With the first crack of the bat of spring training still weeks away, the Phillies have been fielding some questions on their latest hire, not so much for the potential he brings to the team but for the baggage packed in with his new Phillies sweats.
Delmon Young, just signed to fill the post of right fielder, was reported to have been in an anti-Semitic fracas last April. Since that incident, he has reportedly worked hard to redeem himself in the face of the Jewish community back in Detroit — where he played for the Tigers — and now, in Philadelphia, where he wants it known that the episode was an aberration not a core belief.
And the Phils Jewish general manager, Ruben Amaro Jr., has been working to help get that message out.
Amaro even consulted with local Jewish communal officials, seeking a hechsher before announcing the decision on his latest hire this week.
“It took me a long time to consider this,” Amaro told the Exponent this week.
The controversy stems from a visit Young made to New York as a then-team member of the Detroit Tigers. Young, who was reportedly inebriated, accosted a group of tourists in mid-Manhattan — none of whom were believed to be Jewish — who had just donated money to an apparently Jewish panhandler.
What followed, according to records, was an outburst by Young, who attacked the tourists first with an anti-Semitic slur, and then a physical confrontation. Young was arrested on charges of aggravated harassment.
Young, 27, pleaded guilty two months ago, his sentence of community service completed recently even as he was mandated to take a half-day course at the Museum of Tolerance of the Simon Wiesenthal Museum in New York.
He also was suspended by Major League Baseball for a week and ordered to take a course in anger management.
Before Amaro signed Young to a one-year $750,000 deal (with the potential for a longer term contract reportedly worth more than $3 million), he clearly considered the player’s stats: a .284 lifetime batting average since debuting with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2006 and the American League Champion Series MVP for last year’s playoff series as a Tiger against the Yankees.
But Amaro also knew he had to be sensitive to communal concerns. In considering the decision, Amaro consulted with experts in the local Jewish community.
“I spoke with the ADL, the Jewish Federation, Rabbi Joshua Bennett,” Amaro said, referring to the spiritual leader of Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Mich., with whom Young has bonded and discussed his situation over the past year.
“We had the longest exchanges about this,” noted Amaro. “We on the team did our due diligence and are sensitive to what happened.”
It all hit home for the general manager, whose mother is Jewish. He grew up appreciating Jewish holidays and history and he is a member himself of the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. After all, he said, with an appreciative tongue in cheek, “My girlfriend is Jewish — and some of my best friends are Jewish.”
He said he met with Young for three hours to discuss the matter and now considers the New York to-do “an isolated incident.”
Young could not be reached for comment but he told the local media when his hire was announced this week:
“That’s not who I am. You get into one situation and all the labels are thrown around,” he was reported saying. “Get to know me and then make judgments for yourself.”
Amaro reiterated view to the Exponent. “He made a mistake that really doesn’t depict the kind of person he is,” he said.
Those with whom the Phillies executive consulted in the Jewish community apparently agree.
“From what we can see, Young accepted responsibility for what he did, did his penance and they’re all taking it very seriously at the Phillies. We consider it a one-time incident,” said Barry Morrison, head of the Philadelphia regional ADL whose associate regional director, Nancy Baron-Baer, consulted with Amaro as he was weighing his decision.
Alex Stroker, chief operating officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said that Amaro called him “to discuss the potential signing of Delmon Young the day before the actual public announcement.”
“We had an in-depth conversation and Ruben shared with me the due diligence the Phillies performed. It was apparent to me that this was an isolated incident and, based on the information presented by Ruben, I felt comfortable with and confident in their impending decision to sign Young.
Stroker said he “appreciated the advance call and the attention the Phillies showed to not only potential reaction from the Jewish community but also the ongoing relationship between the Phillies organization and the Federation.” Federation for the past several years has sponsored Jewish Heritage Night at Citizens Bank Park.
Amaro also reached out to Rabbi Bennett of West Bloomfield, Mich., who has been helping Young navigate his way through the turmoil since the incident.
The rabbi said he connected to Young with the aid of a member of his congregation who is on the Tigers staff.
“And I’m a baseball fan,” Bennett said of his special interest in the case.
The education Bennett offered has been more in a cultural context than anything else. “We intentionally stayed away from this being a religious” focus, he said. “It has been more about understanding the community.”
Bennett said he sees a change in Young. “I think he now understands more how powerful his voice” and his influence is because he is a major league player.
“He is interested in changing the way he is perceived in the world. He is not a bad guy” and doesn’t want to be seen as a bigot, the rabbi said. He described Young as “a shy young man who grew up in an excellent family with strong values.”
Another rabbi — from Philadelphia — is also of the mind to forgive and forge ahead. Rabbi Rebecca T. Alpert, associate professor of Religion and Women’s Studies at Temple University — and a major league baseball fan whose latest writing on the topic is Out of Left Field: Jews and Black Baseball — said she was “distressed at first given that horrible incident in New York City.” But since reading more about Young after his hire here and what is depicted as his genuine effort at change, she said she is encouraged.
Quoting Bennett, she said, “Judaism believes that people can do teshuvah, can change their ways. We ought to judge Delmon Young not on his past behavior but on whether his current efforts are sincere and productive for him, and also for the Phillies.”
Burt Siegel, another big baseball fan and longtime Jewish communal official, suggested that Young is “probably not the only athlete to let his feelings come out” under the influence of alcohol.
“But, hopefully, he’s learned his lesson,” Siegel said.
A sampling of readers reacting to the Young situation on the Jewish Exponent’s Facebook page reflected that same desire to give him a second chance.
Wrote Matthew Balin: “Being Jewish, I was offended by his remarks,” but “I believe in second chances.”
He added: “If this city can welcome Michael Vick,” the Eagles quarterback who served time for cruelty to animals, “then we should be able to provide Delmon a second chance.”
As for whether the Phillies will ask him to do some community bridge-building when he comes up to bat here, Amaro made clear it will be up to the player himself.
“It’s not something we as an organization would mandate of him,” he said. “It’s a decision he would have to make.”
Jed Margolis, the executive director of Maccabi USA who deals with many young athletes, said he hopes Young will benefit from “the educational opportunity this incident offers.”
“Life is a long journey,” said Margolis, whose organization is based in Philadelphia, “and hopefully he’ll be taking a better Jewish journey in the future.”
Looking to the future season, at least there’s one good thing to come from Young’s hire, Siegel said: “He can hit.”