From the show of support for NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace to the turnabout in opinion from the NFL ownership on Colin Kaepernick, pro sports face a new frontier. Safer, more welcoming workplaces are at the forefront. Even less than a decade ago, this was unimaginable. Consider the case of former Atlanta Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell.
He had a meltdown of epic proportions involving homophobic slurs and sexual gestures. Children were present. Then, a celebrity lawyer put on a bizarre press conference reenacting the entire thing. McDowell kept his job. Here’s how one of the most awkward moments in sports came to be.
From World Series-winning reliever to Braves pitching coach
McDowell earned his stripes as a sharp reliever from his first MLB season in 1985. He enshrined his name in New York Mets history the following year with his instrumental closing work in the NLCS. He wasn’t quite as shut down in the infamous World Series that followed, but still served a crucial role in the seventh game.
The Boston Red Sox looked like they had the fraught game in the bag. Bill Buckner’s infamous mental lapse fielding a simple slow-roller is very much the turning point of this game. McDowell held the Mets’ chances together for the seventh frame, allowing no runs in and receiving credit for the win.
As solid relievers often experience, McDowell bounced between teams for the remainder of his relatively successful career. His 70-70 win/loss record is bolstered by a rock-solid 3.30 ERA and 129 credited saves, according to Baseball-Reference. Even by the end of his career, when he inched past the 4.0 ERA mark, he was still below the league average of the time.
His second act after retiring from active play was becoming a well-regarded pitching coach. He put in 10 years with the Braves, until 2016. The Baltimore Orioles gave him a shot from 2016 to 2018, reports the Baltimore Sun. It’s a strange moment in the middle years of his Braves run that he’s most known for, however.
Roger McDowell’s offensive actions and bizarre press conference
Pitching coaches are shuffled around regularly, essentially the first to go whenever a bullpen goes south. That McDowell stayed with the Braves for a full decade speaks well of his quality as a pitching coach. The quality of his character, though, is somewhat more controversial.
In 2011, when the Braves were in San Francisco to play the Giants, McDowell got into a verbal dispute with fans. It apparently turned ugly. He shouted homophobic slurs at the audience, details Bleacher Report. He zeroed in on one family in particular, getting into a shouting match with the father of a family of four. In front of the man’s two young daughters, McDowell used a baseball bat to make a sexual gesture.
Somehow, things get even weirder from here. The backlash from fans and media exploded. The disgruntled fan’s move was to hire celebrity lawyer Gloria Allred, who recommended they put on their own televised press conference on the matter.
With both of the Giants fan’s children present, Allred reenacted McDowell’s statements. Stranger still, she mimed McDowell’s offensive baseball bat display, reports Sports Illustrated, complete with a clinically detached countenance.
Would Roger McDowell’s career survive this incident today?
After the dual strangeness of McDowell’s freakish outburst, and the family lawyer’s oddball public response, not much happened. He publicly apologized. The Braves levied a simple two week suspension. It’s a minor punishment compared to what would likely happen today.
Even before the recent, swift changes in the social order of sports, things were taking a turn. McDowell lasted with the Braves for years after his incident reports USA Today. But another pitching coach, Chris Bosio, got the boot immediately for racist comments in the Detroit Tigers clubhouse. It’s unlikely McDowell survives his 2011 ordeal while keeping his job if it happens in 2020 and beyond.