PHOENIX – Baseball is back.
You would be excused for not noticing.
There’s plenty of reason to pay attention as the White Sox plan to follow a new manager into a season with championship-level expectations in the wake of the massive on-field disappointment of 2022.
But hardly anyone was talking about baseball Wednesday at Camelback Ranch.
Pitchers and catchers reported for duty, and that included Mike Clevinger, currently under investigation by Major League Baseball following allegations of domestic violence and child abuse leveled by the mother of his 10-month-old child.
That’s what dominated conversation on the first day of White Sox spring training, soaking up 25 minutes of Rick Hahn’s 35-minute welcome-to-camp media session. And though Clevinger opted to speak with reporters after addressing his teammates earlier in the day, he was begging for baseball-related questions just a few minutes into his own session.
This is obviously not the way the White Sox wanted to start things, and Hahn said as much.
“I regret the fact that we are sitting here today talking about this,” Hahn said. “I understand why we are doing it. Obviously we have to. But this is a year in which we have high expectations. We have a new staff that is trying to hit the ground running to help us fulfill those expectations. And we have a heck of a lot of players in that clubhouse right now who feel like they have something to prove.
“We were excited to all get here and start building toward that collective goal in letting these guys show (they are) who people thought they were (going to be) a year ago and regret the fact that this is instead the topic.”
But after the on-field woes of 2022 and general fan discontent over the way the offseason played out, the accusations flung Clevinger’s way have damaged any efforts to do what Hahn said needed to be done in the wake of last season and win the fans’ trust back.
Clevinger showed up to camp with the investigation unresolved, meaning this is something that will continue to drag on for an indeterminate amount of time. There were already new developments after Clevinger spoke Wednesday, with his accuser, Olivia Finestead, appearing on The Score back in Chicago.
So what did we find out Wednesday in Arizona? Here are the answers to some of the biggest questions.
What did Mike Clevinger have to say in his first public comments on the investigation?
In his comments to reporters, Clevinger went back and forth between adamant denials of the allegations and an unwillingness to speak on the issue until the investigation has concluded.
“This is pretty devastating to me and my family, and I know I feel terrible for my teammates having to answer questions from (reporters) and for (reporters) to have to ask them a bunch of questions about this,” he said. “I trust the process from MLB, I really do. I think there’s a reason I’m sitting in front of you today. I’m just asking everyone to wait before they rush to judgment. Wait until the actual facts are out there, wait until there’s actual evidence, and then make your decision on who you think I am.
“It’s embarrassing. It’s really embarrassing. It’s not who I am. Now I’ve got to sit here on my first day and answer questions about it like I am one of those people. It is devastating but I am here to answer the bell, and I’m excited to see when the facts come out.”
Clevinger said he did nothing wrong and that he is confident MLB’s investigation will exonerate him, calling the situation “uncomfortable” and “nonsense.” When asked to deliver a message to White Sox fans who are justifiably upset by the allegations, he said, “I love my kids more than anything. I would never harm a woman.”
Obviously, Finestead disagrees and spent much of her time on the radio Wednesday reiterating many of the descriptions of alleged abuse she has shared on her Instagram account in recent months. Those have included descriptions of Clevinger allegedly choking her and slapping her, as well as throwing used chewing tobacco on their child, and allegations of Clevinger’s abusive behavior toward his other two children and their mother, as well as allegations of frequent drug use.
As mentioned, different questions saw Clevinger respond in different ways, sometimes denying the allegations outright and sometimes refusing to comment – sometimes saying he was unable to comment – until the end of the investigation.
Clevinger spoke with his teammates before pitchers and catchers took to the back fields for their first workouts Wednesday. The content of his message was not elaborated on to members of the media, though Clevinger said he received some positive response.
“I just wanted to share my sentiment to them of how bad I felt that this was how I was starting out,” he said. “This is how they were meeting me, for a lot of guys that don’t know me. I didn’t want their first day of camp to be answering questions about this nonsense.
“Someone came up and thanked me for talking to them. It’s been pretty copacetic everywhere. I know a few guys around here, and the guys that know me, I think they know the truth.”
When asked if he ever considered informing the White Sox that he was under league investigation, Clevinger said: “This was going on for seven months, I didn’t even know it was still going on, to be honest.”
Why did the White Sox sign Mike Clevinger in the first place?
When news of allegations against Clevinger and the ongoing MLB investigation broke earlier this year, the White Sox released a statement saying they did not know about any of this before they signed Clevinger to a free-agent deal worth $12 million in the early stages of the offseason. Since, it’s been revealed that the investigation started last summer.
The way the joint agreement between the league and the players’ union covering domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse works, confidentiality is key to getting to the bottom of such matters and protecting the parties involved. For that reason, Clevinger’s former team, the league, Clevinger’s agent nor Clevinger himself were required to inform the White Sox of the ongoing investigation during contract negotiations.
“It needs to be clear that under the terms of this policy,” Hahn said Wednesday, “there was no way for us to have known this information about an open investigation dating back to the middle of last season.”
And so the White Sox’ due diligence was thrown into the spotlight. How could the team miss this if they were doing a proper background check?
“There have been incidents in the recent past where we’ve passed on people because of what we’ve uncovered on background. And there’s always means for improving (our process),” Hahn said. “But in terms of finding out about this specific incident or anything, there was no indication of anything close to anything that has been alleged in this guy’s background.”
The general manager added that the White Sox did intentionally take a “calculated risk” in signing Clevinger, citing his displays of “immaturity” in the past, specifically mentioning the instance of him leaving his team’s hotel during the COVID-impacted 2020 season.
Hahn backed the decision by pointing to mostly non-specific instances of the White Sox adding players with questionable histories with success.
“I’ve been involved in a lot of background checks, a lot of evaluations of players’ makeup from outside the organization,” Hahn explained. “We have had success, at times in the past, taking calculated risks on players that have had, let’s say immaturity issues with other organizations, bringing them in here and making them part of our environment, giving them a new opportunity to fulfill their potential.
“We probably don’t have that ring in ‘05 without taking chances like that.”
Even on a day dominated by talk of Clevinger’s off-the-field issues, Hahn complimented the caliber of pitcher Clevinger has shown he can be on the field, voicing belief in a bounce back from the right-hander that made him an attractive offseason target for the White Sox, as much as that move has now been completely redefined by what the team found out later – something Clevinger obviously knew in that moment.
Is Hahn upset that Clevinger didn’t reveal this to the team while attempting to land a multi-million-dollar contract?
“I understand why he didn’t,” Hahn said.
Why don’t the White Sox just cut ties with Mike Clevinger right now?
Plenty of fans are wondering: Why wait for the investigation to conclude? Why not just cut Clevinger and be done with this whole situation? Is keeping Clevinger, in the event the allegations are found to be untrue, worth the headache and public-relations nightmare?
As mentioned, Hahn spent a lot of time voicing the White Sox’ support for the joint agreement and pointing to the league as the ultimate decision-maker in determining Clevinger’s fate.
“It is solely the discretion of the commissioner to discipline a player under investigation after the conclusion of an investigation,” Hahn said. “At this point, the White Sox’ options are the same as they have been throughout this process … and that is to respect the process in the investigation and let it play out. That is the club’s only option.”
And so the White Sox can’t be the ones to suspend Clevinger or place him on administrative leave, a scenario being brought up a lot after that was what happened with Trevor Bauer, who was involved in a different situation.
Taking any action on their own would go against the policy that Hahn voiced so much support for Wednesday, not to mention what might happen should they take any action and Clevinger be exonerated.
How is Mike Clevinger’s situation affecting the White Sox at the start of camp?
According to the White Sox’ braintrust, the investigation into Clevinger hasn’t done much to change their plans for the upcoming season, even when presented with the hypothetical that Clevinger misses time due to the outcome.
“(It has not affected things) at all,” Pedro Grifol said. “We’ve got to prepare for a Major League Baseball season, so for us it’s making sure we execute what we have planned for today. And I thought we did that.”
Folks are obviously curious about what happens in a world where Clevinger doesn’t pitch for the White Sox at any point during the regular season, casting an even greater glare on the team’s starting-pitching depth, which seemed worthy of questioning even prior to the league’s investigation into Clevinger coming to light.
“He’s available right now,” Grifol said. “And if by any chance he’s not available, we’ll discuss that as an organization. But right now he’s part of this rotation going forward.”
Hahn similarly disputed that Clevinger’s situation increased the White Sox’ need for pitching, which he described as omnipresent, falling on the well-worn “you can never have enough pitching” argument and as particularly the case at this time in the calendar.
“We are always on the lookout for more pitching,” he said. “If there’s the opportunity to add, we will. … The search to continue to add and get better doesn’t end just because it’s the first day of camp.
“(The need for more pitching is) great this time of year, regardless (of the Clevinger situation). It just is. I can get a call from (trainer) James Kruk while I’m sitting here right now because of an unexpected thing. The biggest injury risks are always at the start of camp, and then at the start of the season, statistically. We always feel the strong desire to add.”
We didn’t hear from any other players Wednesday, but it’s safe to assume some will be questioned about Clevinger’s effect on the clubhouse in the coming days.