PEI baseball sensation Cass Rhynes was a national cause celebre when the Dodgers draft pick was convicted of hooking up with some underage girls. By the time his case was thrown out a year later, not only had the press forgotten about him, so had baseball
It’s bad news for the three ballplayers who share Room 305A in Connors State College’s residence. Their home date against Eastern Oklahoma was rained out this morning and it’s still pissing down. Everybody else in residence has gone home for Easter, so the cafeteria is closed. The boys’ television is down and the tube was just about their only amusement. They have no wheels, no money. They’re captives in a dingy apartment without even a couch to stretch out on. Understandably Elvin Vargas, Angel Cabrera, and Cass Rhynes are punchy from boredom and homesickness.
Then again, it’s always bad news here in the hamlet of Warner,
Oklahoma, where heritage landmarks are third-generation mobile homes and frame shacks right out of Green Acres. The locals’ conservative values are spelled out in Merle Haggard’s country-and-western classic “Okie from Muskogee” (Warner is in the heart of Muskogee County): They don’t smoke marijuana; they go to church in cowboy boots; and, when it comes to courtship, they believe in holding hands and “pitch and woo.”
Connors State, a little two-year junior college housed in the only brick buildings in town, is a long way from the glamour of professional sport; and Elvin, Angel, and Cass, three members of the CSC Cowboys baseball team, are a long way from home. Elvin, a rightfielder, was born in the Dominican Republic. Angel, a shortstop, is New York-born but as Puerto Rican as Menudo. The two draw stares around town because of their skin colour and accents. Cass, a catcher, gets attention when he opens his mouth. He’s an islander himself - Prince Edward Island, which he describes as “just about the last place people go lookin’ for ballplayers, like findin’ hockey players in Florida.” Rhynes is so soft-spoken and his accent is so thick that he sounds like Popeye muttering under his breath.
The roommates see their time at Connors State as a ticket to pro-baseball contracts. “It’s Elvin’s second year here and he’s gonna get drafted in June,” Angel says. “He can really play. Cass and me, we’re probably gonna have to wait a year. Maybe we get drafted this year. Scouts are at every game. We gotta hope.”
They gotta hope and, when they’re not hoping, they gotta bitch. They bitch about baseball not even being the big sport on campus; bragging rights belong to real cowboys, CSC’s rodeo team. They bitch that their coach, Perry Keith, is the hard-ass to end all hard-asses. All the batting helmets are cracked. The can on the bus is an environmental disaster.
“The good news is that we haven’t had any tornado warnings this
weekend,” Angel says. “The other day we had one during practice. Hail’s coming down, like softballs, then all of a sudden it stopped and the siren starts. Coach says, ‘Tornado.’ He gets the hell outta there, just leaves us.”
“It can’t get worse than this place,” Elvin says.
“No,” Cass says, talking through his chaw, spitting tobacco juice into
a plastic cup. “Don’t kid yourself. It can get worse.”
There’s a bad-news story that we’ve come to expect in the sports pages. It begins with the athlete who seeks gratification like it’s just another game to play. It could be drugs or sex or crime, but it all goes the same way. He’s never quite accountable and never runs out of second chances. And if the going gets tough, the athlete throws money at any legal issue that arises out of his indiscretion.
When Cass Rhynes’s story first broke in the Canadian media in June
2003, it seemed to fit the mould. The eighteen-year-old Rhynes, a draft choice of the Los Angeles Dodgers, was charged with “inciting” two young girls to give him oral sex. But the story was too shocking to be kept in the sports pages; for one thing, the girls were twelve and thirteen at the time of the incidents. That alone was enough to make it national news, but it got even juicier - the whole thing started on the Internet. Instant messaging led to hookups. And a final twist: This story came out of P.E.I., the closest thing Canada has to a theme park for family values. People presume the mores there haven’t changed since the days of Anne of Green Gables and horse-drawn carriages.
Newspapers across Canada went to work turning Rhynes into Canada’s Kobe Bryant.
In a feature evocatively entitled “Good Girls Do,” The Globe and Mail suggested that Rhynes’s case was symptomatic of ever more precocious teenagers in an ever more sex-saturated culture. The article cited alarming figures: “One percent of the Grade 7 girls . . . were willing to divulge that they had engaged in oral sex.” By Grade 9, though, “it was one-third of all students.” According to anecdotes provided by incredibly worldly tweens, oral sex was the key to popularity in junior-high society. Subsequent Globe stories included accounts of rainbow parties - teenage girls leaving all shades of lipstick on the boys’ penises - and had readers reflexively dialing up their daughters on their cellphones.
First prize for vitriol went to an editorial in Montreal’s Gazette: “Cass Rhynes neatly personifies all the worst vices elite athletes can fall prey to so easily: arrogance, an attitude of entitlement, and a conviction [that] talent puts them above the law and the judgment of mere mortals who lack their preternatural skill at such socially useful activities as hitting, catching, and throwing a hardball. . . . Rhynes’s main concern at the moment seems to be [prevailing in court] so he can play baseball in the United States. In a way we hope he’s successful. A multi-million-dollar contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers might seem too rich a reward for a child molester; on the other hand, it gets him out of this country, which would be a good thing. It also puts him in a game where sooner or later, he’ll face a fastball pitcher with a twelve-year-old daughter.”
When you’ve been portrayed in the media as a sexual predator and your mother has burned up her life savings to prevent her only child from going to jail, a dreary holiday weekend at Connors State doesn’t look so bad after all. Bring on the tornadoes.
It’s Easter Sunday night. To break up the boredom, Elvin, Angel, and Cass head to The Barn, the rickety aluminum shed that serves as the team’s bare-bones indoor practice facility. Watching them work out, you’re reminded that baseball is a game for stoics. Rhynes has his game face on, but, then again, most of the time he seems to have an expression that’s hard but otherwise blank. His emotions seem as flat as plains. Excitement and sadness are almost indistinguishable.
“Yesterday was the anniversary,” Rhynes says, waiting his turn while Elvin takes his cuts, hitting into a net. “Easter weekend. I was nine, out playin’ street hockey with all my friends. I was havin’ a great time. I just saw all these cars comin’ over to my house. I was wondering what was happenin’. My mother called me in, all serious, and told me that my father had died. She told me that he’d gone to a better place. I couldn’t comprehend that. I remember him takin’ me to my hockey games, my baseball games. And then he was gone. One night he was feelin’ sorta tired and the next night he’s gone.”
Rhynes steps inside the nets. Elvin tosses balls to him and he works on his swing. “After my father died, my great-grandmother died . . . .” Swing. “ . . . and my mother met a fellah, Bruce Affleck, a great guy, and they got engaged . . . .” Swing. “ . . . we got along great. I was looking forward to havin’ a father again – ‘least a stepfather. But one day he had a heart attack . . . .” Swing. “ . . . and he died. My mother got sick. She had cancer . . . .” Swing. “ . . . but she got through it. She’s so strong. Nothing knocks her down. She kept right on with her security business that she started . . . .” Swing. “Still, there were times when I’d come home . . . .” Swing. “. . . And I’d say, ‘Hello,’ just hopin’ that there was gonna be someone to answer. Through all those tough times I tried not to cry, just so that I wouldn’t upset my mother. I just kept it all inside.” Swing.
Rhynes steps out of the nets. Ninety-nine percent of the time he looks like the tough ballplayer, all six-foot-two and 220 pounds of old-school attitude. But just for a moment he lets the cool, hard pose drop. “I’m not lookin’ for anyone to feel sorry for me,” he says. His voice is quaking. “Those things were worse than the court case. All those deaths aren’t an excuse for anything. I made a mistake. I did something immoral, but I didn’t do anything criminal. I believed that all along.”
Out in the parking lot, a bunch of the Cowboys are gathered around the back of a pickup truck. One kid has a prize from a trip out to the back forty of his family’s property: a beaver. He skins it in about a minute. He tells Cass and Angel dinner will be served shortly. Rhynes winces when he looks at the pelt and says, “I know how he feels.”
When Cass Rhynes arrived back in Cornwall, just outside of Charlottetown, in May 2003 from a baseball showcase in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he found a note that his mother had left for him. “Call the RCMP.” He worried that a friend had landed in trouble. Or that he had rolled through a stop sign or speeded. And even when he phoned the RCMP, the officer he spoke to didn’t seem in any rush to have him come in. Rhynes was tired so he decided to crash for the night and show up the next day.
As soon as the questioning started, his heart sank. An officer asked him about the girl who’d called him to pick her up at the gas station. And about the other girl who came by his friends’ hangout, an abandoned club, when his buddies were there. Rhynes said that the girls had told him they were legal, fourteen and fifteen. Well, those girls weren’t legal, the officer told Rhynes. They were twelve and thirteen. One of their mothers had overheard her daughter talking about how she had serviced the boys and called the RCMP.
As a catcher, Rhynes is used to reading situations and calling the shots. “I had done some stupid things,” Rhynes says. “Right then I did one smart thing. I asked to speak to a lawyer.”
That meant calling home and telling his mother, Velvet, the whole story.
Cass caught hell from Velvet, of course; she only eased up on him, she says, because he “was bawling his eyes out.” He thought that would be the worst of it. After talking to his lawyer, John Mitchell, he was confident that the charges wouldn’t amount to much - probably a day in court, probably a discharge.
The whole situation didn’t really sink in for Rhynes until he and a friend drove down to Boston for another showcase a few days later. He was pumped about getting a chance to play on the sacred lawn of Fenway Park. But at a U.S. border crossing in New Brunswick, Rhynes and his friend were pulled over. “Did you ever have trouble with the law?” a U.S. customs officer asked him, after calling his name up on a database. All at once it hit home. They already knew about his fix.
The customs officials let Rhynes and his friend go on to Boston and Rhynes played like he wasn’t rattled at all. He played like there was nothing going on behind that game face. He hit the shit out of the ball, parking one pitch over the Green Monster.
But the episode at the border was weighing heavily on his mind. He had already accepted an athletic scholarship to St. Petersburg College, a small school on Florida’s Gulf coast. His ride would go up in smoke if the charges stuck. And so would his dream of playing pro ball.
Even though he was committed to going to St. Petersburg, Rhynes was still eligible for major-league baseball’s June draft in 2003. Twelve big-league teams had talked to him. The charges against him hadn’t yet been reported, but they were likely common knowledge among scouts. Most teams were scared off him. Their intelligence network is right up there with the U.S. Customs Agency’s. Nevertheless, the Los Angeles Dodgers rolled the dice, selecting him in the forty-fifth round that June. More than 1,300 players were scooped up before Rhynes.
The day after the draft, Rhynes was featured in two stories in the
Charlottetown Guardian. The front of the sports section was dedicated to his dream of becoming the first Prince Edward Islander since 1884 to make the major leagues. The story on page one was about the month-old charges.
“[The Guardian] had to have known that I’d been charged before they were asking me about getting drafted,” Rhynes says.
The dubious celebrity of a selection in the nether-rounds of the draft offered the media a chance to torque the story. The Guardian described
Rhynes as “an aspiring pro baseball player”; CanWest News Service tabbed him as a “major-league prospect”; and The Gazette made it sound as though a million-dollar contract was in the mail.
It was all ridiculously overstated. “Only three percent of forty-fifth-rounders ever make the major leagues,” says Blake Corosky, an agent who represents Pete Orr of the Atlanta Braves and advises Rhynes. “And out of that three percent, maybe half the guys stick around long enough to make any money.”
“All this stuff made me the most famous forty-fifth-round draft pick ever,” Rhynes says.
Rhynes thought things were going his way when his trial began in August 2003. His lawyers gave him the impression that they were playing with a four-run lead. He had never been in trouble with the law. The worst thing on his record was a school suspension for chewing tobacco.
Rhynes wasn’t disputing that he had been in contact with girls who weren’t legal, but that wasn’t what he was charged with. Just engaging in a sexual act with them could have brought about a charge of sexual interference. Instead he was charged with “inciting” sexual touching. Under the Criminal Code of Canada, either charge carries the same maximum penalty, ten years. “If opening a car door is inciting, then I incite people all the time,” he says. “I didn’t do anything . . . going out of my way. I didn’t know [that the girls weren’t fourteen, the age of consent], and I couldn’t tell. I had no way of knowing.”
He told the court that he had resisted the girls’ advances, and that they persisted. The thirteen-year-old girl backed up Rhynes’s testimony. The younger girl testified that Rhynes hadn’t put up any fight but didn’t suggest that he had come on to her. Their victim-impact statements made it sound as though they weren’t victims in any conventional sense.
The thirteen-year-old noted, “We willingly did this stuff. I feel I was never forced to do anything and it makes me really mad that Cass is getting in trouble . . . . I feel that is old enough to make that decision. I knew what I did . . . . [Rhynes] didn’t know I was thirteen. He thought I was fifteen. Cass is a nice guy and a good friend. [If] he forced me to do anything, then I’d want him to be in the situation he’s in right now. But he didn’t. . . .”
The twelve-year-old’s account defined how social acceptance hinged on sexual initiation: “I did it four or five months after my friend. I kind of wanted to but didn’t at the same time. I felt at the time that everyone was doing it, so I did it because I didn’t want to be left behind. I felt it was my time.”
The girls arranged the hookups on MSN Messenger. In one girl’s virtual address book, Rhynes’s was just one name among 150. And no evidence indicated that Rhynes was the organizer. He maintained that he was just one of three young men along for the ride with another guy, a seventeen-year-old, assuming the role of “ringleader.”
According to the girls’ testimony, this boy played matchmaker, organizing the “hookups” and pushing them for blow jobs. The ringleader fell under the jurisdiction of the Young Offenders Act and, after pleading guilty, was fined and placed on probation for two years. The two others, also Young Offenders, were handed alternative punishment and did no time in a juvenile facility. Rhynes, alone among them, was tried as an adult.
Rhynes says the newspapers mis-read him - his game face - when they portrayed him as unmoved by the proceedings. From The Globe: “Mr Rhynes left the courtroom laughing with his lawyer.” Or, “On occasion [he] seemed to stifle a smirk.”
“My mother told me that I had to show respect for the court,” Rhynes says. “But I was damned no matter what I did. If I showed any emotion, they’d say it wasn’t real. If I tried to keep things in, they’d say I didn’t care.”
Judge Nancy Orr didn’t think Rhynes was remorseful at all. Worse for Rhynes, she didn’t think he did enough to distance himself from the girls. She found him guilty. Judge Orr accepted the account of the younger girl, who testified that she didn’t lie about her age to the boys, but seemed to discount the testimony of the older girl, who admitted that she lied about her age. Judge Orr said Rhynes should have done more to check on the ages of the girls and that he should have also realized one girl wasn’t of age simply because she wasn’t dressed appropriately for the weather.
“Anything that could have hurt my case, she chose to believe,” Rhynes says. “She threw out anything that backed me up. There’s nothing my lawyer could have done to win that trial.”
Judge Orr ordered that Rhynes undergo a psychiatric assessment before sentencing. The assessment included penile plethysmograph testing, which measures a man’s involuntary responses to pornographic images. Rhynes’s results indicated that “he is interested in consenting females of his own age and does not take an interest in females who are younger or in sexual activity that is not consenting.” He had limited sexual experiences and had not yet engaged in intercourse. He was rated a low risk to reoffend.
Three days before Christmas 2003, Judge Orr sentenced Rhynes to fifteen days on one count and thirty days on the second, with the sentences to be served consecutively. She also gave Rhynes a year of probation and 100 hours of community service. She dismissed the psychiatric assessment, stating that Rhynes “would pose a risk to the community, if he were to serve his sentence there.”
Rhynes’s lawyer, John Mitchell, got him out of jail within a few hours, pending appeal. In March of last year, P.E.I. Supreme Court Justice Jacqueline Matheson heard Mitchell’s appeal and six weeks later overturned the convictions against Rhynes. Justice Matheson ruled that “the trial judge erred in finding that a failure to resist constitutes incitement”; that making plans to “meet up” is not the same thing as arranging to “hook up.” Justice Matheson also noted that Rhynes might have been successfully convicted if the RCMP had charged him with sexual interference.
The Crown took another swing at it, taking the case to the P.E.I. Supreme Court Appeals Division. Crown Attorney John McMillan denied that his office had been pressured by women’s groups to appeal to the province’s highest court. Instead, he claimed moral high ground, suggesting legal precedent was at stake; according to McMillan, no court had properly defined the word “incite” as it applies in the Criminal Code of Canada to sexual contact with children.
The Crown’s case was finally punched out last August. The P.E.I. Supreme Court’s Appeal Division upheld Justice Matheson’s decision. Justice John McQuaid supported the ruling that inciting would have required “some positive act on the part of [Rhynes] to cause the complainant to engage in sexual touching.” He reiterated Justice Matheson’s conclusion, which was, “that there was no evidence before the trial judge which could reasonably have supported the trial judge’s verdict that [Rhynes’s] actions incited the complainants to touch him for a sexual purpose.”
And with that, Rhynes swept a doubleheader in appeal. All that was left to Rhynes was to try to restart a baseball career that had stalled. “The
Dodgers hadn’t talked to me since they drafted me,” he says. “I was a ballplayer who hadn’t hit off a live pitcher in two years.”
At first the only pitches he saw came from the media, including overtures for a movie-of-the-week deal. Even though his mother rang up a $70,000 bill in covering his legal fees, Rhynes shook them off. “When I’m convicted, I’m on page one; but the appeals, you can’t even find them in small print,” he says. “They done me dirty. I’m never talking about this thing again.”
Though Rhynes says he received support from the good people of Prince Edward Island, he was disappointed by a others he felt had bailed out on him. Rhynes had been a member of the Canadian junior baseball team, but his former coach Greg Hamilton speaks of him in the past tense: “He’s not even on the radar when it comes to the national team program.”
St. Petersburg ultimately pulled its scholarship offer. The school president received letters from concerned individuals in P.E.I. that detailed Rhynes’s court case and contained newspaper clippings. Rhynes says the college balked because of the letter-writing campaign. Athletic director Lars Hafner confirms that the letters did reach the president’s office but won’t identify the senders. Hafner denies that the letters had anything to do with rescinding his scholarship. “We couldn’t hold his scholarship indefinitely,” Hafner says.
Rhynes thought about filing suit against St. Petersburg for breach of promise. Ultimately, though, he cut his losses and sent out letters to twenty U.S. junior colleges in September. He used his selection by the Dodgers as his calling card. One of the schools was Connors State, which has been the destination of twenty Canadian ballplayers over the years, including George Kottaras, a catcher from Toronto who signed for a US$300,000 bonus with the San Diego Padres. When Rhynes contacted Connors State, the Cowboys had just lost a catcher for the season because of injury.
Rhynes told coach Perry Keith he’d commit to two full seasons, to get his game back, to raise his stock again. “It was an easy call when Perry offered me a ride last fall,” Rhynes says. “Warner isn’t St. Petersburg for weather or social life, but I didn’t sacrifice anything when it comes to baseball. There’s a couple of guys in the majors right now who went here. At Connors there’s just school and baseball. That’s all I ever wanted.”
El Reno, Oklahoma, is an improvement on Warner. Sure, the highrises in town are grain elevators and on the outskirts you’ll find oil derricks. But, there’s an actual town there - stores, restaurants, even a weekly paper. And El Reno’s Redlands College looks like a big improvement on Connors State. The school is housed in new buildings set in a high-priced subdivision. And the Redlands Cougars have the best in uniforms and equipment. They look like they stepped out of a catalogue.
Yet Redlands is leagues below Connors State when it comes to baseball. Redlands plays in a lower junior-college league. Connors has a dozen players who’ll land scholarship offers to major four-year universities, while Redlands has only one who’ll get a sniff. By late spring, Connors will be the top-ranked junior-college team in the United States. CSC will be a favourite to make the Junior College World Series in Colorado - the big bus ride at the end of the season.
Perry Keith says his Cowboys excel not despite hardship, but because of it. “We play a lot and practice a lot,” he says. “I push everyone hard, and the best players I push the hardest.” On the Monday after the Easter weekend the Cowboys head to Redlands for a doubleheader. A two-hour bus ride and two seven-inning exhibition games - those are Keith’s wake-up calls to players who relaxed too much during the break.
And so, even though the Cowboys run out to a 9-0 lead in game one, Keith is barking: “attaboy” for the lesser talents; browbeating for Elvin, Angel, and Cass. Things get a little sloppy at the end of game one: Redlands scores four runs to make the score look almost respectable. In game two, Cass is behind the plate and he’s like a big puppy, desperate to please his coach. Every ball is run out. Every blocked pitch in the dirt is blocked like the season’s riding on it. And when he screws up a foul pop-up in a gale-force wind - the ball lands with a thud behind him - Rhynes hangs his head.
That “E2” in the scorebook will throb when he looks at it. At the end of the game, a 5-2 win, the Cowboys gather around Keith, drop to one knee, and join in prayer. A scout with the Kansas City Royals takes notes in the stands. He says more scouts will show later in the season, when the competition heats up. He likes what he sees in Elvin (“best arm I’ve seen in this league in years”) and Angel (“good speed down to first base”). Cass doesn’t pique his interest. “Coach told me he likes him, though he’s a bit rough behind the plate,” the scout says.
Rhynes emphasizes the positive in his own scouting report. “Three for seven,” he says. “I lost one foul ball. Just rusty, but that will come. Most
of all we won. It’s just great being out here.”
Rhynes’s faint grin hints that this is a good-news day. Out there against
Redlands, he didn’t look like a future big-league millionaire. Drenched in sweat, sunburnt and windburnt, he looked an awful lot like a forty-fifth-round draft choice, just another young man playing through the long odds of making the majors. Given where he was a year ago, though, that passes for good news.