NEW YORK — Toronto shortstop Yunel Escobar was suspended for three games Tuesday by the Blue Jays for wearing eye-black displaying a homophobic slur written in Spanish during a game last weekend against Boston.
Escobar apologized to his team and “to all those who have been offended” for what he said was meant to be “just a joke.”
“It was not something I intended to be offensive,” he said through a translator. “It was not anything intended to be directed at anyone in particular.”
Escobar said he wrote the message 10 minutes before Saturday’s home game on his eye-black, a sticker players wear under their eyes to reduce sun glare. The 29-year-old Cuban said he frequently puts messages there — usually inspirational, manager John Farrell offered — and had never previously written that specific slur.
Escobar insisted the word is often used within teams and by Latinos and “I didn’t see it as something bad at the time.”
“For us, it doesn’t have the significance to the way it’s being interpreted now,” he said. “It’s a word without a meaning.”
“I don’t have anything against homosexuals,” he said, adding he didn’t mean for the term to be “misinterpreted” by the gay community.
The suspension — issued after input from Commissioner Bud Selig, the players’ union and team management — was to have started Tuesday night. The game between Toronto and New York was rained out.
The penalty was announced in a 26-minute news conference at Yankee Stadium. Escobar wore a jacket and jeans and was joined by Farrell, Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos, coach Luis Rivera and translator Robbie Guerra, a lawyer from the players’ union.
Escobar’s lost salary during the ban — about $82,000 — will be directed to two advocacy groups, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and You Can Play.
Escobar will also take part in an outreach initiative to promote tolerance to others based on their sexual orientation, and participate in a sensitivity training program.
Pictures posted online showed Escobar with the message written during the Red Sox-Blue Jays game. Farrell said Escobar’s notes are often to the effect of “Let’s go today.” They draw so little attention that nobody caught the change.
“There was no reason to think it was something derogatory,” Farrell said.
Farrell said the slur was written in small letters and “if someone had seen it, I would suspect someone would have said something.”
Major League Baseball regulations prohibit derogatory words and symbols on uniforms. Writing something of that nature on eye-black would fall under that category, MLB spokesman Pat Courtney said.
The NFL and college football have banned eye-black messages. The college ban came after stars including Tim Tebow, who wrote Bible verses, and Reggie Bush, who put his hometown area code, began to use the eye-black to send messages.
“Mr. Escobar has admitted that his actions were a mistake and I am hopeful he can use this unfortunate situation as an opportunity to educate himself and others that intolerance has no place in our game or society,” Selig said in a statement.
GLAAD President Herndon Graddick commended the decision.
“Today’s actions show that MLB and the Toronto Blue Jays are committed to creating an environment that all fans and families can enjoy, not a place where discriminatory language and anti-gay attitudes are accepted,” Graddick said in a statement.
Anthopoulos said he had spent most of the day with Escobar at the commissioner’s office.
“I don’t know there’s a right way to deal with these things,” he said. “You’re not going to satisfy everyone.”
In May 2011, MLB suspended Atlanta pitching coach Roger McDowell for two weeks without pay for inappropriate comments and gestures with homophobic and sexual overtones he made toward fans before a game in San Francisco.
In April, Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen was suspended for five games by his team because of comments that he loves Fidel Castro. Many Cuban-Americans were angered by the remarks.
On Tuesday, Guillen said he didn’t think Escobar meant to be offensive.
“I think he just did it for fun. I know he didn’t mean to hurt anybody’s feelings. Nobody is that stupid,” he said before the Marlins hosted Atlanta.
“In my house, we call (each other) that word every 20 seconds. I’ve got three kids,” Guillen said. “For us, it’s like ‘What’s up, bro? What’s up, dude?’ It’s how you say it and to who you say it. But that’s our country. We have to respect this country. Sometimes for us it’s funny, for other people it’s not.”
Escobar was traded from Atlanta to Toronto in July 2010. He is hitting .251 this season with nine home runs and 49 RBIs.
Escobar’s salary this year is $5 million. The Blue Jays have club options on him for 2014 and 2015.
After the news conference, Escobar walked back into the Toronto clubhouse and said little.
“You have to respect the way things work here,” Blue Jays pitcher Carlos Villanueva said. “But sometimes it has to happen in the first-person point of view for us to change the way we view things.
“I know he’s extremely embarrassed, we’re extremely embarrassed for him, we know it’s not an easy thing. I know he doesn’t want to deal with it, but he has to. He has to step up, especially how things are nowadays. You just have to watch what you say, or what you express out there.”