COUNTING SELIG’S ERRANT WAYS

By Murray Chass

January 22, 2012

How did Commissioner Bud Selig allow the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs to create the baseball farce of the year, and the year hadn’t even started? Let me count the ways.

  • The commissioner allowed the Cubs’ pursuit of Theo Epstein, the Red Sox general manager, to overshadow Major League Baseball’s showcase event, a.k.a. the World Series.Theo Epstein Cubs 225
  • Selig allowed Epstein to abandon his unexpired contract and take the Cubs’ No. 1 baseball job with no agreement between the clubs on compensation for the Red Sox.
  • He allowed the clubs to extend the deadline for completing an agreement on compensation for Epstein, then abandoned the deadline altogether.
  • By telling reporters he expected to wind up with the compensation dispute on his desk, he virtually invited the teams not to reach agreement and leave the matter for him to decide.
  • By allowing Epstein to go to the Cubs with the compensation issue unsettled, he put Epstein in position to negotiate his own compensation, a bizarre circumstance tantamount to having a player to be named later in a trade becoming the player who was traded for a player to be named. (It really happened once – Harry Chiti 1962.)

This is what you get when you allow a general manager or president of baseball operations to negotiate compensation for himself.

“You have to look at history and you have to look at the precedent involved and realize there is no precedent for major, major compensation here,” Epstein was quoted as saying.

That is Epstein’s assessment, and it obviously isn’t objective. The Cubs wanted him so badly that they created a title for him, and they agreed to pay him $18.5 million for 5 years. There was no precedent for that kind of treatment either, but the Cubs established the precedent so why couldn’t a precedent be established for what the Red Sox could get?

The Red Sox not surprisingly disagree with the Cubs’ view. They believe Epstein is more valuable to the Cubs than any previous manager or executive whose acquisition required compensation, citing the new title and the bulky contract.

In 1973, the Yankees hired Dick Williams to manage, but Charlie Finley, the Oakland owner, wouldn’t let him out of his contract because the Yankees refused to give Finley Otto Velez and Scott McGregor as compensation. Gabe Paul, the Yankees’ president, said they couldn’t give Finley the family jewels.

A few years later the Pittsburgh Pirates gave the Athletics their veteran catcher, Manny Sanguillen, so that Finley would release Chuck Tanner from his contract, freeing him to manage the Pirates.

Sanguillen was no slouch as compensation. The Pirates thought enough of him to get him back a year later.

In those Oakland instances, the owner was the one who was negotiating. He encountered trade troubles with Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, whom Finley called the “village idiot,” but not with his Tanner trade.

Selig has not been so addressed by any owner. But he is certain to displease the Cubs or the Red Sox, depending on his decision. He has also earned questions and criticism for allowing the issue to go on and on and on.

Jed Hoyer2 225Add to his questionable steps the fact that Selig allowed the Cubs and the Red Sox to violate his rule on minority interviewing in their hiring of new executives. The Cubs hired Epstein as president of baseball operations and Jed Hoyer (at left) as general manager; the Red Sox promoted Ben Cherington, Epstein’s assistant, to general manager.

Epstein, Hoyer and Cherington have similar physical traits and gender. All are white males. Neither the Cubs nor the Red Sox interviewed anyone else, meaning they didn’t follow Selig’s rule that when hiring for decision-making positions, teams have to interview minority candidates,

Either the Cubs and the Red Sox violated the rule and Selig did nothing about it, or he exempted them from following it for reasons that have never been explained.

In addition, circumstances indicated that the Cubs – Epstein really, even before they hired him – tampered with Hoyer when he was still general manager of the San Diego Padres.

Selig’s policy has been not to pursue alleged tampering unless someone lodges a complaint. The Padres didn’t lodge a complaint about Hoyer, who seemed to have the Cubs’ job the instant they hired Epstein, so the commissioner felt he had no reason to investigate.

The Padres didn’t lodge a complaint because they had no problem with Hoyer leaving. They had Josh Byrnes on the scene to step into the general manager’s job, and he was the preferred choice of Jeff Moorad, the team’s chief executive officer, who when he was with Arizona, signed Byrnes to an eight-year contract as general manager.

It was recent enough that you probably remember the Cubs’ pursuit of Epstein that I referred to as a three-ring fiasco and Selig’s follies (surely Selig, a history buff, remembers Seward’s Folly, the United States’ purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million, about the price of a good utility infielder today. Selig earns three times that amount and gets expenses, too.)

The Cubs’ infatuation with Epstein burst into the public’s eye before the World Series and raged during the first two games despite Selig’s policy against clubs making major announcements or initiating major developments during the World Series.

The commissioner understandably doesn’t want anything detracting from the World Series, but he allowed the Cubs and their pursuit of Epstein, along with ancillary matters, to dominate baseball discussion through the first two games of the Series.

Finally, on the Series’ first open date, Oct. 21, the Cubs and the Red Sox issued a news release announcing Epstein’s move, although it had been reported a week earlier as having happened. “At some point you have to set a deadline,” a baseball official was quoted as saying.

“Out of respect for the World Series, both clubs have agreed to forego further comment,” the news release said.

The delay between unofficial reports and official announcement apparently was a result of the teams’ inability to agree on compensation. Looking back from this vantage point, it’s amusing to read what was written at the time about compensation.

“Compensation is expected to be settled sometime in the next 10 days,” one report said.

Ten Days? Three months later, the teams still have not agreed on compensation, and they have asked the commissioner to do their job for them.Bud Selig Rules2

What player trade would Selig allow to go forward if the teams hadn’t agreed on the players going to one of the teams? If the Red Sox traded Josh Beckett to the Cubs but the teams hadn’t agreed on the player or players the Red Sox would get in return, would Selig have allowed Beckett to pitch for the Cubs for three months, a whole half of a season?

Selig has let Epstein “pitch” or do whatever presidents of baseball operations do for three months without the Red Sox having received compensation for him or even knowing what they were getting in return for their former general manager.

Now an argument could be made that the Red Sox have only themselves to blame. They didn’t have to agree to let Epstein defect to the Cubs unless and until they knew what they were getting for him. The Red Sox could also have taken the position that this is what we want in exchange for Epstein and if you don’t want to give it to us, he will stay here and you can find a general manager elsewhere.

Last October, when the Epstein saga was at its hottest, it was suspected in some circles that the Red Sox wanted Epstein to leave, that he had worn out his welcome after nine years. Just a few hours before his departure was announced, I asked a Red Sox official if it were true that the club wanted him to leave.

“Did everything we could to keep him,” the official said. “That’s where he wanted to go.”

While it might have been true that Epstein wanted to go to the Cubs – he knew, after all, that the Cubs would give him a more lucrative contract than the Red Sox would have had they extended his contract – I don’t believe the Red Sox did everything they could to keep him or even that they wanted to keep him.

I suspect Epstein knew that, and it was one of the reasons he wanted to leave.

Epstein did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment generally but specifically on his being in the position of negotiating compensation for himself. Crane Kenney, the Cubs’ president, said through Peter Chase, the team’s media relations director, without confirming that the matter was in the hands of the commissioner, that he couldn’t speak about it.

I tried to get comment from Larry Lucchino, the Red Sox president and chief executive officer, but Pam Ganley, the Red Sox media relations director, said, “Since it’s in the hands of the commissioner he won’t be talking about it.”

I then tried again with Lucchino, sending him an e-mail in which I referred to his brother, with whom I had gone to school:

“I got your message that you can’t talk about the Theo compensation issue because it’s before the commissioner, but (1) it’s not as if this is a matter before, say, Judge Lucchino, and he has issued a gag order and (2) there are questions you could answer, if you chose to, without interfering with his decision.

“For example, why did the Red Sox agree to let Theo terminate his contract with them and leave for the Cubs before compensation had been agreed to? If, as John Henry said at the time, you guys wanted Theo to stay, why didn’t you say to the Cubs this is what it will cost to get us to release him from his contract; take it or leave it?

“The fact that you were willing to let him go without having agreed on compensation suggests that you were very willing to let him leave. Lucchino and Henry are too smart to do something that could backfire on them.”

Lucchino did not reply.

Selig, on the other hand, returned a telephone call, but he had nothing of substance to say either.

“You’d have to talk to the two clubs,” the commissioner said in a brief telephone conversation. “If I were them I wouldn’t talk about it.”

As the commissioner, he wouldn’t talk about it either, not the case or anything he did or didn’t do the past three months.

“I’m the judge,” he said. “It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to say anything.”

Come to think about it, nothing about this case has been appropriate.

HELP RAYS, FORGET MARLINS

A couple of times in recent years I have proposed altering the geography of Major League Baseball. My idea has been to lop Florida off the M.L.B. map.

42-20993207Given the remarkable success of the Tampa Bay Rays, the suggestion might be unfair for them. The Florida Marlins, on the other hand, would not likely be missed.

The Marlins’ succession of owners has discouraged south Florida fans and given them little confidence in the franchise’s future. The Marlins’ best hope is their new park. New parks attract additional fans, bur mainly for one season. Fans will go to games to see a new park, but the team has to win to get them to return the second and third years.

That’s part of the challenge the Marlins face even before they unveil their new park. Another part of the challenge is retaining their best players. The Marlins have created a history of shedding their best players, and they shouldn’t have to do that with the appearance of the new park.

With the Marlins, though, you never know.

The Rays are a different story. Owner Stu Sternberg and his Wall Street recruits, including general manager Andrew Friedman, have begun writing a remarkable story on the west coast of Florida, turning around baseball’s most ineptly run franchise and turning a series of high-round draft choices into a contending team.

Even when they had to shed some high-priced players, such as they did a year ago, they have managed to maintain their winning ways. They are the Florida team that should get a new park because they have earned it. But they won’t get it because no one has the money to build it and they are stuck in the worst park in the majors.

Last week members of the St. Petersburg city council voted unanimously to make themselves ambassadors of the team to increase attendance at Tropicana Park. It might turn out to be just a bunch of talk, but the politicians have to do something tangible and effective if the Rays are to remain a viable part of the Tampa Bay community.

Sternberg and his aides have done their part, and the area’s fans should recognize a good job when they see it. If the fans ignore what the Rays have done, they will have only themselves to blame for the demise of a team that has overcome the original owner, Vince Naimoli, and has become a serious challenger to the far wealthier Yankees and Red Sox.

BRAUN’S TEST INSPIRES SILLINESS

Ryan Braun, last season’s National League most valuable player, may lose his appeal of a positive drug test and accompanying 50-game suspension, though for some reason I think he will be exonerated. But too many of the people who are trusted by readers and viewers to be responsible in their coverage of drug developments are still too hasty to condemn and convict.

The coverage of Braun’s positive test for an allegedly illegal level of testosterone provides a good example why people have reason to question what reporters do.ryan-braun-225

Under baseball’s testing program for performance-enhancing substances, initial positive tests are supposed to be confidential pending the outcome of an appeal if the player wants to appeal. In Braun’s case, an ESPN reporter found out that he tested positive, and it became one of the biggest stories of the off-season because he had won the M.V.P. award only days earlier.

In the eyes of many reporters and fans, Braun was immediately guilty. Maybe he was, but he had yet to file an appeal to challenge the test result. Baseball’s arbitrator, Shyam Das, may reject Braun’s appeal, which he heard last week, and uphold the positive test result and the suspension.

But Das could also rule in Braun’s favor. What then? Will everyone who instantly thought him guilty say oops, I was wrong? Not very likely. There would always be people who believe him to be guilty.

Even worse, there was this recent ludicrous suggestion by an ESPN writer. Buster Olney noted that Braun would be appearing at the annual dinner of the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers Association last Saturday night to accept his M.V.P. award.

“The best chance for Braun to extricate something good from his situation would be to stand up on the dais Saturday, hold the NL MVP trophy in his hands – and offer to give it back to the Baseball Writers’ Association of America at its annual New York dinner, even while maintaining his innocence. This gesture would elevate Braun and separate him from the legions of athletes who have issued denials in the face of accusations of performance-enhancing drug use.”

Olney even offered a statement that Braun could make. “Braun could say something along these lines when he speaks Saturday night :”

That’s all I was able to read. Only paying subscribers could go further, and I’ll be darned if I’m going to pay to read such nonsense, that even an innocent person who deserved the award should say, in effect, I’m innocent and the arbitrator will tell you that I am, but just in case you still think I’m guilty, I’ll give up the award to satisfy you and all of the others who think I’m guilty.

I have one question for my former colleague: If Braun were guilty but still returned the award to fool people into thinking he wasn’t guilty, would that be an acceptable approach?

GOOD LUCK, GARY

Gary Carter 150Gary Carter’s condition was found last week to have worsened. Doctors found more tumors on his brain, where a malignant glioblastoma tumor was discovered last May. I would like to comment on Carter’s circumstances, but I have unfortunately learned too much about brain tumors to write about the Hall of Fame catcher now.

I wish Carter well and hope that his doctors find the right drug or combination of drugs to arrest the tumors.

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.