- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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A brief scouting report on Slater Buehrle:
He's 2 years old and weighs 65 pounds. His coat is slate blue, his ears are floppy and his eyes are a doleful shade of gray and green. He loves sleep and long walks, has a weakness for chasing four-wheelers, and is considerably less menacing than his reputation suggests. Belly rubs are his kryptonite.
Slater is an American Staffordshire terrier and bulldog mix -- a DNA-tested member of the pit bull family -- and controversy follows him around like a wagging tail. In the span of a year, he has been declared canine non grata in two countries encompassing both the National and American Leagues.
Slater made headlines last year when his owner, pitcher Mark Buehrle, signed a four-year, $58 million contract with the Miami Marlins. Because pit bulls are prohibited in Miami-Dade County, the family bought a house in nearby Broward County, and Mark commuted roughly 30 minutes each way to the park.
Things got a lot more complicated when the Marlins sent Buehrle to Toronto in a 12-player blockbuster trade in November. Pit bulls are outlawed throughout the province of Ontario, so the Buehrles had three options: 1) They could live across the U.S. border in Niagara Falls or Buffalo, N.Y., and Mark could commute roughly 90 minutes each way to Toronto; 2) They could leave Slater in someone else's care for the entire season; or 3) Jamie Buehrle could stay behind in St. Louis with the rest of the family while her husband heads north to pitch for the Jays.
After lots of internal debate and anguish, the Buehrles chose Option 3, which means Mark will spend his 14th big league season in Canada while Jamie lives more than 800 miles away with 5-year-old son Braden, 3-year-old daughter Brooklyn, Slater and the family's three vizslas, Drake, Diesel and Duke. As the family settles in for spring training in Dunedin, Fla., Buehrle is struggling to accept the idea that togetherness is short-lived and he will be coming home to an empty house in April.
"We're not trying to make people feel sorry for us," Buehrle says. "Obviously they're going to say, 'You make a lot of money. Boo-hoo.' I know it's part of baseball and every person deals with it, but this is our first time being away from each other all season. We're going to travel and see each other and make it work. But those nights when we have a Sunday day game and I can go home and have dinner with the family and give the kids a bath and put them to bed, that's what I'm going to miss."
During the decision-making process, numerous well-wishers or armchair problem-solvers suggested the Buehrles leave Slater with a family member or a trusted friend for the 2013 season. Of the three choices available to them, that's the one they considered least.
"A lot of people have said, 'We'll just keep Slater for you,'" Jamie says. "To me, that would be like if we moved somewhere that only allowed boys. I wouldn't leave my daughter behind. Six or seven months is a lot of time. Slater would adjust. He's real easygoing. But I don't want him to bond with someone else. He's our dog. That wasn't really an option."
Growing up in St. Charles, Mo., Mark Buehrle never had a dog because his parents were resigned to the likelihood that the kids would quickly lose interest in feedings, walks, poop-scooping and other canine-related chores. But the family had rabbits, hamsters, cats, birds -- indeed, just about every other pet under the sun.
His fondness for dogs has developed through seven years of marriage to Jamie. To say she's a passionate advocate for canines would be a monumental understatement.
During Mark's tenure with the Chicago White Sox, the Buehrles did public service announcements for animal rescue facilities, appeared on pet adoption billboards and spearheaded a Sox for Strays promotion at U.S. Cellular Field. During the Gulf oil spill in 2010, Jamie traveled to New Orleans with a group of Major League Baseball wives to help out after some local families lost their jobs and were forced to surrender their pets as a result.
In the spring of 2011, Jamie met a certain American Staffordshire terrier at Hope Animal Rescues in Alton, Ill., and was smitten. Slater was among 18 dogs scheduled to be euthanized when Jamie's group arrived with 24 hours to spare and had them transferred to a facility where they would have a reprieve to find homes. She is convinced that a little divine intervention was at work.
"Slater was the epitome of when people say, You don't pick your dog, your dog picks you," Jamie says. "We didn't need four dogs. We still don't need four dogs. But I kind of felt it was meant to be. Mark said: 'I've never heard you talk about a dog this much. Just get him.'"
Slater has quickly achieved a higher purpose as an aspiring therapy dog, a designation that will allow him to visit schools in conjunction with the Sit Stay Read literacy program and visit terminally ill patients in hospitals. He has received his Canine Good Citizenship award. And judging from this Humane Society summer camp video, he can certainly work a room.
He is not so welcome in the cities where his owner pitches. Miami-Dade County has outlawed pit bulls since 1989, and the Buehrles chose to stand on principle and fight the ban from neighboring Broward County rather than try to work around it. During the family's stay in South Florida, Jamie Buehrle said she encountered numerous pit bull owners in Miami who kept their dogs in the house, walked them early in the morning or late at night and took their chances that neighbors simply wouldn't notice or care.
The Buehrles, like many pit bull owners, contend that the problem is reckless owners, not vicious dogs.
"I don't think everyone should own a pit bull, just like I don't think everyone should own a Lab or a poodle or a Chihuahua," Jamie says. "I think you should be responsible for whatever dog you choose. If you tether a Lab outside in your backyard all the time and treat it cruelly, I can guarantee it will be aggressive. People need to realize that. And if you do that, you should be held responsible."
Bans on pit bulls continue to spark debate among groups that believe they help ensure public safety and opponents that consider them counterproductive and a form of canine discrimination. Ontario's ban, which went into effect in 2005, subjects violators to a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $10,000 fine.
Barbara Kay, a columnist for the National Post newspaper in Toronto, has argued passionately in favor of the bans. Dogbites.org, a dog bite victims' group, published numbers showing that pit bulls accounted for 22 of 31 fatal dog bites in America in 2011, even though they make up less than 5 percent of the U.S. dog population.
But numerous organizations, from the American Veterinary Medical Association to the Humane Society to the National Canine Research Council, argue that bans are ineffective. In February 2012, the American Temperament Test Society released a study that showed American Staffordshire terriers score an 84.2 percent rating in their ability to interact with humans and the environment. They fared better than cocker spaniels, collies, beagles and numerous other popular breeds.
Cynthia Bathurst, executive director of Safe Humane Chicago, said bans are expensive because they generate so many lawsuits and are difficult to enforce, and they are rife with opportunities for mistakes because even dog experts cannot agree on the definition of a pit bull. Bathurst said the Buehrles should inspire others because they've gone to great lengths to promote safe, humane communities for people and pets. Instead, they've had their lives turned upside-down.
"Bottom line, a pit-bull ban that keeps the compassionate, loving Buehrle family from staying all together, as the ban in Toronto does, can't be right," Bathurst said in an email, "and all the evidence supports that such a ban does not do what it was intended to do.
"Dogs are individuals as people are. People are responsible for providing for their welfare, their safety and the safety of those around them. Slater depends on Jamie and Mark and their children and other dogs, and he's part of the family. He even does 'community service.' It's very impressive that Mark and Jamie put their family and compassion first, and they should be emulated. It doesn't matter how much or how little money someone has."
Buehrle stepped into a controversy in January 2011 when he told MLB.com that he and Jamie were watching a Philadelphia Eagles game and wished ill will upon Michael Vick as a form of payback for his involvement in an illegal dogfighting operation. Although the statement caused a major furor, Buehrle refused to back off his remarks.
He has never been hesitant to speak his mind. After the Marlins dealt him to Toronto, Buehrle released a statement that accused the team of lying to him about its long-term plans. He stands by those comments as well.
Family hardships aside, he's thrilled to be joining the Blue Jays, who have added R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera to the mix and increased their payroll by about $40 million in the quest for their first postseason berth since 1993. Buehrle, with 12 straight 200-inning seasons on his résumé, is a big part of the excitement.
If he's a lightning rod for attention in Toronto because of his dog, that's part of the equation. As Jamie Buehrle is quick to point out, some families don't have the luxury of maintaining two homes and are forced to surrender a cherished pet when they encounter breed-specific dog bans. The Buehrles consider themselves fortunate in that regard.
Wherever this story leads, it has been an educational man-bites-dog experience for Buehrle.
"I remember being at school and somebody's dog would pass away and I would say: What's the big deal? It's just a dog," he says. "But now that I own these dogs, I know it's going to be terrible when one of them passes away. It's like having another kid. They cuddle with you in bed. They're your buddies. They follow you around, and you play catch with them with the ball all the time. You really bond with them."
Family togetherness will be in vogue until spring training ends, the equipment trucks go north and it's time to say goodbye. Mark Buehrle is ready to bring his competitiveness and pinpoint fastball to the Rogers Centre for a fun summer of baseball. His wife, kids and man's best friend won't be along for the ride.
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