Bend or Break?

Monday morning can be a dispiriting time, wondering where the weekend went, but a new week can also be welcome if the previous week wasn’t one of your best.

That would definitely apply to the Atlanta Braves.

Last week for the Braves was one of the most chastening an MLB team has experienced in recent memory. A well-respected organisation, one year on from moving into a new publicly-funded ballpark and full of optimism with their new youth movement, was exposed as having been breaking rules left, right and centre around the signing of international free agents.

Staff departures have included ex-General Manager John Coppolella effectively being banned for life from working in MLB, they’ve lost 12 of the players that they signed against the rules, and will face penalties in signing amateur players and international free agents until 2021.

Add on the reputational damage to the organisation and Atlanta have been dealt a severe punishment. Few seem to be arguing with it much, but many comments on the saga have included the following sentiment:

Everyone else is doing it too.

Young talent

It’s a familiar argument thrown out by anyone that gets caught, intended to justify their own actions whilst trying to take down others with them.

There’s probably some truth in it too in this case.  The Boston Red Sox lost 5 signings and received a short-term international signing ban in July last year for similar transgressions, getting around the spending limits by various ‘creative’ means.

The difference in the Braves’ case was the scale on which they were operating and how big of an advantage they were therefore gaining in the number and quality of prospects they amassed.

In other words, they didn’t just bend the rules, they broke them.

Of course, where the rules are clearly set out – as they are with international signing budgets – a bend is as good as break, yet in any competitive landscape a certain amount of bending is often both expected and accepted.

Teams will always look for ways to get around rules if it gives them an advantage.  Recruitment of young talent is a particularly ripe area for pushing boundaries as it largely goes on with no publicity.

The same happens in football.  Both Liverpool and Manchester City received fines and academy signing bans this summer due to breaking rules on making illegal approaches for young players.  Stories are legion around teams finding ways to convince families to let their sons join their academies (creating jobs for parents, free accommodation, paying of school fees for other siblings etc), all of which are not allowed.

Teams do it because ‘everyone else does’, or at least they think they do, and if they don’t then they’ll miss out. However every now and then someone pushes the boundaries too far and leaves the authorities with no choice but to act.  That’s what happened to the Braves.

Shohei Ohtani

It’s bad timing for some teams as last week it was announced that a new framework for the transfer of Japanese players to MLB was agreed, with Shohei Otani the latest big talent on the verge of moving to the Majors. There will be a lot of focus on ensuring due process is followed.

His signing bonus will fall within the international pool money rules. The Texas Rangers have the most money in their overall signing pool at $3,535,000, with the Yankees now close behind at $3.5m after building up their pot with a recent trade with the Miami Marlins.

More importantly, 12 teams – including the Dodgers and Astros – are limited to only offering $300k to a player following spending in previous years. Theoretically they have little chance of signing him as they cannot come close to the offers other teams can put forward in financial terms.

However, it’s not unheard of for teams to agree a multi-year contract with a talented young player in the first year or two in the Majors. So what if Otani decided to accept $300k from the Dodgers, citing the well-trodden path of Hideo Nomo, Hiroki Kuroda, Kenta Maeda and others that have ‘made it his dream to play for the Dodgers’, only to then agree a multi-year contract in Spring Training?

It’s fair to say, especially after what’s just happened to the Braves, the MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred would not let such a public workaround slide.

But what if the Dodgers agree a contract in two years’ time, particularly if Ohtani gains ‘Super 2’ status and is eligible for arbitration in his third MLB season? If the two sides agreed to do that as part of signing him now then that’s clearly breaking the rules, yet if it’s a verbal, informal arrangement then how easy would it be to prove? A five-year deal at that point, covering all of his arbitration years and buying out one year of free agency, would be entirely in line with industry practice, provided the dollar values were not too out of kilter with previous cases.

As it’s the Rangers and Yankees at the top of the budget pool list, the odds are good that he’ll go to one of those two teams and that very blatant scenario will not come about, yet even then you wouldn’t be surprised if Ohtani signed a multi-year contract at some point in the next year or two with the Rangers or Yankees.  There’s no difference, it’s really how cynical a move it appears to be.

Whether you’re bending the rules or breaking them.

Hall of Fame

Which brings us to the thorniest of subject matters: Hall of Fame voting and consideration of alleged drug use.

For several years many voters have bemoaned the position they had been put in, not least due to the Hall of Fame’s deafening silence on the topic.

That silence was broken last week by Joe Morgan who emailed all voters, aided by the Hall of Fame, setting out his view that “players who failed drug tests, admitted using steroids, or were identified as users in Major League Baseball’s investigation into steroid abuse, known as the Mitchell Report, should not get in”.

Whether you agree with the view espoused or not, the fact that a high-profile figure like Morgan actually set out a position was welcome, yet in doing so he also highlighted how difficult this issue is.  Morgan stated, “we hope the day never comes when known steroid users are voted into the Hall of Fame. They cheated. Steroid users don’t belong here”.

It’s a worthy moral position to take, but the problem is it’s almost certain steroid users have already been voted in and plenty of other players that “cheated” in different ways are enshrined in Cooperstown too. The latter is where things get increasingly tricky.

Some say there is a big difference between using steroids and shovelling amphetamines (‘greenies’ as they were known in baseball during the 1970s and 1980s) down your throat like Smarties.  In terms of performance-enhancing impact, that’s debatable.  What it comes back to is thinking one is bending the rules, whilst the other is breaking them.

We’ve had a related issue in British sport recently where Shane Sutton, former senior coach at Team Sky and British cycling, discussed the use of therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs). As he explained to the BBC:

“If you’ve got an athlete that’s 95% ready, and that little 5% injury or niggle that’s troubling, if you can get that TUE to get them to 100%, yeah of course you would in those days,” he said.

“The business you’re in is to give you the edge on your opponent… and ultimately at the end of the day it’s about killing them off.

“But definitely don’t cross the line and that’s something we’ve never done.”

“Don’t cross the line” is the important phrase there; bend the rules, but don’t break them.  When he then went on to label this as “finding the gains” he didn’t just make many pick up their dobbers to mark off a square in their Bullshit Bingo card, he also put it all into context.

People will always look at the rules and try to ‘find the gains’ however they can.  Rightly or wrongly, that’s the nature of the beast, whether it’s competing for signing talent in sport or the super-rich using off-shore tax havens.

The most significant difference between breaking the rules rather than bending them is not really a moral one, it’s that – as Atlanta found out – the former makes it difficult to obey the one rule that matters the most.

Don’t get caught.

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