Tuesday, July 31, 2012

LaMenting LaRue: Why La Russa Got It Right* (PART 1.5 OF 2)

*even if he considers it an attack on his integrity to say so

In PART 1, I reflected on a brawl between the Cincinnati Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals that took place on August 10, 2010, and resulted in Jason LaRue, a backup catcher for the Cardinals, being forced into retirement by concussion-inducing kicks from Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto.

A couple of years later, Reds manager Dusty Baker called out La Russa for omitting Cueto (and second baseman, Brandon Phillips) from 2012's All-Star team, saying it was payback for the brawl.  La Russa (as he is wont to do about things people say) took deep offense at these words.

I suggested that, in light of the seriousness of Cueto's assault, the ridiculousness of Cueto's explanation, and the dearth of consequences suffered by Cueto, La Russa had every reason to "payback" Cueto in this manner.

It shouldn't have come down to La Russa doling out justice, but many other agents of discipline dropped the ball.  Which brings us to PART 1.5 of this series, and none other than MLB's own disciplinarian, Frank Robinson...

1.  Frank Robinson.  Some sports have a metaphorical "czar of discipline".  MLB has something like that in Frank Robinson, who handed down a 7-game suspension to Johnny Cueto.  Many sports websites published commentary pieces following Cueto's suspension, the gist of which were "Cueto got a slap on the wrist—he’ll miss one start."  Or not.  Depending on how the schedule plays out, 7 games may not even cut into year-end total starts for a pitcher at all.

Frank Robinson had a major role in doling out the penalties for the brawl, and there is an account of how Robinson came to his decisions here.  There's some good stuff, mostly about how Robinson decided NOT to suspend others (including Brandon Phillips, which I am fine with) for their roles.  But when it comes to Cueto, most of what Robinson says ranges from suspect to silly.

To begin with, Robinson suddenly defers to everything but his own two eyes.  He interviewed the umpires?  What could they have said to make Cueto's kicks seem less like a felony assault?  ("Yeah, we saw the look in his eyes, and he really did look nervous, just like he said.")

Robinson also chains himself to the idea of “precedent.”  The viciousness of Cueto’s attack is pretty much unprecedented, but the closest comparison is probably NOT Chan Ho Park kicking Tim Belcher in 1999, as Robinson cited.  It was one kick, to Belcher's leg, and Belcher was basically fine.

A more similar precedent took place on August 22, 1965, when Juan Marichal conked Johnny Roseboro in the head with a bat.  This "Roseboro Incident" is absolutely legendary in baseball circles, and the black mark it left on Marichal almost kept him out of the Hall of Fame.  This article makes a heck of a case that Cueto's kicks are actually more despicable than Marichal's conks, and that it's a stretch to cite even this as a precedent for Cueto's kicks (because Cueto's kicks were much worse).

Depending on the setting, a precedent can be either guiding or binding, and Robinson (undoubtedly with the MLBPA looming) chose to be bound.  For all his video watching, interviewing, and discussing, at the end of the day, he essentially concludes, “My job could be done by an app on your phone.  Just plug in that 11 years ago, an incident involving feet took place, and the player who was attached to those feet was suspended 7 games.  So 7 games it is.”

Robinson all but explicitly admits having very little flexibility in dispensing punishments, as the article reads, “‘We did what we could to Cueto,’ Robinson said, noting even an eight-game suspension would have been ‘pushing the envelope.’”

In other words, 7 games is acceptable enough that Cueto didn’t even appeal (virtually unheard of for this sort of suspension), but 8 games would have been “pushing the envelope”?  OK, so what is your job again, Frank Robinson?

A couple of other gems:
-“[If we had known severity of LaRue’s concussion, we] …may have added another game and gone against precedent.  It’s more likely we would have increased the fine.”
May have added?  Another gameOne more game!?  Hear that, Jason?  They just didn’t know how bad it was, but if they had…  Oh boy, we would totally be saying, “Oh no they din’t!”  Precedent so would have been gone against.

Of course, another way of looking at it is that once LaRue’s career was ended by Johnny Cueto’s spikes, it should have been clear that no precedent existed for an incident like this!  But it’s like they say: “there’s a fine line between hypothetically going against precedent and hypothetically saying that no precedent exists.”

-“Robinson and Watson played a combined 40 seasons in the major leagues and believe any comparison of MLB's code of justice to other leagues such as the NBA and NHL is inappropriate.”
Yes, they would believe that; the alternative is looking like lackeys for the both MLB and the MLBPA.

But here in 2012, if you were to throw caution to the wind and start making inappropriate comparisons like some kind of rabble rouser, you might notice in 2011 when the NFL suspended Ndamukong Suh two games for stomping on the arm of an opponent during a play (that’s about 20 games in baseball years).  You might notice in 2007 when the NHL suspended Chris Simon 25 games for hitting an opponent in the head with his stick (that suspension included playoff games, something unheard of in the MLB).  You might notice in 2012 when the NBA suspended Meta World Peace seven games for elbowing an opponent (this also included playoff games).  Then again, those sports tend to frown upon players intentionally injuring each other, so perhaps the comparison is indeed inappropriate.

-“...we really can't take a starting pitcher beyond five, six or seven days because this individual may hurt himself being laid off for a longer amount of time. We didn't know the extent of LaRue's injuries until later on.”
This is one of the all-time strangest explanations for anything.  Robinson seems to be saying that if a starting pitcher is too far removed from his regular pitching schedule, the pitcher runs a significant risk of hurting himself when he is again called upon to pitch.  Oddly, if a pitcher’s arm is tired, his team may elect to have him skip a start or even go on the 15-day disabled list to “rest up” (this happens a lot and raises no eyebrows).  But if a pitcher’s arm is fine, taking off the equivalent time is dangerous?  So in terms of risk/reward, “rest” is kind of like “chemotherapy”?  OK, fine.  I’ll bite.  Let’s say that this rest-pitch-hurt scenario is way more prevalent than it seems.  Let’s say there’s an element of legitimacy to that concern.

But, Frank, let’s get real for a second.  “Five, six, or seven days”?  You can’t really have meant those numbers, can you have?  Because five days off is a normal break for a normal pitcher during the course of a season!  Most teams have five-man rotations, and they frequently do not adjust the rotation for scheduled days off.  So five days is a normal break, but six days is dangerous?

Then there’s the automatic eight-game suspension that a pitcher receives if he is caught with a foreign substance on his glove.  Are pitchers who use pine tar to make their fingers sticky generally more resilient than pitchers who kick other players in the face with their spikes?  Has there been a study?  Is that why the rest-pitch-hurt never came up when (for example) Tampa Bay Ray’s pitcher Joel Peralta was suspended this year those eight games?  Or are actions like having pine tar on your glove that much more heinous than intentionally spiking a player in the face that pitchers like Peralta deserve to have their arms hurt?

Then there’s the All-Star Break, which this year was a full 4 days.  Many teams do adjust their rotation for the All-Star break, starting their aces in games both right before and right after the break.  This forces a team’s third, fourth, and fifth best pitchers to take upwards of (wait for it) “five, six, or seven days” off between starts.  In other words, the four-day All-Star Break that is forced upon players in the middle of the season—according to Frank Robinson—is dangerous to the health of most of the league’s starting pitchers!  It’s diabolical, really.

Admittedly, one difference between taking an extra day off and getting suspended is that a suspended player isn’t supposed to have any contact with his team, which means no between-starts bullpen throwing sessions.  Could that be what Robinson is worried about?  If so, shouldn’t a major league pitcher be able to take it upon himself to find someone to play catch with every couple of days?  I think most MLB cities have junior colleges with baseball teams.  Maybe one of their players could play some long toss with you?  Afterwards, maybe you could pay $38 at MassageLuxe for your post-workout massages like the rest of us?

This is probably one of those suggestions that sounds appalling to a big leaguer, but it speaks to a philosophical peculiarity that permeates Frank’s defense of his punishment:  Should it really be the disciplinarian’s concern as to how the recipient of the discipline will deal with the punishment he deserves?  Could an objective observer fairly suggest that the inconveniences that accompany being suspended are actually a pretty big part of what makes a suspension, you know, “bad”?  Instead of letting Cueto argue against the fairness of a longer suspension during an appeal process, Robinson took it upon himself to “pre-appeal” to himself, on behalf of Cueto, and then pre-emptively reduced Cueto’s suspension to a manageable length.  (He all but used these words.)  So Frank Robinson, MLB’s disciplinarian, is looking after Johnny Cueto.  And who’s looking after Jason LaRue?  His wife, mostly.

Frank, the pressure from your bosses and the MLBPA was probably immense.  It’s also possible that you truly are a softy, though I’ve never had that impression.  The point is, it looks like you either issued a punishment that you knew was a joke, or you issued a punishment that you thought was pretty firm until people started asking you about it.  Then you started making stuff up and passing the buck in order to justify the punishment.

Speaking of the MLBPA…

2.  The MLBPA.  The players’ union does its job very well.  It is possibly the most powerful union in the country.  But what does the MLBPA actually do?  The FAQ section on their website devotes six lines of text to answering this question (the same that they devote to answering the question, “When did the Major League Baseball Players Association launch its first Web site?”)  Three of those six lines are spent explaining that the MLBPA is responsible for ensuring the safety of the playing conditions for MLB games.  Everything else that the MLBPA does gets three lines of text.

Actually, three lines is plenty, because they could sum up “what they do” by saying, “We collect power and money for our players.”  Believe it or not, I think this is an OK thing to do.  There is a lot of power and a lot of money in the sports entertainment industry.  I think it should be divided fairly between the players and the owners.

But the MLBPA’s goal of accumulating power and money should be a means to an end, not an end in itself.  For example, the MLBPA could use its power and money to cooperate with MLB for the elimination of on-the-clock use of smokeless tobacco by its members.  This would undoubtedly benefit players, perhaps even more than padded home run walls do.  But working to eliminate tobacco would not bring any additional money or power to the union.  So something that could be a noble use of power and money instead becomes a bargaining chip for even more power and money.  After all, if MLB owners thinksquitting tobacco might help the image of the game, maybe they’ll concede something else to make it happen at the next CBA talks, right?

“Player discipline” is just another bargaining chip.  The point isn’t whether players should face stiffer consequences for ending the careers of other players (or pushing an umpire, or driving drunk, or whatever).  The point isn’t even that most players might desire stiffer consequences for such actions, since the actions of a few tarnish the reputations of everyone (PEDs, anyone?).  The point is that if MLB wants stiffer penalties, then the issue magically transforms from being a good idea to being a bargaining chip.

So, should Johnny Cueto have faced more than a 7-game suspension for ending the career of one of his union brothers?  “Should” has nothing to do with it, na├»ve friend.

What matters is that if Frank Robinson and MLB had dared to go even a game over the arbitrarily-selected precedent, the MLBPA would have treated it as a power-grab, an attempt to circumnavigate the CBA.  Cueto may have chosen to appeal his suspension, and it would have taken even longer for the MLB to brush under the rug this whole ugly incident.

Speaking of MLB…

3.  MLB.  Everyone knows that MLB commissioner Bud Selig lacks the power (and perhaps the cajones) to make any meaningful decisions “for the good of the game” (or its players or fans).  Whatever the next PED issue is in baseball, Bud would like to be able to stand before Congress and say something other than, “The union wouldn’t let me do anything, no matter how much I begged!”

But he won’t be able to.  So, in the absence of making actual, substantial changes, he either highlights the awesome things that he has been able to negotiate for (Hey, did you hear that the All-Star game matters again?) or moves quickly to hide the things he can’t.  He can’t throw the hammer down when players do things like assault each other at the work place.  So he moves on.

This is especially true if the culprit is an ace-pitcher and the victim is a backup catcher on the tail-end of his career.  Cueto is a face of the game, for many years to come.  No one wants him to be seen as a thug who got away with assault.  Fighting to punish Cueto does nothing for the image of the game.

Unfortunately, Bud is right.  For all of the justice dispensed by commissioners of other sports, their efforts have probably heightened the perception among fans that athletes in the NBA, NFL, and NHL have a disproportionate number of criminals and bullies in their ranks.  Often, the suspension gets more notice than the crime.  Sadly, the best way to maintain a family-friendly image of a professional sports league is not to actually punish people who do bad things; the best way is to try to move on as quickly as possible.  If you offer a token suspension that you can pretend is tough, but is light enough that the union doesn’t appeal, the dust settles pretty quickly.

If it had been Yadier Molina instead of Jason LaRue whose career had ended, the dust would have not have settled so quickly.  If it had been someone like Bryce Harper or Mike Trout—oh, heavens, you can almost imagine Bud Selig sitting before Congress saying how he needed to fight the union on this to make sure that the world knows that this sort of behavior will not be tolerated, because baseball players are role models for children, and so on and so forth.

But Jason LaRue’s loss to baseball was not tragic enough for MLB to pick a fight with the MLBPA (yes, that would be Jason LaRue’s union).  So MLB buried what it could, and refocused everything else.  Online videos of the incident mysteriously lack the close-up, slow-motion replay of Cueto’s cleats entering LaRue’s face and Chris Carpenter’s back.  The focus of the incident became Brandon Phillips and Yadier Molina talking face-to-face in a stern manner.  (Brandon Phillips, despite his role in the incident and his inclination to talk smack, seems like a pretty good guy.  He’s funny, doesn’t take himself too seriously, hangs out with his twitter followers, and is basically good for the image of Major League Baseball.   What makes him endearing also makes him the perfect candidate to draw focus away from the man-child thug that appears to be Johnny Cueto.)  After the conversation, there was some pushing, and who can know for sure what happened after that, right?  We’ll let Frank Robinson play the grandfatherly disciplinarian at a press conference, issue a suspension that the union won’t bother appealing, hope that the media cooperates, and move on.

In PART 2.0, we'll finish up looking at the ways Jason LaRue was let down, and why Tony La Russa got it right.  Until then...


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