartender, a cute blonde in her early 20’s who like most young women her age was trying to make it in Hollywood, loved it emphatically and gave him a hug when he finished his song. Two guys who sat next to us who were blazed out of their mind reveled in it, even though they had no idea who originally sang the song, or any of the lyrics (mostly because they were so high). And I, of course, was so proud and in awe of my friend who knew how to share his God-given gifts in the most unlikely of places, especially a dive bar in Culver City.

But those Dodgers fans? They weren’t as gracious.

They called him a “queer” and the “f word” not just while he performed, but even when he sat down. Unlike my experience with John, I actually turned to them and asked them “what the fuck their problem was?” One of the guys, holding a pool cue, stepped toward me and was like “what?” as if he were ready to throw down. I was going to approach this bigoted Dodgers fan (imagine me, this Catholic seminarian trying to get in a damn fight in a dive bar…I had a few too many Whiskey and Cokes), but my friend held me back.

“It’s okay. I’m used to this. Let’s go.”

He was used to it.

Nearly four years apart.

Nothing else happened at the bar as we paid up and left. The guy and me stared each other down as we left the bar and my friend appreciated me standing up for him. But I still feel like I didn’t do enough. How could that guy and his crew say something so derogatory to him in public, in Los Angeles of all places? How could other people not say anything? How could my friend handle that derision, especially after a moment that brought others in that place so much joy?

I am sure of one thing…John and my now ordained priest friend are some of the strongest people I’ll ever know.

For some Royals and baseball fans, the Brennaman situation is not a big deal. It’s another example of an announcer getting spotlighted for being a bigot. To many, it wasn’t his first time saying the slur so openly…it was the first time he had been caught.

However, just hearing Brennaman shout that phrase brought back those memories of John and my then-seminarian friend. I was reminded how angry and helpless they looked, and I recall the frustration I felt for them. They knew what was said was bullshit, but they had heard it so much, and knew the consequences of what could happen, that they refrained from saying or doing anything. They had to just sit and grin it, and that is something no one should ever have to go through, especially when they have done nothing wrong and are just being who God made them.

As Royals fans, I know at times we get tired of the cheesiness of Rex Hudler and Ryan Lefebvre at times. I know we can get bored to tears listening to Steve Physioc. And I know that while Denny Matthews is a legend, he’s probably in the last year or two of his career on the radio waves. But if there’s one thing I feel sure about, it is that those four always do things the right way as broadcasters. They always talk with respect of the people not just in the field, but in the stands and listening and watching in KC and beyond. They know how much the Royals mean to people, and they always make sure that Royals fans of all ages, genders, cultural backgrounds, and even sexual orientation feel welcome to partake in this great game of baseball. That’s not easy to do, especially in two states that tend to be pretty conservative (even if Kansas City itself is not necessarily).

So, to Royals fans who may not think what Brennaman did was a big deal, I’ll retort: it is. It may not be a big deal because you don’t think the word is “that bad” (it is and I can’t even type it because it makes me uncomfortable to do so). You may think it was just a minor slip up that had never happened before (that seems like wishful thinking). And you may think that “well he apologized, he should get a second chance.” Well, there are plenty of announcers in the Minor Leagues who are talented and grinding it out for peanuts, and may be out of jobs if Minor League Baseball contracts teams as expected. These announcers should get a shot before Brennaman gets another.

After all, announcing MLB games is a privilege, not a right.

I am not trying to be preachy here, but from my experience, words do matter, and words do have an effect.

I’m glad I have friends who taught me that lesson, even if they weren’t trying to in that time.

2 thoughts on “What Thom Brennaman said mattered…and why it’s important to me and other Royals fans

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