The Atlantic League’s Lancaster Barnstormers brought in 44 players over the course of the 2017 season, but only one of them— ex-major-leaguer Steve Clevenger— warranted an emotional team meeting.
Rarely would independent league players in the heat of a pennant race have any concerns about adding a major-league veteran to the team. The Barnstormers coveted someone who could handle catching and first base duties, and Clevenger was a free agent who seemed to fit the bill perfectly.
But in adding Clevenger, who declined comment for this story, the Barnstormers found themselves taking a plunge no major-league team was willing to take. He was never likely to get a major- or even minor-league offer just months after calling Black Lives Matter protesters “pathetic” and suggesting they be “locked behind bars like animals” in a series of tweets that went viral last September.
Rational person: "That Mark Trumbo-for-Steve Clevenger trade this offseason cannot possibly get any worse."— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) September 23, 2016
Steve Clevenger: "Wanna bet?" pic.twitter.com/AtVMYQE9Rk
Clevenger’s tweets led to a suspension without pay from the Mariners. The team parted ways with him as soon as the season was over, eliminating the possibility he would be tendered a contract in the $750k to $1 million range over the winter after making $516.5k in 2016. Clevenger considered playing overseas, even shaking things up by hiring the L. Warner Companies’ Rick Oliver as an agent during the process.
Luckily for Clevenger, clubs in the independent, eight-team Atlantic League are far enough removed from the spotlight to be able to take chances on those who have been rejected by Major League Baseball. If Clevenger wanted to get back to the big leagues, he’d have to start by making than $3,000 a month playing in front of fewer than 4,000 fans in the quiet town of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Barnstormers manager Ross Peeples is what many would call the typical baseball lifer. A former 45th-round pick of the Mets who lasted four years in the minors, the skipper has been in Lancaster since 2005, first pitching for the club for 10 seasons before becoming a coach and, eventually, the team’s manager.
In his time playing and coaching what he dubs “the league of second chances,” Peeples has seen all kinds of major-league retreads. Ex-big-leaguers coming back from injuries and poor performance are most common, along with some guys trying to rebound from off-the-field incidents. So when he saw an email from Clevenger’s new agent, Oliver, in mid-July, he was initially thrilled to hear about an available player who filled a position of need for his team.
“To be honest with you, I wasn’t familiar with any of the tweets,” Peeples said, speaking in a thick Georgia twang. “We got an email from his agent and talked to his agent, looked him up and saw that he had had pretty good numbers. It was fitting what we needed.”
But some in Lancaster’s diverse clubhouse did know about the tweets. In the new-media world of screenshots and viral sharing, it would be nearly impossible to find a group of 25 players who could think of Clevenger with a completely clean slate.
“A couple guys asked me,” Peeples said. “They said, ‘is that the guy who shot out the tweets last year?’ and I was like, ‘what tweets are you talking about?’ I looked it up and went from there. We might have had some players that were doubting to a point if this was a good move or not.”
The level of concern from Barnstormers players varied at first, with some choosing to focus on Clevenger’s on-field upside and others demanding answers when he arrived in Lancaster. For the first time since the tweets, Clevenger was about to step into a clubhouse with African-American teammates, including pitcher Joe Gardner, first baseman Josh Bell and outfielders Lastings Milledge and Trayvon Robinson.
Robinson, who knew Clevenger from playing against him in the minors and previously sharing an agent, said he always thought of Clevenger as a “cool guy” and was surprised to see him in the news for the controversial posts.
“When it came out, it was kinda like, ‘hold on, what?’” Robinson said. “As far as being his teammate… yeah, sure, I’m African-American. I was a little hesitant, like ‘what’s this going to be like?’”
To answer that question, Peeples made a decision. He decided to hold a full-team, closed-door meeting when Clevenger arrived so that anyone with questions could hear directly from Clevenger.
“Something needed to be said, and that’s what happened,” Robinson said. “We all came together, as men, and talked it over. We needed to talk about it, man. It was a really, really interesting point [for our team].”
The meeting, as important as it was, was bound to be uncomfortable one. Veteran players like Milledge and ex-Brewer Sean Halton as well as coaches Peeples and Bell voiced concerns and ask questions.
“Everybody had a little bit of say-so,” Robinson said. “It was a little weird at first when we first got in there because we had just been shortly talking to him, saying “hey, how you doing man? Welcome here.”
Some who knew Clevenger, like Halton, his former winter ball teammate, spoke highly of the man they had known for years. Others arrived with obvious skepticism, hoping to be able to ask Clevenger directly about his tweets.
The takeaway from the meeting, according to those who were there, was Clevenger’s sincere attempt to apologize for his controversial posts and earn a fresh start with his new teammates. Peeples said that Clevenger admitted that the tweets had been the biggest mistake of his career.
“He got pretty emotional about it,” Peeples said. “Seeing those emotional parts of him really showed what kind of person he is and that he was meaning it from the heart on those mistakes that he made.”
Robinson came away impressed with Clevenger’s tone.
“I just will say that a lot of us needed to see the reaction,” Robinson said. “We needed to hear his voice. That’s all I can really say. He really showed what we needed to hear about it.”
The July meeting had enough of an impact in the Lancaster clubhouse that Clevenger’s tweets never again became an issue in the season’s final two months. Clevenger performed well, hitting .293 with three home runs in 55 games as the Barnstormers raced toward a playoff berth.
Clevenger’s on-field success was matched by off-field kudos, with teammates Gardner and Robinson both raving about him as a teammate and person.
“I have nothing but great things to say about him,” Gardner said. “I never once got [a racist] feel or vibe from him. He just seemed like a normal guy. I never would’ve known [about the tweets] unless they were brought to my attention. I never would’ve thought that at all.”
Peeples agreed, noting that he hoped Clevenger’s stint in Lancaster would help re-launch his major-league hopes.
“Never saw one bit of anything of that side of him,” Peeples said. “Not at all. As I made that decision– I’ve seen it in this league before, guys getting second chances. That’s what this league is all about.”
“We had good camaraderie in our locker room,” Peeples said. “We had a lot of good guys, some family guys, a lot of Christian guys. I thought if you put him around good people, that might help him out. You might look back on that and think the Lancaster Barnstormers gave him a second chance. That’s what we will remember.”
Getting that second chance with a major-league organization might be easier said than done for Clevenger. Despite his positive reviews from Lancaster, a survey of five major-league scouts and executives suggested that affiliated clubs are unlikely to be interested in a career .227 hitter considering the controversy he’ll bring along with him.
While one American League scout said that he thinks teams should be forgiving, the other four scouts and executives said they do not believe Clevenger will ever catch on with another major-league club. One National League executive noted that Clevenger was off the team’s list of potential additions, citing makeup as a major factor in that club’s player evaluation.
Still, as winter nears, Oliver will see what’s out there for his client as they attempt to resurrect a career that many around baseball believe has been dead for a year. The first step, Oliver said, is finding Clevenger a winter ball job in the Dominican Republic or Mexico. That exposure, the agent believes, could lead to major-league offers.
“My guess is there will be some teams who are interested in his talent and not afraid of what they might hear as a result of signing him,” Oliver said. “I think people in our world know how to forgive and forget. He needs to be forgiven so that he can go on with his career. I just hope that the mistakes he made through that process are not career-ending for him.”
Even if it’s a long shot that Clevenger will ever step foot inside a major-league clubhouse again, it sure seems like those who knew him in Lancaster would welcome him back for another season.
“I forgive,” Robinson said. “But does it hurt him? Yes, it hurts him every day. There’s not a day that goes by that Clev isn’t thinking about those tweets. He ruined his career.
“But as a teammate this year with him— it was awesome, man. It’s exactly the same guy as I thought before those tweets.”