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The Cleveland Indians, Louis Sockalexis, and The Name

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When I was a kid growing up in Cleveland, I believed — completely, wholeheartedly, without reservation or pause — that the Cleveland Indians were named to honor a Native American ballplayer named Louis Sockalexis, who played for Cleveland in the late 19th Century.

When I became an adult and a sportswriter, I believed — completely, wholeheartedly, without reservation or pause — that the Sockalexis story was entirely untrue, a bit of state-funded propaganda to conceal the obvious fact the Cleveland team was named the Indians only to capitalize on the many racist cliches that could be used to promote the team. It had nothing at all to do with Sockalexis.

If there is one thing I have learned in my life, it is this:

Things are always more complicated than you think.

* * *

Louis Francis Sockalexis was born on the Penobscot Indian Reservation in Maine in 1871. He was, by all accounts, an extraordinary young athlete. Sockalexis lived such an outsized life that, from the start, it was very difficult to separate myth from reality, legend from achievement, flaws from tragic flaws. We can start off with what we know. From a very young age, Sockalexis showed extraordinary speed, great strength, and more than anything else, an arm unlike anything anyone had ever seen. Stories survive of a young Sockalexis throwing a ball across the Penobscot River — a throw of 600 or so feet — into his father’s waiting arms.

This could be one of the many exaggerated legends of Sockalexis — there are countless exaggerations in his story — but this one also could be true. There are many confirmed reports of Sockalexis’ great arm, my favorite being a throw he made against Harvard when he was playing centerfield for Holy Cross. He reportedly went back to the wall, leaped, caught the ball, and in one motion threw the ball home on a fly to throw out a tagging runner. This one was so jaw-dropping that, according to Ed Rice’s informative Baseball’s First Indian, it was called the “Lighting Throw” and two Harvard professors rushed on the field after the game to measure it. They came up with a measurement of 414 feet, which was some sort of world record.

There can be no doubt that Sockalexis had an arm for the ages.

The rest of his game was dazzling as well, at least when he was young. He was brilliantly fast and hit with power. He was a football star and a track star too. His second cousin, Andrew Sockalexis, was a marathoner of some renown. One of the more famous sportswriters of the age, Harry Grayson, became convinced that writer Gilbert Patten (under the pseudonym Burt L. Standish) invented a superhero sports character named Frank Merriwell with Sockalexis in mind. Frank Merriwell went to Yale, played every sport brilliantly and solved mysteries on the side. He was one of the most famous fictional characters of his day (the writer Calvin Trillin went to Yale, in part, because of his father’s admiration of the Merriwell character). Grayson found proof that Patten, who also lived in Maine, had managed a game against Sockalexis. Whether this is conclusive evidence of Sockalexis being the model for Merriwell or not, Grayson believed it and wrote it often.

Grayson is, in fact, the person most responsible for bringing Sockalexis back into the American consciousness some thirty years after he died. Grayson wrote at length about Sockalexis in newspapers across the country and even included him in the 1944 book “They played the game: The story of baseball greats.” In “They played the game,” Grayson wrote that Sockalexis was faster than Cobb, more powerful than Ruth and was a better outfielder than Tris Speaker. He quoted John McGraw saying that Sockalexis could have been better than Cobb, Wagner or Ruth. He quoted Hughie Jennings saying “He should have been the greatest player of all time.”

There are other quotes about Sockalexis not included in the book, like this famous one from Hall of Fame general manager Ed Barrow: “Sockalexis was the greatest outfielder in history, the best hitter, the best thrower, the best fielder, and also the best drinker.”

Alas, it is the last of these that defined Louis Sockalexis in his time.

* * *

With Sockalexis, myth and reality swirled together into an often indistinguishable fog. We have the record. In 1897, Sockalexis joined the Cleveland Spiders. There is some debate if he was actually the first Native American to play in the big leagues, but there is no doubt that he was the first acknowledged Native American. That is to say that there may have been a player before him who had Native American blood, but Sockalexis was the first to be known as an Indian, the first to endure being called a “noble savage” and “redskin” and “red man” and “educated Indian” in the papers.

“The man who said that there are no good Indians but dead Indians or words to that effect,” wrote an author in The Sporting Life in an allegedly POSITIVE story, “surely never saw Louis Sockalexis.”

Or there is this — a recounting of an exchange between Washington third baseman Charles Reilly and Cleveland’s future Hall of Famer Jesse Burkett. Understand it was Burkett — while coaching at Holy Cross — who helped convince Sockalexis to join the Cleveland team. Reilly, in an effort to bust Burkett’s chops, asked if Sockalexis was ever ordered to sacrifice bunt.

“Don’t ask me about that bead peddler,” Burkett said. “He’s a Jonah. I haven’t hit over .100 since he joined the team … Wait till I strike my gait and I will make him go back to the woods and look for a few scalps.”

Yes, well, the coverage was like that. There was hardly a mention of Sockalexis that did not include some reference to collecting scalps or wampum or General Custer or, in later coverage, firewater. War whoops followed him everywhere. The favorable stories usually involved some sort of bizarre Indian tale. One story that kept getting repeated was that his father wanted him to give up baseball and fulfill his duty as Chief of the Penobscot tribe. The tribe no longer had “Chiefs” as such, but that was but a small detail in this involved story. Supposedly, Sockalexis’ father went on a long journey via canoe, to find the President of the United States and ask him to forbid his son from playing baseball. Yeah.

The story even has an ending, with President Grover Cleveland telling Sockalexis Sr.: “I am sorry Chief, but I am unable to help you. I do not have the authority to order your son not to play baseball. Even if I did, it would be wrong of me to issue such an order.”

That’s the sort of coverage Louis Sockalexis got in 1897.

“Sockalexis was no better and no worse than his people,” wrote one syndicated writer. “He made a spectacle of himself. The white man laughed at him and then kicked him aside. With the quickness gone from his brain and the fleetness from his limbs, Sockalexis was only one more drunk Indian.”

That’s the sort of coverage Louis Sockalexis got in 1898.

Here is what the record shows: Sockalexis hit .338 in 66 games with Cleveland in 1897 and was something of a phenomenon. He did commit 16 errors, however, many late in the season, and he reportedly showed up for games drunk. He hit just .224 in 22 games his second season. His third season, he had deteriorated so much and had so much trouble staying sober that Cleveland released him — a fate made worse by the fact that the 1899 Cleveland Spiders were the worst team in baseball history. He wasn’t even good enough or reliable enough by then to play for a team that went 20-134.

* * *

In 1973 and again in 1990, Sports Illustrated wrote stories about Sockalexis. In both stories, SI wrote that Sockalexis had his first drink in an after-game celebration while playing with Cleveland. He had hit a grand slam and he made a spectacular game-saving catch. And then came his downfall.

Sports Illustrated in 1973: “Exulting Cleveland fans flooding the field, sweeping Sock up and carrying him off on their shoulders. They took him to the local taproom to celebrate, coaxing until he gave in and accepted his first drink. And that was the beginning of the end.”

Sports Illustrated in 1995: “Then in storybook fashion, Sockalexis made a game-saving catch. Afterward, teammates carried him off the field and demanded that he lead them in a drinking fest to celebrate the victory. Sockalexis had never taste alcohol before, but as the months went by he fell under its spell.”

The idea that Louis Sockalexis had his first drink while playing for the Cleveland team on its face is dubious. As it turns out, it’s also verifiably wrong. It was another one of those folk stories that had somehow clanked down through the years like that chip in the “Price is Right” game of Plinko. Not only had Sockalexis tasted alcohol before that night in Cleveland, he was arrested and thrown out of Notre Dame after a drunken episode in a bar before he even signed with Cleveland. Here is a somewhat rough account from sportswriter Dave Lewis in the Long Beach Independent in 1954:

“A gay evening, though, was destined to wind up in violence when the Indian and his friend virtually wrecked a saloon before police arrived … The gendarmes tried to quiet Sockalexis but only succeeded in annoying him. In fact he finally became so provoked that he flattened two of them before being overpowered and dragged to the bastille. He was promptly expelled from school and a few days later reported to Cleveland.”

It seems likely that Sockalexis was drinking while at Holy Cross too before Notre Dame, and perhaps before then. The story that he had his first drink after being the hero is poetry … people have long tried to attach poetry to the story of Louis Sockalexis. But if we are to look at his role in the naming of the Cleveland Indians, we must look at him soberly. He was an extraordinarily talented and haunted player. He dealt with impossible expectations and terrifying racism. He was a hero, in his own way.

But he also was an alcoholic when he joined the Cleveland baseball team and despite what appears to be many honest efforts to kick the habit he could not. His alcoholism was utterly destructive. And so Sockalexis was not viewed as a hero in his time but, mostly, as a waste of talent and, sadly, in the words of one writer, “a man of his people.”

The Sandusky Star (May 18, 1899): “In the Cleveland police court Wednesday, Sockalexis, the half-breed ballplayer, was fined $1 and costs. He was arrested Tuesday night in an intoxicated condition while creating a disturbance at the Lyceum theater. Judge Fielder lectured “Sox,” telling him that he should stop the use of liquor, that it was affecting him physically. The Indian hung his head and below his breath murmured that he would not drink any more.”

The Dubuque Herald (May 21, 1899): “The once famous Indian Sockalexis, who made such a furor in baseball all over the country, has had his last chance. He was arrested for intoxication, Tuesday night, and the judge failed to recognize his pleadings for release. It needed no pleading with Manager Cross, however, and the Indian was released at once.”

And then there was this surprisingly long and irrepressibly sad item in St. Louis Republic under the headline “Poor Old Socks” and the subhead “Fire Water was the Indian’s Downfall:”

“That unfortunate son of the forest, that white Penobscot who played a brief but star engagement with our club in 1897, the Indian Sockalexis is a wreck in every way,” said one of the St. Louis players today. “Socks” was a tremendous drawing card in 1897. Thousands of people came to see not the game but the Indian. In New York and other places where we used to dress at the grounds, a fearful crowd would press about the rooms to see the aborigine come forth.

His picture was in every paper in America, his arms, his legs, his batting eye, every part of him was photographed and reproduced. Poor old Lo, he never got a bit swelled, but he has lots of of friends who wanted to buy for him and he was good enough to let them do it. Result soon came and “Socks” had to quit the game. He was a true Indian.

When he got the red man’s burden on he always was ashamed. He would come into the hotel slinking behind doors and pillars like his great ancestors slunk behind trees. From his ambush he would peep to see if (manager Patsy) Tebeau was around.

“Socks” is now in Cleveland for want of a better place. He hangs out with a gang of waiters who work at restaurants and saloons. The gang is divided into three crews, one for each meal. Each gang steals grub and fetches it to “Socks.” He has a place to sleep and for all this he pays by rushing the growler. He was around in the coldest days of last winter without shoes or clothes. He bore the frigid weather with true barbaric stoicism.

Yet if this poor savage had only been born without the Indian’s love for strong water, he would today be drawing a salary of $2,400 for five months work of three hours each day. But the Indian was strong in him and he is past redemption. Socks was sure death on a straight high ball and was quite a thrower, but he had some grave shortcomings in the field. Withal, he was good to draw as big a salary as any man in the league had he behaved himself.

After he was released by Cleveland, several papers suggested he could still be a “freak sideshow” for some independent league teams. He did do that for a while. He worked other jobs as well.

Sockalexis died on December 24, 1913 of a heart attack. He was 42 years old.

* * *

Now to the part about how the Cleveland Indians were named — we go back to Sports Illustrated in 1995: “When a new owner took over in 1915, a local newspaper ran a team-naming contest. The fan who had come up with the name said it would be a lasting tribute to Sockalexis.”

This was the story as it had been told for relentlessly for about 50 years. The story seems to originate with a man named Franklin Lewis, who wrote a history called “The Cleveland Indians” in 1948. In it there is a nonspecific one-paragraph reference to Sockalexis and how the team was named:

“There is a story, still heard frequently, that the Indians were named after a real Indian known as Sockalexis, a wild slugger who joined the National League Spiders in 1897. Sock was strong and fast, and there was fire in every movement. But there was fire in his throat too, and it needed extinguishing. Between remedies for this and the discovery by enemy pitchers that left-handers who threw curves could baffle the redskin, Sock enjoyed a rapid demise as a big leaguer.”

This story — and you will note that even Lewis refers to it as a “story” — was cleaned up and recast and pushed relentlessly by writers and, especially, the team (especially as Native Americans and others began to challenge the rightness of using names like Indians or, even more, mascots like the red-faced Chief Wahoo). In 1967, for instance, the Sockalexis story made it into Chase Morsey Jr.’s popular syndicated “Sports fans! I bet you didn’t know” column.

“Ever wonder how different sports teams got their nicknames? Well, today let’s take the case of the Cleveland Indians … Back in the early days, Cleveland’s nickname was the ‘Spiders’ … Nobody liked that name too well, and when Nap Lajoie took over the team shortly after that, they were called the ‘Naps.’ … Then Lajoie was replaced by Jim McGuire and the team was called the ‘Molly McGuires’ … When McGuire left a new name had to be found … Someone remembered that some years back Cleveland had a player named Louis (Chief) Sockalexis … Sockalexis was a full-blooded Indian, and was, in fact, the first Indian ever to play big league baseball. … And so the name ‘Indians’ was selected to honor Chief Sockalexis and it’s been ‘Indians’ every since.”

OK. Well, let’s get through the inaccuracies. Cleveland baseball had a long and mostly losing battle with team nicknames before 1915. They had been the Infants, the Spiders, the Bronchos, the Blues and unofficially they had been the Exiles, the Castoffs, the Misfits, the Molly McGuires (for a brief time in 1910) and countless other names. I had no idea until I went back and looked how much people HATED the nickname Spiders, which I always thought was kind of cool. The nickname confusion got so bad that in 1903, a Cleveland newspaper actually DID have a contest to name the team and the choices were so uninspiring and uninteresting (Cyclops? Excelsiors? Gladiators? Thistles?) that they finally voted on just naming the team after Cleveland’s best player, Napoleon Lajoie. That’s how they became the Cleveland Naps.

Well in 1914, the Naps were horrendous .. and Lajoie was sold. A new name was needed. But, contrary to the story told so often, there was no team-naming contest this time. Papers did solicit ideas from fans, but team owner Charles Somers put together a group of Cleveland sportswriters from the four papers and told them to come up with a name. They are the ones who chose the Cleveland Indians and there is no indication that they chose a name entered by a fan. No, they chose Indians for their own reasons.

And what were those reasons?

This was the cartoon that ran in the Cleveland Plain Dealer the next day:

wpid-oldpd01-2014-03-18-13-19.jpg

Um, yeah. Here you can see pretty clearly why the Indians were named. One: A year earlier, the Boston Braves had a miraculous season — coming from last place on July 4 to win the pennant — and so Native American names were in. Two: It was a glorious opportunity for HI-larious Native American jokes and race-specific cliches and insults that fit well in headlines. For instance, there was this one-liner in the Muskogee paper:

“If we were an Apache, we’d sue the Cleveland club for libel for naming that team Indians.”

You will notice there is no mention in this cartoon of Louis Sockalexis, nor was there in any of the national stories about the name change. In fact, in my national search of more than 300 national newspapers, I could not find a single mention of Louis Sockalexis in the entire year of 1915.

The story I grew up hearing — that the Cleveland Indians were named to honor Louis Sockalexis — is certainly untrue.

So that dispatches one myth. Unfortunately, it creates another.

* * *

As a sportswriter I came to believe — and have written on more than one occasion — that the name Cleveland Indians had nothing whatsoever to do with Louis Sockalexis. Many, many others have written that as well. While for years it was accepted the the team was named for Sockalexis we now seem to have come to the conclusion that Sockalexis had nothing to do with it.

But we have to get back to the original thesis here; Everything is more complicated than you think.

In 1897, when Louis Sockalexis joined the Cleveland team, they were in desperate need of something exciting. The team had been alternately terrible and almost good enough, the worst cycle in sports. The Spiders had never won a pennant, and they could not draw anybody to ballgames. It seems semi-pro baseball in Cleveland was way more popular that the Spiders.

So, when Sockalexis joined the team in 1897, there WAS legitimate excitement. The stories of his baseball exploits were known everywhere. The curiosity of seeing a Native American athlete play ball was overwhelming. And people began calling the team in 1897, yes, the Indians. In his honor.

“There is no feature of the signing of Sockalexis,” wrote The Sporting Life, “more gratifying than the fact that his presence on the team will result in relegating to obscurity the title of ‘Spiders’ by which the team has been handicapped for several seasons, to give place to the more significant name, ‘Indians.’ And repeatedly that season — and periodically over the next few years — the Cleveland team was referred to as “Indians” in headlines and stories.

The fact that the 1897 Cleveland team was often called “Indians” was not directly the reason the team was officially named Indians in 1915. But it was part of the decision-making process. “(The name) recalls the old fighting days of the early American League period,” wrote the Boston Daily Globe, “when the Cleveland players of those days were often referred to as the ‘Indians.’”

And so the story I came to believe — that the whole Sockalexis naming thing was a fraud — is also untrue. The indians name does have something to do with him.

* * *

It is perfectly clear in the year 2014 how different people feel about the Washington Redskins nickname or the Chief Wahoo logo. Trenches have been dug, camps have been formed, it’s unlikely that there are any undecided voters left. I’m on record. As a lifelong Cleveland Indians fan I still think Wahoo is racist and offensive and should be dumped in the nearest bin. As a lifelong football fan who loves the history of the game, I still find it almost impossible to believe we still call a team “Redskins.”

But many others disagree — and I mean they VIRULENTLY disagree — and my point here is not to start the fight again.

As a child, I believed the Cleveland Indians were named for a great player named Sockalexis. As a grown man, I believed the Cleveland Indians were not named for a underachieving player named Sockalexis. Now I believe that the truth is somewhere in the silence between the notes. And, whatever the original reason for the name, I just spent days learning about and admiring a fairly obscure Native American baseball player who triumphed and suffered and lived and died more than 100 years ago. I don’t believe the Indians were named to honor Louis Sockalexis, not exactly. But I do believe the Indians name could honor him. That choice is ours.

People are getting hysterical over Dee Gordon’s positive test

FILE - This April 3, 1972 file photo shows Marvin Miller, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, talking to reporters in New York. Miller, the union leader who created free agency for baseball players and revolutionized professional sports with multimillion dollar contracts, died Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012 in New York. He was 95. (AP Photo/File)
Associated Press
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A dude testing positive for PEDs and getting suspended for 80 games should, actually, be taken as a sign that the system, however imperfect, still largely works. But the world of baseball can’t stop to acknowledge that. No, this is apparently a crisis. A crisis so dire that decades of labor developments apparently need to be scuttled.

That’s the message I’m getting from some folks in baseball media, anyway. Take this for example:

There’s a LOT going on there. For one thing, a casual dismissal of just how massively significant the concept of the guaranteed contract is in baseball. Marvin Miller is always cited as the man who brought the players free agency, but free agency would not have been valuable at all if teams could just void contracts. Just look at how the NFL and its phony salary numbers work. Miller and the MLBPA worked insanely hard to put that system in place and it’s insanely valuable to union membership. It’s not hyperbole to say that any movement on the part of the union to compromise the notion of guaranteed contracts would represent a complete and total repudiation of decades of its own work, and suggesting that it do so because we still get 5-7 PED suspensions a year is preposterous.

Then look at the word “option” there. Abraham wouldn’t have contracts be automatically voided. He’d only have them be voided at the option of an owner. This would give teams tremendous power to get out of bad deals and would give them no risk with respect to PED guys who happen to be on team friendly deals. If contracts were automatically void, underpaid players like Madison Bumgarner would have MASSIVE incentives to use PEDs. If they were merely voidable at the whim of the owner, the owners would have incentives with respect to drug testing other than making the game a clean one.

Finally, note how Abraham puts this all on the MLBPA. He’s not alone in this, as Buster Olney has been tweeting and writing all morning about what the union should and should not be doing to solve this problem. Obviously the union has a huge role as its players are the ones taking drugs, but to suggest that the union be the police force here and that it’s wholly incumbent upon it to solve this problem is silly.

For one thing, as I noted earlier today, a union’s purpose is to protect its members, not police them. To demand that they police them, to the point of undercutting some of their most important protections due to a disciplinary matter, is to turn the concept of a union on its head.

For another thing, as we learned throughout the height of the PED Era, ownership is not totally innocent when it comes to the permeation of PEDs in the game. The people who run baseball play a huge role in shaping the incentive structure of the game which causes some players to cheat. They are thus just as invested in and in just as good a position to help solve the problem at hand as the players are. They cannot, as these reporters would have them, sit back and demand that the MLBPA disembowel itself in order to eliminate PEDs from the game. It has to be a joint effort. Indeed, the drug rules in baseball have the word “JOINT” in the very title. It ain’t a Cheech and Chong reference, I can tell you that.

All of this reveals a certain hysteria that has always permeated the PED discussion in baseball coming to the fore once again. While they once ruled the game, PEDs are a relatively small problem now, comparatively speaking (note: neither Abraham nor Olney bother to establish that they’re actually a big problem or that things are getting worse; they merely assert it and assume it). A problem which, like drugs and cheating in every other walk of life, cannot be wholly eliminated and should not be ignored, but which can be and generally is effectively managed.

Yet here we are with two of the more influential voices in the game — and many others I’ve seen already today but didn’t bother to link here — pushing the panic button and demanding the ridiculous with no basis whatsoever. What is it about this subject, in this sport only, of course, that makes people lose their frickin’ minds?

Marlins’ Dee Gordon says he unknowingly took PEDs

Miami Marlins' Dee Gordon looks into his dugout after reaching third on a double by teammate Marcell Ozuna during the third inning of an exhibition spring training baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals Thursday, March 3, 2016, in Jupiter, Fla. The Cardinals won 4-3. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
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MIAMI (AP) Reigning NL batting champion Dee Gordon of the Miami Marlins says he unknowingly took the performance-enhancing drugs that led to his 80-game suspension, but he’ll accept the penalty.

The announcement of the suspension by Major League Baseball came shortly after the Marlins’ victory at Los Angeles on Thursday night. MLB said Gordon tested positive for exogenous testosterone and clostebol.

“Though I did not do so knowingly, I have been informed that test results showed I ingested something that contained prohibited substances,” Gordon said in a statement released Friday by the players union. “The hardest part about this is feeling that I have let down my teammates, the organization, and the fans. I have been careful to avoid products that could contain something banned by MLB and the 20-plus tests that I have taken and passed throughout my career prove this.

“I made a mistake and I accept the consequences.”

The 28-year-old Gordon led the majors in hits and stolen bases last year. He batted .333, became an All-Star for the second time and won a Gold Glove at second base.

The big season helped him earn a $50 million, five-year contract he signed in January.

He and Marlins manager Don Mattingly were together with the Dodgers for four years, but Gordon didn’t become a regular in Los Angeles until 2014. Gordon was traded to Miami in a seven-player deal in December 2014, and Mattingly became the Marlins’ manager this season.

“Dee is always a guy we felt could play, but at that point he was 145 pounds soaking wet,” Mattingly said during spring training. “Now he has turned into a man. He has put some physical strength on him, and he’s a different player.”

Following the suspension announcement, Mattingly said the Marlins will continue to support Gordon.

“I feel like Dee’s one of my kids, to be honest with you, because I’ve known him so long,” Mattingly said.

Shortly before the penalty was announced, Gordon hit an RBI single in the seventh inning and scored after forcing a balk as the Marlins rallied for a 5-3 win and a four-game sweep over Los Angeles.

Gordon became the seventh player to be suspended this year under the MLB drug plan. Last week, Toronto slugger Chris Colabello was penalized 80 games after testing positive for a PED.

Miami President David Samson said the Marlins “completely support the drug prevention program in every way.”

“Dee Gordon is a very important part of our team, and we all love him and support him,” Samson said. “That said, I don’t like or condone what he did.

“He will be back 80 games from now, and he will be welcomed back to this organization,” he added. “But in the interim period, we expect him, and we are positive that he will do everything that’s necessary to make it up to his fans, to his teammates and to this organization.”

The speedy Gordon is the son of former All-Star pitcher Tom Gordon.

The MLBPA continues to shoot itself in the foot regarding PEDs

Tony Clark
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Most players are adamantly anti-PEDs now. Unlike their complicit or passive predecessors, today’s players don’t, for the most part, accept PEDs as just part of the game. They’re competitors and they see PED use as their competition cheating. They consider these guys to be taking money and service time away from other players. They are legitimately angry about it. And they should be.

But the manner in which they have expressed that anger — publicly, emotionally or by being quoted at length by baseball’s top writer calling for draconian punishments — is neither the best way to address their concerns about PED use in the game nor is it in their best interests in a larger sense. Indeed, it undermines their interests and sets them up to be taken advantage of by the owners both with respect to PEDs and other matters which affect their lives and their livelihoods.

PED rules and every other rule which affect the circumstances of baseball players are the subject of collective bargaining. It’s union stuff, negotiated with ownership. And it’s a zero sum game. You make a concession, you get something in return. If you give up something for nothing, you get nothing. It’s like any other sort of negotiation. If you cease to treat it as one, you lose your leverage to get what you want. You get no points whatsoever for your personal virtue, your public position and what people not party to the negotiation think of you. Players loudly and publicly proclaiming their desire for the harshest possible PED penalties are like a man in midlife crisis walking into a Porsche dealership wearing a shirt that says “I will not leave here without a red 718 Boxter.”

Ownership knows that the players will agree to anything and will even put the anything on the table themselves. And they’ll take maximal advantage of the players. For example, maybe the players are in favor of a contract-voiding provision in the narrow case of PED use. Maybe they see it as something confined solely to drug situations. The owners could jump at that knowing full well that, for the first time, the union has caved some on the critical concept of guaranteed contracts in baseball and will use that as a basis to make further inroads later. Maybe the players want to suspend players pending their drug test appeal. The owners will nod and privately acknowledge that players will, in the right cases, negotiate away their due process protections. Once a party caves on something, even if it’s a broad concept, it’s extraordinarily difficult for them to later present a credible defense to that concept or to claim that it is sacrosanct.

At the same time, maybe there are things the players can actually GAIN if they’re more guarded in their approach. Many acknowledge that PED use is, at least in part, a function of players trying to keep their bodies together over the long grind of the baseball season. Meanwhile, players would love more off-days and changes to the schedule. Why not link these issues and, in exchange for some harsher penalties, force the owners to give them some schedule relief? Why not get something they want and need in exchange for giving something up? It’s an ideal situation for a party to a negotiation and it’s a situation lost if one spends months before the negotiation making it clear that they’ll freely give away something that would otherwise have to be paid for.

None of which is to say that the players cannot or should not try to get exactly what they want, up to and including, I dunno, an instant death penalty for PED users if they feel it’s necessary. It’s to say that, to get that, they have to be unified. They have to agree on a strategy to get what they want and execute it the same way every other strategy is executed in these situations. There is no negotiating strategy that has ever been helped by loudly signaling to your adversary what it is you’re trying to accomplish. Being guarded about what it is you value and how you value it in the context of a negotiation does not mean that you don’t value it. Demanding that the owners compensate you for an increased PED sanction does not mean that you’re pro-PEDs.

I look at Justin Verlander‘s public comments and the comments of other players who are angry at PED users and I understand where that anger comes from. But I also know that, if Marvin Miller or Don Fehr were running the union today, those comments would be made in communications with union leadership and fellow players for the purposes of developing a strategy, not in public for the purposes of venting anger. They would form the basis of a consensus with which a unified MLBPA could approach ownership in a way best calculated to accomplish the players’ goals. As I put it rather crudely on Twitter this morning, if players in Miller and Fehr’s day spoke publicly in a way that undermined the MLBPA’s negotiation leverage, they’d end up in body bags.

This morning I wonder what Tony Clark is doing to address the legitimate anger of players like Justin Verlander. Does he have their confidence that he can accomplish what they want to accomplish with respect to harsher PED penalties? Are their public comments actually frustration by players at what they perceive to be a union which doesn’t value their concerns? Or, alternatively, are the players simply not as invested in the sort of unanimity of voice that all unions require to be successful? And if so, why not? Is it because they’re complacent or has MLBPA leadership simply not done as good a job explaining to them the real consequences of a failure of solidarity?

Dee Gordon‘s suspension is not, in and of itself, a big deal. But it could have some big repercussions. The MLBPA and its membership had best be on the same page, publicly and privately, if they want to ride out the repercussions and shape their future in a way that best serves their interests. As opposed to the interests of ownership which, in the context of the CBA, is their adversary, even if their interests often coincide.

Dee Gordon’s suspension is likely to lead to a call for harsher PED penalties

Miami Marlins' Dee Gordon celebrates after hitting a double against the Detroit Tigers in the ninth inning of a baseball game Tuesday, April 5, 2016, in Miami. Derek Dietrich scored on the double. The Tigers won 8-7. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
Associated Press
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Objectively speaking there is no difference between Dee Gordon’s suspension for PEDs and anyone else’s. Abraham Almonte, for example. Or Cameron Maybin. Or David Rollins. All were guys who got their 80 games, served their time, came back and whose cases didn’t raise too much of a fuss. But Gordon’s suspension will almost certainly be talked about longer and more loudly and will likely lead to calls for harsher penalties and changes to the PED suspension rules.

Part of it is simply fame. He’s a pretty big name as far as these things go. The biggest since the Biogenesis guys a couple of years ago. He won the batting title last year. He’s the son of a famous major leaguer. There is a direct correlation between the volume and intensity of the narratives applied to one’s story and the fame of the subject of the story. For that reason alone Gordon’s story will last longer and loom larger.

Another reason — a bigger reason, I think — is timing. Gordon was seen by many to have had a breakout season in 2015 and, when it was over, he was rewarded for it with a nice five-year $50 million deal. The narrative will arise by, oh, 9AM today, that the suspension was “worth it” for Gordon and that he cashed in because of it, rendering his suspension a mere slap on the wrist. This is especially true given that his deal is severely backloaded. He’ll lose less than $2 million in salary in 2016 while collecting the other $48 million-plus. Totally worth it!

I understand why people will say that, but such a stance has some serious flaws. Among them:

  • It assumes that we or anyone else knows when Gordon began to take PEDs;
  • It assumes that we or anyone else knows how, in fact, Gordon’s performance was actually enhanced;
  • It forgets that lots and lots of people were talking about how Gordon’s “breakout season” was actually 2014, not 2015, rendering that whole “he juiced and then got his money” argument fairly problematic.

Those points will likely be ignored as arguments in favor of harsher penalties grow louder. Ken Rosenthal reminds us this morning that some have called for some form of contract voiding or clawing back of more money than just the salary earned while on suspension. Those calls too will likely grow louder. There will also be calls for changes in the appeal process. Like this one, which came moments after Gordon’s suspension was announced:

When you have an actual union member angrily call for the repeal of a collectively-bargained protection in punishment situations, you’re sort of through the looking glass. Or past a tipping point. Or something. You’re certainly in a world where the usual dynamics between employer and employee are not operative and, as a result, changes are inevitable. As we noted recently, players today are perhaps more adamantly anti-PED than the owners and the league are. They’re competitors reacting to cheating by their competition. The fuel for stronger penalties is likely to come more from them than anyone.

The union and the league will be negotiating a new Collective Bargaining Agreement this year. Performance enhancing drugs and their penalties will be a part of that. Expect harsher penalties and possibly different sorts of rules altogether. Expect Dee Gordon to be the poster child for these changes, even if his case is no different in form than that of Abraham Almonte, Cameron Maybin, or David Rollins. Expect emotion, rather than logic, to lead the coming debate.