One former teammate called Schafer's reputation "beyond repair."
The truth is that they are places of business, no different than your office or mine. The athletes who like one another do try to locker next to their buds, and there is no doubt that certain cliques go out to eat together, but it is very rare, if not impossible, to find a team that truly hangs out or even comes close to unanimously agreeing on, well, anything. Most team fights are started over disagreements about what music to play in the clubhouse before and after games. You have 25 men who come to work, do their jobs, and head home.
That's how I knew in an instant that Jordan Schafer, the Atlanta Braves centerfielder, is truly a changed man.
One year ago, he was sitting at home in Florida, suspended for 50 days after MLB ruled that he could be connected to HGH use via "anecdotal evidence." Throughout the spring and summer of 2008, he was dragged through the message board mud. When he rejoined the Mississippi Braves, he stood at the plate to take the best shots of drunken fans throughout the Double-A Southern League.
"His reputation," a former minor league teammate confided in me, "was beyond repair."
But when I walked into the Braves clubhouse in Philadelphia on Opening Night, the entire team all but lined up to sing their praises of their new rookie teammate. It wasn't scripted rah-rah or a pre-planned defense shield. It was genuine, heartfelt appreciation for a kid who'd become a man.
"The pressure that big expectations throws on you as a kid aren't really fair," Chipper Jones said, reminding me that, like Schafer, his entire high school and minor league career had been covered from nearly day one in Baseball America, the newspaper (and ESPN.com partner) that the baseball community gobbles up each week. "At first, Jordan got a little puffed up from all the praise, just like we all did. Then he stumbled a little, just like a lot of us have, and he came out on the other side a better person. I applaud him for it. And for him it has all been even harder than it ever was on me. I never had to deal with the Internet." "From the moment he walked into the clubhouse at spring training we could all tell he was a different kid."
"I don't even think about whatever he did or didn't do," Bobby Cox said from behind his visiting manager's desk at Citizens Bank Park. "From the moment he walked into the clubhouse at spring training we could all tell he was a different kid. And he can play. I wouldn't have him in the starting lineup if I didn't think he could handle it."
As I did my advanced research for the story, I had read and heard that Schafer had been a young player of immeasurable ego, so when I finally had the chance to sit down with him the night after his big league debut, I had prepared myself for the worst, especially considering that he'd homered in his first at-bat.
But the truth is that he couldn't have been more humble.
"I made mistakes," he said during a one-hour conversation punctuated with yes sirs and no sirs. "I know that I did and I have apologized for those. And that goes to how I handled myself around my teammates before the suspension. I was a little, actually a lot, cocky. But I'm a different person now. Now I am here to do what I can to help the team win. It sounds like a cliché, but it's the truth. It is how I feel. I just hope people realize that I'm being genuine when I say that."
I, for one, believe him. And so do Chipper, Bobby and the rest of the Atlanta Braves. They're willing to accept him at his word and welcome him to the big leagues as an older, wiser, re-born ballplayer.
That's good enough for me.