Taking the good with the bad

People get into trouble. From the time we’re all little tykes to the time we’re grouchy miscreants who loathe mention of our birthdays to the time our ashes are scattered in some personally meaningful locale, a distinct percentage of the human population will have some minor (or otherwise) brushes with trouble.

While they may be able to turn around a fastball or run a lot faster or display considerable amounts of skill at spitting sunflower seeds, baseball players—professional or otherwise—are obviously no exception. It’s a regular occurrence to have a news brief come across our sports pages, televisions, radios or home pages informing us that ballplayer X has had a brush with the law.

Some incidents are more dire than others, but it happens, and when it does, it has a higher profile than when it happens to the average human being. The modern professional roster is both large and perpetually in flux. With every report of a transaction in local markets comes a brief history of the newly arrived player. For that distinct percentage with a legal history, the spotted portion of their past tends to be highlighted rather distinctly. In many cases, it overshadows what they are capable of doing as a ball player.

The question that has piqued my interest in all of this is to what lengths ought baseball franchises go to ensure that they not only put a good product on the field, but one that meets a high moral standard off the field.

All too often this debate turns into a loosely mediated “think of the children” shouting match. Teams ought not trot out troubled athletes because their presence sends mixed messages to the youth. I ask that we scrap this idea altogether for the sake of sanity. I have yet to meet a person who grew up watching baseball in the 1950s and ’60s who conclusively linked Mickey Mantle’s social exploits to his swing, though perhaps that is the final frontier for historical analysts.

The ethical debate with troubled players and filling out a roster extends well beyond how a segment of fans will react to an athlete’s presence on their favorite team. What is a franchise willing to tolerate for results? That question goes well beyond the bleachers and hits the office of every agent, executive and owner in baseball.

Another common thread of logic in this context is the “if I did this at my job, I’d be fired,” argument, which I also would like to dispose of. The fact is these athletes generate millions of dollars in a much more results-based environment with a staggeringly short time span attached to their careers.

Baseball players are incredibly lucky to play a game for a living, and many are given much more leniency than the average person. There is no denying either of these points. However, to analogize both the benefits and challenges associated with being a professional athlete to the standard day job without misrepresenting either side is nearly impossible. There is very little middle ground.

In examining this issue, my key question is at what point do a player’s past indiscretions become tolerable? There is obviously no easy answer.

Take Miguel Cabrera. A quick internet search will provide you with varying numbers and incident reports at different levels surrounding the Tigers star. Many of these troubles are alcohol-fueled. Had any number of similar incidents involved a lesser player, they might have been promptly dispatched from their team. However, we are dealing with Miguel Cabrera—arguably the best hitter in the game—and he has been afforded additional opportunities accordingly.

A similar series of events have unfolded around 2004’s first overall draft pick, Matt Bush. Bush had been given numerous opportunities to catch on with the Padres, Blue Jays and Rays but burned each bridge with either a legal transgression or violation of team policies. Yet, these teams stuck by him in hopes that he would unlock his potential and overcome his personal issues. His career appears to have run its course as he is currently in jail.

These are just two instances where exceptions are made for the exceptional. Each year there are similar cases where players are disposed of for similar transgressions accompanied by less talent. One may even wonder if Josh Hamilton would have been afforded a chance at returning to baseball had it not been for his immense talent and pedigree as a first overall pick. Now we wait and see if his numerous off the field issues affect the contract he’ll receive as a free agent, though had he not slumped badly during the past season they would more than likely not be an issue.

I don’t profess to have an answer the issue; it is too complex and far-reaching to be conclusively solved in a single column. It is clear to me, however, that a balance must be struck. Not only do people get into trouble as it is, but money and fame are obviously adept catalysts for these problems—opening doors previously unreachable.

While the demands of the industry are extreme, I believe you would be hard-pressed to find a general manager willing to put together a team of jailbirds if it meant a 100-win season. It may not be entirely obvious at times, but a large portion of professional sports is dedicated to brand management and there is nothing that a team or league executive loathes more than having to deal with questions of a player’s legal troubles.

Teams hold out for those moments of triumph that mask the cautionary tales a player may bring with him. A player’s public image is largely dependent on how many batters he struck out or he fared at the plate. At some point, though, with an increasingly vocal fan population, you’ll need more than the occasional Band-Aid to fix the wounds.

If exceptions continue to be made for the supremely talented, we ought to expect the same characters to transgress. The same process will garner the same results and it is likely that MLB and its subsidiaries will have to reconsider their stance on players with legal histories. Modern media and social groups have more resources at their disposal to turn up pressure, and so long as baseball lives in the public forum it will have to answer to its public.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

It’s not an easy topic to tackle, but scrutiny has never been higher and it will only continue to grow.

How do our readers think Major League Baseball and baseball at-large ought to approach players with legal problems?

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Paul G.
11 years ago

I dunno know about Mantle as an example.  Yeah, Mickey was a cad but as far as I know he wasn’t doing anything illegal.  For that matter I don’t think that his exploits were well known to the general public at the time.  Back then sports reporters tended to cover up such indiscretions if they could at all help it.  This is even more true of Babe Ruth who was eating, smoking, and copulating with whatever he could get his hands on.

Anyway, back to the main point.  From an economic perspective, signing the legally challenged is a matter of risk/reward.  First, will the fans be more or less likely to show up and spend money if you have a third baseman who is on a first name basis with the officers in cell block C?  I suspect this depends on the crime.  Bar fights and drunken tantrums will probably be ignored as part of “jock” culture.  Inappropriate contact with minors who look 21 can usually be forgiven as an honest mistake even if they think the player is a jerk for cheating on his wife, his mistress, and his other mistress.  No one’s perfect.  Now if we are talking about murder or clear-cut rape or child molestation… well, now that might be a problem.  If my team hired someone who burned down orphanages for fun I would have to find a new favorite team.  There’s also the matter of whether the player is contrite about his crimes.  Michael Vick as the man who is deeply sorry for his crimes is a lot different than a Michael Vick who kidnaps local Chihuahuas and feeds them to his pit bulls in the dog park. 

The second factor is the matter of lost playing time.  Athletes, or at least their lawyers, seem to be adept at finding ways of appearing in court and spending quality time in jail during the offseason, but it does not always work that way.  Ask Plaxico Burress, preferably out of range.  Furthermore, just the matter of being in legal trouble can be stressful and affect performance.  God forbid your big free agent signing get busted for eating kittens, puts up a 500 OPS after that, and then spends the July onward making license plates.  And then there is the matter of the drug addict who is not only committing crimes but also, most likely, wrecking both his baseball career and his life in general.  In a sense, a rap sheet is much like being injury prone.  Having a drug dealer on speed dial is very much like having Dr. Andrews on speed dial, though the former is more expensive and in the long-run less fun.

Personally, I do buy the role model argument.  Glorifying people who do bad things will result in more people doing bad things.  People respond to rewards.  Giving someone millions of dollars to play a game after using his wife’s head as a piñata is not an optimal way to deter domestic violence.  On the other hand, this needs to be balanced with forgiveness and second chances.  I don’t have a problem with giving the repentant more chances.  The unrepentant and the monsters can go flip burgers.