On a cloudy Sunday afternoon in early February while pitchers and catchers throughout the land report to big league camps, Bruce Maxwell is on a high school baseball field in the spring chill, being shadowed by a spirited schoolboy named James. The afternoon is full of smiles, and it is difficult to tell which of them is helping the other more. Probably, it’s about equal.
James is there with the high school’s Best Buddies program, an international organization founded in 1989 for the purpose of helping those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“He’s amazing,” Maxwell says. “He’s got a lot of energy. I love doing stuff like this. It’s good for them, and it’s good for us.”
Maxwell and a handful of minor leaguers who are represented by Sports Management Partners—owned by former pitcher and executive Dave Stewart and his wife, Lonnie Murray—are part of the group that’s conducting this baseball clinic for the Best Buddies kids. Slowly, over the next several days, Maxwell will lose his minor league mates as they drift away to spring training.
Left alone and still scrounging for a job after six years as a professional is the only man ever to kneel in protest during a national anthem in an MLB uniform.
Colin Kaepernick phoned him shortly after he made his stand, and Kaepernick still checks in with Maxwell regularly to make sure he’s OK. Maxwell knows there is the possibility he’s being blackballed, but he also knows his circumstances are different than those of Kaepernick.
“I feel that, with everything that comes along with me, it plays a small part in how people view me, or how people might view my career,” Maxwell, 28, says in his first extended public comments on what happened in his life since he kneeled. “At the same time, all I can focus on is my work and preparation.
“I’ve used this time to dig deeper into my personal being and make sure that when I do get that opportunity, I’m prepared for it. Whether it be in Triple-A, the big leagues…wherever it is, be ready to contribute.”
It was Sept. 23, 2017, that Maxwell reintroduced the idea of social justice to baseball. Before a game between Maxwell’s A’s and the Rangers, the catcher knelt during the playing of the national anthem to protest racial inequality and police brutality. The decision brought words of understanding from many in the sport, and even those who wished he hadn’t knelt said they respected his choice.
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A few weeks later, Maxwell received another blast of attention; this time for all the wrong reasons. That October, he was arrested at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona, and charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and disorderly conduct. He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, the weapons charge was dropped and he was sentenced to two years’ probation and community service.
Though the A’s kept him in 2018—he played in 18 MLB games and then 51 with Triple-A Nashville following a June demotion—the club designated him for assignment Sept. 1, and he became a free agent. In an already frigid market—veteran catchers Matt Wieters and Martin Maldonado remain unsigned—Maxwell’s phone has been silent.
“Catching right now might be at its all-time worst,” Stewart says. “And when I say all-time worst, I mean there’s a big need for catching. A huge need for catching. And this is a young guy. He’s not yet in his 30s. He’s a good catch-and-throw guy—potential to hit, left-handed bat. All the things that you look for.”
In 127 major league games in his career thus far, Maxwell has hit .240 with five home runs and a .314 on-base percentage, though he did show that potential to hit across 60 Triple-A games in 2016, batting .321 with 10 home runs and a .393 OBP.
Looking for a fresh start, Maxwell hired Sports Management Partners in December after he left his former agent, Matt Sosnick. SMP had a couple of nibbles on Maxwell late in the winter, but those fizzled.
“When we took him on as a client, I told him it wouldn’t be easy getting him a job but that we would get him a job playing with an affiliated team,” Stewart says. “So I’m kind of surprised now that [we’ve reached] spring training and we don’t have a job for him.
“What I can tell you is this: In talking to teams about Bruce, the knee is not an issue. [Clubs] question more about the weapon than they did the knee.”
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Maxwell knows this, and he will not hesitate to explain his side of the story and fill in some blanks that he says never made it into the public discussion.
While Ubering home after watching football with friends on an October Saturday in suburban Phoenix, Maxwell, who admittedly had been drinking, ordered food delivery via Postmates. Disoriented at the time, he initially told police that he had canceled the delivery before later saying he simply forgot he had placed the order.
Having absorbed several weeks’ worth of social media vitriol and death threats after kneeling—and death threats directed at his family, too, he says—Maxwell says he had descended into a “dark place.” So when a loud knock hit his metal-grated door, he says he was startled.
“I was struggling,” he says. “I didn’t want to go outside. I didn’t want to go to lot of public places. I just wanted to stay in my house and play my video games and take care of my business.
“People in Arizona don’t come to my house. I have two people with keys to my house, and they’re a couple, and they tell me when they come over.”
Maxwell had two handguns in his home and, according to both him and the Scottsdale police report, a concealed carry permit. Not that the last part matters in Arizona: The state’s gun laws are considered some of the least restrictive in the country. Any person who is not legally prohibited may carry a weapon—open or concealed—without a license.
“Me being on the edge; me having all those things going through my mind—my family getting threatened—I answered my door with my weapon in my hand,” Maxwell says. “Once I saw who it was, I was startled. Obviously, I startled the young lady.
“I apologized to her, told her to hold on. I went and put [the gun] away. I came back and told her I’m sorry; I’m going through some things right now and I didn’t know who was at my door. She was like, no, it’s fine. We had a short little dialogue. She walked away. I told my lawyers that the last thing I’d ever want to do is have a woman feel threatened in my presence. I grew up in a house with two older sisters, a mom.”
According to the police report, the delivery woman said the entire interaction lasted “less than 60 seconds,” and she dialed 911 upon leaving. The police report described the victim as being “visibly upset and crying when I initially contacted her” and adds that the victim said that when the door opened she was “staring straight at the barrel of a silver handgun” and was “in shock.”
During the food exchange, the police report added, Maxwell “held the gun to the side of the door inside the residences as it appeared he still had the gun in his hand.”
When police arrived, they phoned Maxwell and ordered him to exit his apartment with his hands raised. He did so, shirtless and shoeless. Officers commanded Maxwell to turn away from them and walk backward toward them, which he also did.
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It was when they commanded him to then get down on his knees that Maxwell “verbally refused to comply and asked why he had to,” according to the report.
A rifle was pointed at him. He was handcuffed.
“Nobody told me until the next morning why I was being arrested,” says Maxwell, who adds that the police refused his request for a shirt and shoes as well. “They booked me that night but didn’t tell me what I was charged with until the next morning. I was like, how?”
Meanwhile, a body camera video appeared on TMZ that shows an angry Maxwell venting in the parking lot and, while cuffed in the back of the squad car, telling police, “Fuck the MLB” and “Fuck baseball.” He says the video was cut and what you don’t see is another twist: One of the 10 officers at the scene briefly was a minor league teammate of Maxwell’s in the Oakland system.
“He said: ‘We get it. You’re [an] MLB player, Bruce,'” Maxwell says, adding that his response was not a swipe at MLB, but rather to emphasize that his job and his status had nothing to do with his reaction to what he felt was the culmination of a cascade of events that began with his kneeling.
“But when you see that clip, and it’s cut to make me look bad, that’s all you get,” Maxwell says.
“I wasn’t even posing a threat,” he claims of his interaction with the police. “I was cooperating. I was sitting there talking. So for me to be treated like that, and I didn’t even do anything. … I knew exactly what it was for. It was a few weeks after I took a knee.”
A friend of his had warned before he knelt for the anthem: Do what you think is right. I support you, but if you make a stand, you must prepare to be sacrificed. Were his friend’s words now coming true? The police report makes no mention of recognition of his kneeling. A perplexed Maxwell believes it is no coincidence that his downward spiral started with him taking a knee and the chain of events that followed, from the angry responses he received to the dark place he fell into to the chaos on the night of his arrest.
“The night he kneeled, I happened to be watching the game on TV, and I tweeted: I don’t know this kid, but I want to know him,” says retired pitcher LaTroy Hawkins, whose 1,042 games pitched over 21 seasons rank 10th all-time. “I messaged him: You know what, dude, I’m proud of you. You don’t know what you’re getting into, but if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.
“I said, ‘Hey, if you ever need to talk, reach out, I’m available.'”
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Maxwell did, and as he had with so many others as he became one of the game’s most respected elder statesmen, Hawkins became something of a mentor to the catcher.
Hawkins told him: “Bruce, this might be one of the hardest things you’ve ever had to do, but you have to stay clean now. After you kneeled, people are going to look at everything you do and come at you. You’re going to have to walk that fine line like a cat.”
Walking that fine line is something Maxwell knows well. He was born on a U.S. military base in Wiesbaden, Germany, during his father’s tour of duty in the U.S. Army. His paternal grandfather was a retired lifetime military officer, and his grandfather and an uncle on his mother’s side were also in the military.
His family moved to Huntsville, Alabama, when Maxwell’s father was stationed there.
“Kneeling in the MLB, it’s a tricky thing,” Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Chris Archer says. “And I said this when Maxwell did it: He was the best person at the time to do it because he is biracial. His dad was in the military, so any of the backlash, he was able to combat it with: What are you talking about? My family’s military, I obviously respect my family so I’m not disrespecting the flag or the military.“
Growing up in Alabama, Maxwell says, he experienced various forms of racism, from simply getting the looks that those who are of biracial identity (his father is black and his mother is white) receive to outright acts of hostility. During his childhood, he remembers driving home from baseball tournaments late at night and seeing men dressed in sheets—Ku Klux Klan—on the side of the road walking toward the woods. Once, when he was nine or 10, he says, his travel baseball team, coached by his father, won an out-of-town tournament, beating the home club, after which a local man told them that they “better get outta here or they’re gonna try to hang us.” Maxwell says he and his father were the only two blacks on their team.
Though Maxwell had been considering taking a stance for weeks, the moment that pushed him over the edge came the night before he knelt, when President Donald Trump lambasted kneeling NFL players, declaring owners should respond by saying: “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!”
Trump was speaking in Maxwell’s hometown of Huntsville at the time. So it became personal.
But before he acted, he first talked it over with his teammates, manager Bob Melvin and general manager David Forst. He told them what he intended to do and why. And he told them that if anybody had any objections, or if anybody was concerned that his actions would damage clubhouse chemistry or team morale, he wouldn’t do it.
Nobody objected. And when the time came, infielder Mark Canha reached out and placed his hand on a kneeling Maxwell’s shoulder in a show of support.
“I feel like we play one of the most diverse sports in the world, and we’ve got people from all over the planet that play this beautiful game that we love,” says Maxwell, who faced the flag with a hand over his heart as he knelt. “I felt it was my duty to open everybody’s eyes to the greatest game that will ever be and to understand that this is not above us as players. Last year African Americans made up 7 percent of all rosters. And I guarantee you the coaches and managers part was less than that.”
It is largely because of that 7.8 percent figure that Archer and Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia both say they are not surprised that, more than a year later, Maxwell stands alone. Not one other MLB player has knelt in protest.
“It’s a tough sport to try to make a protest when some of the other guys don’t look like you,” Sabathia says. “That makes it tough. But I think, regardless, the players, African American players and everybody, we’re behind him.”
Archer says that a couple of days after Maxwell knelt, a rival African American veteran player warned a Rays rookie, also African American, against following Maxwell’s lead during batting practice before a game in Tampa Bay.
“He was joking, but serious at the same time,” Archer says. “He warned him: Don’t kneel. Just don’t do it. It was like him being a big brother and saying, Hey, you don’t want to have that on your reputation. Even if it dissolves and completely goes away, you just don’t need that as a first-year player. You don’t want to give anybody any reason to hold something over you.
“Not that they will, but at the end of the day, the owners and front office are making a human decision. So if they hear you’re a good guy, they’re more likely to sign you. But if there’s a mark against you, they may shy away.
“You see it with Colin Kaepernick. Owners don’t want that in the clubhouse.”
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Says Maxwell: “I had everything to lose. It was so big for me personally because I grew up through it, and my dad always taught me to keep my nose to the ground and just shrug it off.
“And I just couldn’t do it anymore.”
Between his September kneeling and the October 2017 arrest, there was an incident in an Alabama restaurant that made a gossip column-style splash when Maxwell told TMZ a waiter denied him service because he recognized Maxwell for his kneeling. The restaurant manager subsequently said to Fox News that Maxwell was lying. Maxwell told B/R that the waiter has since been fired, and a manager, Zack Gallagher, confirmed that Keegan’s Public House underwent wholesale management and staff changes nearly a year ago, but not related to this incident.
The Athletics nevertheless were comfortable enough with Maxwell after the arrest that they stuck with him the next season. And this winter, for a second consecutive year, Hawkins got it cleared through MLB officials to invite Maxwell to its annual Dream Series—a camp and showcase for top minority pitchers and catchers—as a counselor.
“It’s serious, but, man, you’ve got people who have done a lot worse,” Hawkins says of Maxwell’s arrest. “It wasn’t like he was trying to rob her.
“It’s disheartening, man. With the state of catching today, no way [under normal circumstances] he doesn’t get a job if he was a big league catcher last year. No way.”
Without an organization, Maxwell had little access to batting-practice pitchers and catching partners, so he moved in with his new agents in December. In fact, at this Best Buddies clinic, all of the counselors and SMP clients were living with Stewart and Murray—several in the guest house, Maxwell in the main home. They hit during the mornings, work on other drills in the afternoons and lift weights at night.
“Quite frankly, I like having him around,” Stewart says. “He’s been delightful.
“What’s clearly understood, and Bruce and I have talked about it, is he’s willing to take a step backwards right now to go forward. He’ll do whatever it takes to get an opportunity to play. That in itself is admirable to me.”
He’s slimmed down some this winter after admittedly arriving in Oakland’s camp overweight last spring. He’s putting in his work and doing his part. Now, the man who says he had everything to lose can only hope he hasn’t lost everything when it comes to the game he loves.
“I’ve been through a lot,” he says. “I’m still standing. I’m still smiling. We’re out here doing a special-needs camp in my free time, and I love doing it. There are things I want to do in my life, and baseball paves the way for that.
“I come off hard sometimes. I come off guarded sometimes. But at the same time, guys who really know me know I’m a big-ass teddy bear. I love people. I tell people all time: If you want to get to know me, call me. My phone’s always on. If you want to have a conversation, just call me.”
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.