The Phillies have wronged me and others with the ‘Sensitive Bus’

In honor of the “Sensitive Bus,” an item used by Phillies pitching coach Rick Kranitz to remind his pitchers that they have to be “tough,” I’m going to let this post fly, driven by emotion and not checked by forced masculinity.

If you get to know me, like really get to know me, you’ll find that I’m one of the most sensitive men you’ll ever meet. I don’t like confrontation. I avoid people partly because I don’t want to be embarrassed, and partly because even the most innocuous criticism or suggestion could send me off the edge.

It happens like this. Someone who knows me well might suggest I do something a different way. But I can find something in the suggestion that offends me, and it’s typically how I perceive their words to sound. As in, I seem to tell myself that someone is personally attacking me. It will make me frustrated, unhappy. I’ll freeze and begin to close myself from the world surrounding me. Maybe I’ll lash out illogically, twisting my words in an attempt to both hurt the other person and remind that person that my feelings matter, often more than hers.

I am not the traditional definition of “tough.” I can’t fight. I am not muscular. I don’t believe that working with your hands makes you any more tougher than sitting at a desk or spending every day changing diapers and cradling children. I am not ashamed at crying while watching television shows like “Community” or listening to songs like “God Only Knows.” I am not ashamed with revealing my feelings in public.

For these reasons, I think, I have trouble making male friends. I’m intimidated by them. All of them. I’ve only made male friends because of shared interests or time. For example: I met a man while watching an Eagles game at a New York-area bar. We shared Eagles fandom. He was kind. His girlfriend and my girlfriend seemed to be perfect matches, too. That was a lucky stroke; if he was even the least bit off-putting to me, or a threat to my existence, I wouldn’t have ever opened myself to him.

My relationships with my three brothers are all more complicated than we’d like to admit. I love them unconditionally and would always be there for them, but we wouldn’t likely find each other as strangers. Part of that is because if I had to be in a crowd, I typically wouldn’t gravitate toward men.

I’m also not a professional baseball player, and I didn’t grow up steered toward playing baseball as a livelihood. Sure I was on teams as a kid, but even then I was quirky among my peers. On one team I swarmed toward my manager because be coached with empathy; he had one arm, and it’s possible I was equating my perceived emotional disability (I wasn’t like the other guys) with his very real physical disability.

In school I had few male friends. I was bullied and tormented, primarily in middle school and mostly because of my sensitivity. If someone teased me I would whine, because my coping mechanism was to cry for adult help. That only led to physical bullying against me. Kids found numerous ways to tease and bully me, and among these: My higher-pitched voice was considered “girly,” and my hair was curly and thus considered feminine. I was called a faggot, too, sometimes before being thrown to the ground and kicked.

So while I’m not a professional baseball player, I did play a little, and I do know what it means to be sensitive. Then on Wednesday came this story from Jim Salisbury about the “Sensitive Bus,” Kranitz’s toy introduced in 2017, which is now a little larger and adorned with the whining emoji, and is used to remind pitchers that they’re using their emotions in a style unacceptable for the major league clubhouse. Here’s a quote:

Kranitz equated it to a Kangaroo Court. Some might scoff at this stuff, but these types of light, off-beat exercises can be valuable in building camaraderie.

“You know, sometimes guys get a little sensitive about things,” Kranitz said. “They start jabbing each other a little, getting under each others’ skin. It doesn’t even have to be about baseball. You have to have tough skin. The boys, they don’t ever want the bus in their locker.”

You don’t want players to have bad relationships with each other. Baseball is a long, grueling test of wills packing grown men in small spaces for months at a time. It’s understandable that coaches would want to address situations when players get “under each others’ skin.”

But an item that serves as a scarlet reminder that you’re using your emotions wrong in the eyes of others, that your feelings aren’t valid in the greater context of the team, is absolutely disgusting.

The story continues:

Though it started as a thing between the pitchers, a position player, under special circumstances, can find himself riding the Sensitive Bus.

“If somebody gets on somebody’s nerves and there’s some sensitivity, I’ll just go get it and put it in their locker,” Kranitz said with a laugh. “Hey, I might put it in my own locker.”

“Some sensitivity” is loaded, and it can’t be simplified by the sight of a bus with a whining emoji. In fact, it can only be more harmful for the greater good of the team and its players, who are, in fact, actual men who should be permitted to express their emotions.

Say someone says something to me that causes me to unravel and lash out. Then, moments later, a boss comes into the room and places an item in my bedroom as a reminder that I shouldn’t unravel and lash out. That might make me lash out against the boss. It also might force me to stifle my true feelings and decide I have to live with whatever the norm is in the environment. If I grow more uncomfortable with the norm, which here we can assume is a masculinity focused on being “tough” and nearly robotic, then I’m in jeopardy of greater harm of myself and others. I could pitch poorly. I could lash out in a future moment where even the slightest thing sets me off. I could break down. I could leave the team for a spell. And these things are the lightest consequences.

And here’s the most important thing about those consequences: They aren’t my fault.

Phillies pitchers should be allowed and unafraid to speak their mind and be emotional if necessary. If we all talk more about our emotions, it may help us grow as kinder, more intellectual people. Instead the Phillies, led by Kranitz but seemingly approved by manager Gabe Kapler, have decided that there is a black line that represents the moment emotions are too “sensitive” and thus denied by the organization.

This is worrisome, as Kapler has spoken to the media about how open and communicative he wants his staff and his players to be on a daily basis. From his introductory press conference, via Paul Hagen:

“I think historically in a Major League Baseball clubhouse we’ve looked at it as … we’re going to go stand over in the corner until they come over to us,” Kapler said. “Well, they don’t respond to that. So the way you get them to buy in is to relentlessly care about them, and one of the ways to do that is to come on their home turf.”

And Kapler stressed that the method of communication could be a heartfelt conversation. Or Twitter. Or a text.

The “Sensitive Bus” is not only a disgusting display of toxic masculinity enforced upon players, but it runs completely counter to Kapler’s words.

It reminded me of a story written about Kapler around the time of his hiring and providing insight about his time in 2007 managing the Greenville Drive, a single-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. He was described as “a players’ coach” who would stick up for his guys in most any situation. Toward the end of the story came this passage, via Meghan Montemurro:

As much as he embraced building relationships and was forward-thinking, Kapler is a product of his generation of ballplayers when slights and disagreements were settled between the lines. He always preached that they play for the guy next to them.

(T.J.) Large, now the Pirates’ coordinator of minor-league operations, was the Drive’s 6-foot-4 quasi enforcer out of the bullpen. Kapler called down to the bullpen once after an opposing player slid hard into second base and took out Greenville’s second baseman. The instructions were simple: “Large, you’ve got him.” Large said he knew exactly what Kapler meant. He was efficient when he entered the game, drilling the first batter and striking out the next to end the inning.

Afterward, Kapler guided Large into the dugout tunnel and was so fired up he started slapping Large’s chest and back before unleashing what Large described as a “father-son you-just-graduated-college bear hug.”

Following the win, the players hit the showers, and Large noticed everyone staring at him until they finally suggested he check out his back. A mirror revealed a Kapler-sized handprint. When an amused Large walked into the manager’s office, Kapler grinned ear to ear.

Inside this passage that read like a guy who has his players’ back was this eye-opening story of a guy who still had to use a tool of toxic masculinity to drive home his point. Deliberately throwing at a hitter, which is an act of violence that can injure, is never a good idea. It serves both to justify baseball’s old-school, war-like eye-for-an-eye mentality and to arouse the players in a feeling of strong, unadulterated manliness. What could be more manly than attacking another man to defend your honor, right?

Kapler can talk all he wants about diversity of thought and open communication, but permitting tools and methods that stifle emotional balance is a major red flag. Moreover, a trend has developed, showing that maybe the new manager isn’t all he says he is.

Moreover it punches at the organization’s attempts to add new voices in its front office and clubhouse. We just learned the story of a talented woman new to the Phils’ operations, Dana Parks, who will be working with players as they develop on the field. How can the Phillies be true about development when they’re seemingly not permitting these men to develop their emotions, especially when they’re told to not act in a way historically perceived to be feminine?

For me, this hurts terribly. I grew up loving the Phillies. They provided me a safe haven at a time when I faced a whirlwind of turmoil. As I was bullied during the daytime, I longed for the summer, because I felt that with baseball, and the Phillies, that I could both escape my reality and, for once, feel like I belonged somewhere. With baseball I felt like I could be me.

The “Sensitive Bus” is a way to tell me, and so many others out there, that baseball doesn’t necessarily accept me. I hope the Phillies reconsider this.