ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Red Sox players were surprised that they missed the controversial message on Toronto shortstop Yunel Escobar’s eye black strips Saturday at Rogers Centre — an incident that resulted in the Blue Jays suspending Escobar for three games, with the blessings of Major League Baseball and the Players Association.
Written on the strips was a sentence in Spanish that contained a homophobic slur.
“I played that day and I never noticed it,” said Red Sox shortstop Mike Aviles. “I was surprised to hear that one. Then I saw the picture of him and you try to think back, ‘Did I see that out there?’ Wow. I didn’t see that one.”
Jarrod Saltalamacchia is a former Braves teammate of Escobar’s and was aware of some past transgressions, but he, too, did not notice what Escobar had on his eye black.
“I remember when I was in Texas, Josh Hamilton would have a Biblical message in his eyeblack, and he was made to remove it,” said Saltalamacchia. “You’re not supposed to have anything like that. That takes some time and effort to do, so I don’t understand it. But I don’t know what’s going on with Escobar.”
Nobody really does.
There is no way the 29-year-old Cuban shortstop was going to get away with this after photos left no doubt what his message was. While Escobar seemed remorseful at his press conference Tuesday at Yankee Stadium (where the Blue Jays and Yankees were rained out), he said it was “a joke,” that he meant no harm, and he apologized for his actions.
The incident reflects not only on Escobar, but on the entire Blue Jays on-field staff, who claim they missed Escobar’s message.
“If someone has that painted under his eyes, not sure how their team can miss that,” said a Red Sox player. “Their players probably saw it, and I don’t know if they thought it was a big joke or what, but that’s exercising poor judgment, and everyone should know better.”
Blue Jays manager John Farrell didn’t do anything to stop Escobar from taking the field. Neither did any members of the coaching staff, apparently. How could something like that happen under their watch? After all, he is the shortstop, not an obscure bench player.
Farrell defended himself and his staff.
“If you look back at the number of times he has written messages on eye black . . .,” said Farrell, “no one paid any attention. The size of the lettering was so small, you would have to be looking right in his eyes. I didn’t really pay attention to it.”
Did the umpires notice? Apparently not.
It slipped through the cracks until a photographer zoomed in.
Escobar has been a source of headaches for his managers. Bobby Cox couldn’t wait to get him out of Atlanta. The Jays have tried to put up with his antics but have been looking for a suitor to take him all season so they can make room for Cuban defector Adeiny Hechevarria.
In his press conference, Escobar said through a translator, “I’m sorry for the actions of the other day. It was not something I intended to be offensive. It was something I just put on the sticker on my face as a joke. There was nothing intentional directed at anyone in particular.
“I don’t have anything against homosexuals. I have friends who are gay. In reality, I’d like to ask for the apologies of all those who have been offended by this.
“The person who decorates my house is gay, the person who does my hair is gay.”
Escobar stands to lose about $92,000 of his $5 million salary for missing three days. According to the team, the money will be donated to a Toronto-based organization promoting peaceful and conflict-resolving lifestyles, and the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
Escobar also will undergo sensitivity training.
“I can guarantee this will not happen again in my career,” Escobar said. “And it’s a lesson I’ve learned and will never commit again in my career. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean for this to be misinterpreted by the gay community. I apologize.”
Escobar said the phrase is something Latino players say to one another kiddingly.
“It’s just something that’s been said around amongst Latinos,” he said. “It’s not something that’s meant to be offensive.
“For us, it didn’t have the significance to the way it’s being interpreted right now. It’s a word used often within teams.”
Either way, poor judgment was exercised — by Escobar for even doing it, and by the Jays staff for not catching it.
Farrell and Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos attributed the incident to a cultural difference. Farrell said it was “out of character” for Escobar to have done this, and both Jays officials said that Escobar genuinely didn’t feel that his actions would be offensive to anyone.
Commissioner Bud Selig also issued a statement.
“I consistently say that Baseball is a social institution with important social responsibilities and that I expect those who represent Major League Baseball to act with the kind of respect and sensitivity that the game’s diverse fan base deserves,” the statement read.
“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.”
One Red Sox player was still skeptical about Escobar’s intent.
“There had to be a reason he was wearing that message,” said the player. “Was he trying to send one of us a message? I guess nobody really knows, and if he was, I don’t think anyone really cares.
“I don’t think anyone even noticed it until it came out in the news. So I would say if there was a message he was sending to one of us, he didn’t deliver it very well.”
“It was just a joke,” Escobar said. “It was my idea, but it wasn’t directed at anyone in particular.”Nick Cafardo can be reached at Cafardo@Globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo