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Baseball Executives Want to Use the War on Drugs to Avoid the Bad Contracts They Signed

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Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Baltimore Orioles

Angels outfielder Josh Hamilton has a long history of substance abuse that nearly derailed his career. But he finally got it together. Of course, substance abuse and addiction are very difficult issues. He had a relapse over the offseason. He could have tried to avoid responsibility. Instead, he told the Angels and MLB voluntarily.

Josh Hamilton signed a 5 years-$125 million contract with the Angels before the 2013 season. This was a great contract for him but a really stupid one for the Angels. Even at the end of his time with the Rangers, Hamilton’s production was falling. He always struggled with plate discipline and the years of substance abuse probably made his skills decline a touch faster than they would have naturally. His strikeouts skyrocketed in 2012. Hamilton, when he hasn’t been hurt, has been a slightly above league average player the first two years of this contract.

The Angels wanted to suspend Hamilton for violating his substance abuse program, even though he came to them voluntarily. Yesterday, an arbitrator ruled that they could not. The response of Angels GM Jerry DiPoto and president John Carpino did not hide the team’s disappointment:

This led to sportswriters ripping the Angels as it became clear this was about saving money and using baseball’s war on drugs to bail teams out of bad contracts, not helping Hamilton. Bill Plaschke:

The team that has already given away Hamilton’s locker is now publicly kicking him to the curb. The organization known for a cuddly primate has bared its teeth and revealed its vindictiveness. This is not only about wanting to make sure Hamilton is off drugs, this is about wanting him off their payroll and out of their lives.

The Angels want Hamilton suspended so they can save the remaining $83 million on his contract, save awkwardness when he returns to a clubhouse, and basically just save themselves the hassle. They don’t care that Hamilton or his teammates are listening, they don’t care that a Southern California fan base that often winces at such intolerance is listening. They just want him gone.

This column is not a defense of the arbitrator’s ruling. The Angels are right that it was wrong. While the ruling technically adheres to baseball drug law, it goes against the spirit of the discipline required to make that law effective. Reportedly one of the factors in allowing Hamilton to avoid discipline is he reported his relapse instead of failing a drug test. That sets a dangerous precedent. So if a player thinks he just tested positive, he can get off the hook by immediately throwing himself on the mercy of the commissioner before the test results become public? That’s a gaping loophole that needs to be closed.

But the Angels should have kept their mouths closed. Why further humiliate a sick player by warning him he’s no longer welcome? Why not let him finish his rehabilitation while finding some inner peace, then leave open the possibility he could play for you again?

And the usually measured Ken Rosenthal on why everything about this case was leaked throughout the process:

Even if the arbitrator had determined that Hamilton indeed violated his program, the entire matter should have remained private, at least until the moment commissioner Rob Manfred issued his suspension. But that’s not what happened, and make no mistake — Hamilton was wronged in the process.

So, who was responsible for the leaks?

As a reporter, I know that information comes from everywhere, and not always obvious sources. The Angels, however, are the one entity that stood to benefit if Hamilton was suspended and forfeited a portion of his $23 million salary in 2015. He also is guaranteed $30 million in both 2016 and ’17, and considering his declining performance in recent seasons, the Angels surely would love to escape that obligation as well.

The initial report on Hamilton from the Los Angeles Times said he was meeting with baseball about a disciplinary issue and that the team was bracing for possible penalties. Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto confirmed that Hamilton was in New York but said nothing else. A scramble then ensued to report why the meeting took place, and both CBSSports.com and New York Daily News reported that his relapse involved cocaine.

I’m not sure the Angels acted properly in confirming Hamilton’s initial meeting in New York. And the club went public again Friday, saying in a statement, “The Angels have serious concerns about Josh’s conduct, health and behavior and we are disappointed that he has broken an important commitment which he has made to himself, his family, his teammates and our fans.”

This, for a player who was deemed not to have violated his treatment program.

Lovely.

I understand why baseball pursued the matter; if Hamilton had indeed violated the program, then it would have been only proper for the sport to enforce its policy. But baseball, too, needs to take responsibility for the way Hamilton was cornered publicly.

He deserved better as a recovering addict. He deserved better as a major leaguer. He deserved better as a human being.

Of course some sportswriters, even wanting to fight the War on Drugs from their computers, are talking about how this is really about the Angels wanting to get Hamilton help, but that’s totally absurd.

I’m curious to see if this affects the Angels with free agents going forward. This isn’t some steroid case where many players really want those players out of the game. This is a sick man who has struggled with life-threatening addiction for a long time. He deserves support from his team, not contempt. But Angels owner Arte Moreno doesn’t want to pay the money he owes Hamilton and so wants to see him suspended. That can’t make the next aging slugger or pitcher Moreno offers a bunch of money feel real great about it. I suspect agents are definitely taking note of this. And whoever was leaking this information about Hamilton to the media probably should be fined or suspended by MLB. Not that it will happen.

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  • JMG

    Small children in Tibet knew that contract was a galactic class blunder the day it was signed. Beyond the disgusting inhumanity of the Angels’ actions, they are also opening up the possibility of litigation arising from the drug program charging it’s being used for financial rather than purely disciplinary reasons.

    • I want a drug test of the executives who okayed the contract.

  • c u n d gulag

    This talented but addicted player had, and still apparently has, many ‘demons.’
    And if anyone should have known about them, it was a team named ‘The Angels!’

    On a more serious note, that they’re acting this way is beyond disgusting.

    Nobody forced Moreno to open-up a Home for Aging Sluggers – he did it himself.
    And now, Moreno wants to punish a player for the idiotic contract he signed him to! And in the process also further tarnishes the player in public and with his teammates.

    A curse on The Angels!!!

    • cpinva

      “On a more serious note, that they’re acting this way is beyond disgusting.”

      and completely expected. corporation negotiates a ridiculous contract with an employee. corporation finally realizes just how ridiculous the contract is, then attempts every trick in the book to get out of its freely entered into, legal obligation, including anything sleazeball thing they can get away with. color me stunned.

      • c u n d gulag

        Yeah,
        The only ones safe in corporate life are the CEO and his team of cronies.
        Everyone else is expendable – especially the older and higher paid folks.

      • mikeSchilling

        They have a fiduciary duty to the stockholders, and no duty to the employees. What are you, a communist?

        • so-in-so

          They have a fiduciary duty to the stockholders when they are looking, and no duty to the employees or anyone else. What are you, a communist?

          Fixed.

  • Todd

    The situation is somewhat different in the NFL, though still problematic. I believe it is a standard clause in player contracts now that any drug test failure results in any remaining guaranteed money in that contract becoming un-guaranteed.

    In one sense this is probably preferable to MLB in that players and agents are aware of the consequences from day one, and there is no need for owners to threaten/bluster/scheme/leak/spy in this area (not that it stops them). In another sense, it merely formalizes that teams care much more about salary cap flexibility and accounting than the health status of their primary employees.

    • rea

      I believe it is a standard clause in player contracts now that any drug test failure results in any remaining guaranteed money in that contract becoming un-guaranteed.

      Well, but that’s the point–he didn’t fail a drug test–he voluntarily reported his relapse.

      (And, of course, the penalty for a voluntary reporter ought to be less than the penalty for failing a drug test).

      • Todd

        Well, my description was the sloppy part. Something like “substantial evidence of violation of the league’s drug policies for players” is probably more in line with the language in these contracts. Players who have been found with drugs in their car by the police, even if they weren’t ultimately charged and/or tested, have been suspended by the NFL under the drug/behavior policy. A team could probably claim such a suspension cancels the guarantees remaining. Also, a team doesn’t have to cancel the guarantees, even if they can.

        As guaranteed monies for players have increased, the NFL has negotiated lower hurdles for teams to negate those guarantees (drugs, behaviour, missed mini-camp, etc…). A union will always say yes to such arrangements, as the number of players who have their future guarantees turned into normal salary for failed tests in any given year will be very few.

    • drkrick

      The NHL gets this right (there’s a sentence you don’t get to type often).

      When a player is suspended by the league, the team is fined the amount of salary the players loses so there’s no windfall for signing a bad actor. It removes at least the financial temptation to engage in the kind of shenanigans the Angels have pulled with Hamilton.

      Imagine the Yankees having had to fork over $100 million to MLB if A-Rod had been expelled from the sport two years ago?

  • patrick II

    The Yankees Rodriguez received an outsized suspension, relieving the Yankees of one year of a very expensive contract, so the Angels must feel it’s only fair they get a break too. And I think I remember the Yankees being just as onerous during the process as the Angels are now. Giving very large long term contracts to aging stars seldom seems to be a good idea. It is a good thing for Albert Pujolz that he’s never had a whiff of a drug problem.

    • drwormphd

      Although I wonder, had Rodriguez found Jesus as publicly as Hamilton did, if the wolves would have been out for him as much as they were. I agree the Angels are wrong in hoping Hamilton’s relapse will get them out of a stupid contract, but I also think Hamilton’s being treated with a lot more respect than other athletes in similar circumstances, particularly since he’s had at least one previous ugly relapse during his MLB career.

      • There was a really good story several years ago in the Dallas alternative newspaper about how Josh Hamilton was forgiven for his sins by the sports fans of the area while Josh Howard was vilified for smoking marijuana because Hamilton was a white evangelical and Howard was black.

        • Ann Outhouse

          I was going to say something similar, although more on the lines that Hamilton is a popular all-American good-looking white guy who has bought a lot of sympathy votes (especially after the incident where the guy fell out of the stands) while nobody has ever liked A-Rod, even his teammates.

        • Jordan

          I *think* you are talking about this one. And if so, yeah, its a very good one.

  • jim, some guy in iowa

    too bad “montague, realizing he had committed a serious blunder, tried to major league baseball executive his way out of trouble” is just never going to work as a sentence… ’cause weasels don’t seem nearly as bad by comparison

    • Pseudonym

      There otter be a rule against the execs badgering a player like this over a drug offense they didn’t even ferret out themselves.

  • yet_another_lawyer

    Not sure that either side is worth rooting for here. The Angels use of the drug program is clearly pretextual. Yet to the extent the drug program has validity, then “it doesn’t count if you self-disclose” is a gaping and nonsensical loophole. Like, how does this work, how often can you “self-disclose”, and what’s the time limit? If there’s no parameters to this unwritten extension of the policy, then drug-using ball players should simply install an app on their phone that texts a self-disclosure once every 24 hours. Immunity!

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      it makes sense in terms of cutting a break to someone who is trying to make a good faith effort to both stay clean and communicate with the club. in general i tend to *not* give the benefit of the doubt to the side acting in colder blood- although i imagine one could argue both sides are addicts, one to drugs and the other to money

      • yet_another_lawyer

        It’s a fair point– I just think this may be a variant of “bad facts make bad law.” The Angels’ motives are so obviously pretextual here that it’s easy to side with the player. But suppose Team X really did sign Player Y for $Z, who has a troubled past involving drugs. Y is worth $Z if he’s clean, but worthless if he’s not. Player Y then goes on a two week cocaine bender just before spring training, shows up on the first day, and discloses it.

        I would think Team X could, quite properly, argue that they should be let out of their contract under current MLB rules. What’s more, I think some variant of inevitable discovery is relevant here; self-disclosure is irrelevant if the team was going to find out anyway and it’s just being used as a means to evade the rules.

        What’s more, if Team X can’t get out of its contract, then the best case scenario is that people in player Y’s situation are going to get reduced contracts, but it quite possibly means that teams won’t take a chance on them at all. If the system is gameable, then why would they?

        So, I think this decision is defensible, but it may be limited to its facts.

        • jim, some guy in iowa

          yeah, the self reporting loophole is surely a thing that’s open to abuse and it may well be in this case. i have a tendency when i first look at something to determine which party has more $ and assume one way or the other things are rigged to favor them- but of course having deeper pockets doesn’t *automatically* make the ball club wrong when they feel the terms of a contract are broken

    • Brien Jackson

      The “loophole” seems to exist not so much because Hamilton cobfessed before test results weretment at all. returned, but because he never failed any test at all. The policy doesn’t deem self-reporting without a failed test to be a violation, and this seems logical on its face if you care about treatment at all.

      • ochospantalones

        It is not clear to me that there actually is any loophole at all. He escaped discipline because he never failed a drug test, not because he self-reported. The two do not need to be connected. After he self-reported they could have tested him. Maybe they actually did test him. As I understand it, self-reporting prior to a drug test would not nullify the results of a subsequent positive test.

        • Brien Jackson

          Exactly. Confessing alone doesn’t count as a violation by letter of the rule.

        • djw

          Exactly right. There’s no loophole here. Punishments are tied to a process, the testing regime negotiated between labor and owners. Disclosure doesn’t change that.

        • jim, some guy in iowa

          i’d rather eat a doughnut hole than a loophole, but since i introduced the word into the discussion… i wonder: does self-reporting, rather than just failing a test, mitigate punishment?

          • Brien Jackson

            Per the arbitrator’s ruling self-reporting doesn’t constitute a violation at all.

            • jim, some guy in iowa

              i read through all this again and see where the internal train of thought jumped the tracks. thanks

          • djw

            Not according to the contract, at least as far as I know. Certainly not for any organization that has a decent, humane approach to the health and well being of their employees.

            • Pseudonym

              That seems backwards.

              • djw

                Yes, I read that wrong; I turned mitigate into something else.

    • BubbaDave

      At my employer the rule as I understand it* is, “If you self-report and ask for help dealing with your substance abuse problem, we will get you help. If we find out another way (you fail a random drug test, we find controlled substances in your desk or your locker, you get caught with a joint at airport security**) then you will face disciplinary action.” And this is in Texas, the at-williest of at-will employment states. I honestly assumed there was something like the Americans with Disabilities Act involved.

      * This is how it was presented at an office meeting. Two days later two guys were fired after a search of their desks turned up pot. At that point, I figured they were fired not for drugs but for stoooopid.

      ** Actually happened, on a flight home from a business trip. Fortunately the airport was in a blue state, so the employee got a fine and nothing more, but the corporate music still had to be faced.

  • foolishmortal

    That’s sleazy and all, but not quite as low as Chelsea. Back in ’03, Chelsea were in the first flush of their wealth and overpaying for anything that moved, including one Adrian Mutu. He started out well, but it soon became clear that he wasn’t suited to working under the manager. Mutu pops a drugs test, conveniently for Chelsea, and they use this as an excuse to back out of his contract. They then sued him for the (inflated) amount they paid for his transfer fee, and won. The judgment was 17 million euros.

  • Manju

    So mlb can’t force Hamilton into rehab. But what happens if he goes on his own accord? Are the Angels required to put him on the dl, or can they treat him as awol?

    • Brien Jackson

      He gets a decreasing portion of his salary the longer he’s in treatment.

  • shah8

    Something similar to this happened to Josh Freeman vis a vis Schiano in Tampa Bay, with leaks of his status in the drug control regime, etc…

  • LosGatosCA

    So this story is about the flawed, the bad, and the worst.

    The flawed: Hamilton is getting tested 3X a week and he absolutely knows when he did his drugs of choice last. Turning himself in ahead of his next test – no longer than a day away – is more likely a choice to keep his options open, than an act of courage.

    If I’m Hamilton’s agent I’ve drilled it into his head, even if you fall off the wagon, self report IMMEDIATELY because the whole world is going to know within 48 hours anyway. I’ve done that drilling because I WANT TO GET PAID and I need to convince my client he wants to get paid, too.

    The bad or more appropriately the stupid: Signing Josh Hamilton on the downside and with all the baggage.

    The worst: His organization leadership rooting against him to save them from their bad/stupid. It’s classless.

    Impact of this classlessness on next aging free agent offered an overpriced $125M contract by the Angels:

    Absolutely none – if the checks cash.

    However, there’s likely to be an Angels signing risk premium – i.e. 20% extra to cover dealing with tacky people who may want to weasel their way out of the contract. But then again, that weaseling differentiates the Angels from every other MLB team in exactly what way?

    Money talks and nobody walks.

  • rea

    “This column is not a defense of the arbitrator’s ruling. The Angels are right that it was wrong. While the ruling technically adheres to baseball drug law, it goes against the spirit of the discipline required to make that law effective.”–Bill Plaschke

    How can anyone be that stupid? Doesn’t he know what a contract is? What, is the arbitrator supposed to say, “To heck with the contract, I’m going with my gut?”

    • drkrick

      That really jumped out at me, too. “Technically adheres to baseball drug law” equals “Correctly interprets and executes the document”, right?

  • Nichole

    3x per week tests are simply ridiculous. With the accuracy of available tests these days once every two weeks is enough for everything but alcohol which metabolizes too fast for most tests to catch. Alcohol’s likely not counted anyway since it’s legal, although more deadly long term than most used drugs.

    Any organization that has drug rehab programs should be aware that the entire addiction cycle (and it is that) encompasses relapse as well. Thus, my guess is that info from rehab given to the arbitor likely showed that and may well have showed that the rehab expected Hamilton to relapse. Almost everyone does so.

    The rules of sports leagues have nothing to do with the good of the players if they expect 100% abstinence 100% of the time. The instances of such things do occur; they are simply few and far between.

    Such facts have been available to professionals in my field for 20 years. They are now part of “best practices.” The outdated approaches of organizations and fans are simple ignorance. The arbitor perhaps understands rehab more fully than those who employ him, not unusual I expect.

    The probable behavior of the Angels is simply disgusting, regardless their knowledge of addictions.

    • drkrick

      Alcohol’s likely not counted anyway since it’s legal

      Players aren’t routinely tested for alcohol at all. Because of Hamilton’s particular history, he is as a special case. It’s a condition of his continued ability to participate in the business.

      As you noted, sports drug policies are exercises in PR for an often puritanical target market as well as an exercise in keeping Congress off the leagues’ backs and away from their various antitrust exemptions and waivers. Best practices and supporting the players recovery don’t enter into it.

  • RobertL

    Wasn’t this scenario covered fully in that excellent documentary on professional football, “North Dallas Forty”?

    • “Every time we say it’s a game, you say it’s a business. Every time we say it’s a business, you say it’s a game.”

      • mikeSchilling

        “They call it a game because it’s too screwed up to be a business.” — Jim Bouton, Ball Four.

        • LosGatosCA

          Also, too, in the game of life, and death, Catch -22.

  • rhino

    Since laws making the ingestion of drugs are themselves an unconscionable violation of the human rights of people who choose to use drugs, the idea that MLB has a moral right to so much as cough meaningfully in a players direction is disgusting.

    • efgoldman

      the idea that MLB has a moral right to so much as cough meaningfully in a players direction is disgusting

      It’s not a “moral” right, it’s a contractual right. Employers can and do put all kinds of conditions on employment that aren’t necessarily illegal. For instance, it is clearly and explicitly against company policy where I work to participate in a final four bracket pool, on company time and with company computers. It’s not illegal, and I’m free to do it from home, or the library, or wherever.

      • rhino

        And what I am saying is that this particular condition of employment should not be permissible. I would concede that an employer has the right to control employee drug use while at work… But certainly not otherwise.

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