- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Yunel Escobar knows some people will never forgive. And some people will never forget. And some people will never be willing to accept a guy who etched a homophobic slur into his eye black last September.
There’s nothing he can do to change that. There’s nothing he can do to win them over.
But for those who at least have an open mind, here is his message:
He’s a “different” Yunel Escobar. And he’s willing to prove it.
The “mistake” he made, Escobar said Sunday, on his first day as a Tampa Bay Ray, “that was last year.”
“This,” he said, through interpreter Jose Molina, “is a new year, new team, new colors.”
And, especially, a new start, for a player who desperately needs one.
On Sept. 15, 2012, Escobar paved the way for his exit from Toronto by playing a game against the Red Sox with a homophobic slur embedded in his eye black in Spanish. The Blue Jays promptly suspended him for three games, then traded him in November to the Marlins, who turned around and dealt him to the Rays in December.
On the day they made that deal, Rays executive vice president for baseball operations Andrew Friedman told the media his team was convinced Escobar had “definitely learned a lesson” and that “he feels remorse about it.”
From “the digging that we did,” Friedman said, “we believe that it was an isolated incident and that nothing of that nature will be a concern going forward, or we wouldn't have acquired him.”
Well, part of that digging involved a long conversation with Molina, their regular catcher, who once played with Escobar in Toronto. And they were surprised by what they heard.
“I said, 'He’s a great teammate,'" Molina recalled Sunday. “And they said, 'What are you talking about? Everybody says the opposite.'"
Molina then told them about the Yunel Escobar he knows. He painted that picture again for ESPN.com on Sunday.
“The people who say that don’t understand the guy we know in the clubhouse,” Molina said, “a guy who came here from Cuba and nobody knows what he’s been through.
“A lot of people see themselves, but they don’t want to see the other side of the guy,” Molina added. “It’s always bad-bad-bad-bad. The only things you hear about this guy are bad. It’s nothing good. But [those people] don’t spend 182 days a season plus spring training, with this guy, to know what the good things are.
“He cares. I was surprised last year by what happened. But he’s a caring person. He cares for his teammates. He cares for a lot of people. And I’m not just talking about baseball, because he’s an awesome baseball player. But away from that, he’s an amazing guy.”
And one reason the outside world hasn’t figured that out, Molina said, is the giant wall that the language barrier has built around him.
“He’s quiet,” Molina said. “He doesn’t know the language to express how he feels in there. I know here, he’s going to have a lot of success, because [manager] Joe [Maddon] is so positive in all the stuff that he does.”
Because of their economic, um, limitations, Escobar is the kind of player the Rays have no choice but to take chances on. Troubled. Talented. Now on his fourth team in 32 months. Makes $5 million a year, with no guaranteed money coming beyond this season. That’s their kind of guy.
But this is also the perfect Last Chance Saloon for a player like this, because Maddon allows more freedom than just about any other manager on earth -- unless a player later proves he no longer merits it.
“With Joe, this is a positive place,” Molina said. “In this sport, there’s a lot of negativity. And with a guy like that, who doesn’t know the language, if you just talk negative with him, the guy is going to get down and you don’t know how he’s going to react. But not everybody is the same. Not everybody has the same mindset. Not everybody comes from the same background. Not everybody comes from the same wealth.
“And that’s the different part about him. You’ve got to understand that part of him. And I did when I was in Toronto. He listened to me a lot. He still listens to me a lot. I’m a guy who, if he did [something] bad, I told him he did bad. But I’m going to tell him, too, when he does [something] good. And I tried to pass that to Joe, too, so it’s not always negative stuff.”
So maybe it will be Maddon who unlocks both the talent and the “amazing guy” that’s often been hidden inside Yunel Escobar. Or maybe not.
We are talking, after all, about a fellow who couldn’t play for Bobby Cox or John Farrell, two men with reputations as players’ managers, not intolerant dictators. But we’ll find out. And Escobar is fine with allowing the world to watch and judge him by what it sees -- from this day forward.
At the end of this year, Escobar told a group of reporters on Sunday, “you guys are going to have your own opinion on that. And you will see what [I’m] talking about, about the difference in Yunel Escobar.”
Not everyone will even want to take the time to see, of course. But for those who will, the jury on Yunel Escobar is now seated. And court is in session.