queerbasball

A Queer Baseball Geek Programmed a Brilliant Donation System That Targets MLB Homophobia

Jenn Rubenstein just wanted to enjoy a damn ballgame without supporting gay-bashing players. Their solution? Queer #FancyStats

Even though Jenn Rubenstein’s long-suffering Washington Nationals didn’t make the playoffs back in 2015, they still wanted someone to root for. And because they’d grown up going to New York Mets games with their dad, it seemed like a simple enough switch. The only problem: Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy.

During spring training of that year, Mets GM Sandy Alderson had invited Billy Bean — the Major League Ambassador for Inclusion and among the best-known openly gay players from one of the four major professional North American sports leagues (not to be confused with Moneyball subject Billy Beane) — to visit the team. Alderson punctuated the visit with the story of former player Glenn Burke, who died homeless in 1995, a victim of AIDS.

Murphy, however, took the opportunity to sound off to the New York Daily News: “I disagree with the fact that Billy is a homosexual.” The devout Christian clarified, “That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t love a teammate who is gay. … But I do disagree with the lifestyle, 100 percent.”

Thus, rooting for the Mets meant rooting for Murphy, and Rubenstein — a speech pathologist in Washington who identifies as queer/nonbinary — didn’t want to do that. Instead, they devised a crafty solution: The better Murphy did, the more they donated to LGBTQ youth organizations. “It was about trying to reconcile hating [Murphy] with wanting to root for [the Mets],” Rubenstein says.

Then, since Rubenstein is a regular fixture in a group of nerdy Nationals fans on Twitter, they gave the project a Moneyball twist. In particular, they tied the donations to the linear weights that make up Weighted On-Base Average (or wOBA), an advanced metric that tries to credit hitters for the value of outcomes — singles, doubles, triples, home runs, etc. — instead of treating all instances of getting on base the same.

It’s Not About Revenge — It’s About Enjoying the Sport

Rubenstein calls it “Queer #FancyStats,” the latter part taken from Washington Post sportswriter Neil Greenberg’s catchall term for the kinds of complex statistics pioneered by revolutionary baseball statistician and Red Sox advisor Bill James.

The donations Rubenstein makes aren’t lavish. As such, fellow Nat fan James O’Hara devised a system with Rubenstein’s financial limitations in mind. “If I’m going to do this for an entire season, [it’s about] what can I literally afford,” Rubenstein explains. The formula ensures donations max out at about $50 per month. Besides, it’s more of a karma thing for them anyway. “It’s [not about trying to] balance the scales, but making it so that I can keep enjoying [the sport].”

Since 2015, Rubenstein’s project hasn’t just followed Murphy to their beloved Nationals (he signed as free agent there after the 2015 World Series, and “I don’t know if I was more devastated or furious,” they say) and Chicago Cubs (the Nats traded him to the North Siders last August). They’ve expanded it to include other players, too — for example, Atlanta Braves pitcher Sean Newcomb. In July, after Newcomb fell one out short of a no-hitter, Twitter unearthed a series of racist and homophobic tweets he’d sent as an 18-year-old.

How Queer #FancyStats Works

Rubenstein records the donations on a publicly shared Google Sheet that tracks how many singles, doubles, triples, home runs, stolen bases and walks each player records during each game. The sheet then totals up the donations using the formula that O’Hara devised.

Since the amounts are tied to a fairly esoteric formula, the donations organizations receive can arrive in random increments — $45.04, $50.96, etc. So much so that early on, one of the organizations called Rubenstein and said, “‘I was wondering if you knew why we’ve gotten 15 donations of like $40.02?’ And I’m sitting there like, ‘Did you say 15?’” they say.

That’s when it dawned on them: Other people were matching their donations.

Among those donors was Beth Dahlman, who tells MEL that giving via Queer #FancyStats helps to mitigate some of the “disillusionment” she feels when teams employ players like Murphy and Newcomb. “The great thing about sports is putting yourself into this bigger identity,” she explains. “When stuff like this happens, it bursts that bubble of togetherness.”

Another matcher, Daniel Guzman, says he appreciates how Rubenstein “took a negative — the Nationals signing a player who publicly spoke about his homophobic views — and turned it into a positive.” Meanwhile, Sydney Anderson says it helps to combat “the sense of futility. And it’s got kind of a ‘screw-you’ quality that I’ve always found motivating.”

Rubenstein has sparked copycats, too: In mid-2016, after the Cubs traded for Aroldis Chapman — whom Major League Baseball had suspended for 30 games for allegedly choking his girlfriend and firing a handgun in his garage — Cubs fan Caitlin Swieca pledged to donate $10 to domestic violence charities each time Chapman got a save for the team.

The List Keeps Growing

Unfortunately, names keep being added to the list of offenders. For example, Milwaukee Brewers star reliever Josh Hader. During the All-Star Game in July, old Hader tweets — including one that said “white power lol” with a clenched-fist emoji, and another that simply said “I hate gay people” — came to light.

Rubenstein made sure to be in attendance at Nationals Park the first time the Brewers played the Nats after the tweets had surfaced. “I figured I’d go and wear my rainbow curly-W T-shirt and my rainbow curly-W hat. We’d go and sit in the front row behind the visitor’s bullpen.” But what Rubenstein forgot is that Hader is from the D.C. area, and they saw everyone around them wearing jerseys with Hader’s name on the back. “That’s when it clicked: These people weren’t Brewers fans; these people were Hader fans,” they explain. “It was his whole community.”

Hader appeared after the first inning. The fans around Rubenstein chanted his name and yelled, “You’re trash, bro” — but Hader laughed with them. Behind Rubenstein were a man and his wife “making jokes about sensitivity training” (MLB had ordered Hader to complete sensitivity training as punishment for the tweets). “They all thought it was a joke.”

By the time Rubenstein had moved to some vacant seats in an adjacent section, they felt furious. “I was shaking. I couldn’t believe it.” Their friend started to berate herself for not saying anything; Rubenstein told her to cut herself some slack. “[There were] Hader people on both sides of us and the entire row behind us. It would have been dangerous to say anything.”

It also made them realize that they weren’t done giving to Queer #FancyStats and to continue it at least through next season. “It was originally a Murphy-specific [thing],” Rubenstein says. “But it grew to so much more beyond him.”