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Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2017 — No. 8: Braves GM banned following international signings scandal

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We’re a few short days away from 2018 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2017. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

On October 1, 2015, longtime Braves employee John Coppolella was promoted to general manager. Two years and one day later, he was fired. In the wake of his dismissal emerged the most serious front office scandal in baseball history. In the wake of the scandal, the most severe sanctions ever leveled on a baseball team.

According to the findings of Major League Baseball following a lengthy investigation, Coppollella, with help from his assistant, Gordon Blakeley, who was also fired, hatched a scheme to bundle signing bonuses to international players in order to circumvent the bonus caps to which teams are subject pursuant to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Coppolella got amateur players — through their representatives in Latin America — to take lower than the amount typically allotted in one year in order to use the money to sign other, highly rated players in subsequent years, with money they wouldn’t have otherwise had. They would likewise inflate the bonuses given to players not subject to the caps — “foreign professionals” — and divert that money to amateurs for whom they did not have sufficient legal cap money.

As a result of this cap circumvention, MLB found that the Braves were able to sign nine high-value players during the 2016-17 signing period who would have been unavailable to them had they accurately accounted for signings during the 2015-16 signing period. Three other players were also found to have been improperly signed. As a result of that, the Braves were forced to give up 12 players in all:

  • Juan Contreras;
  • Yefri del Rosario;
  • Abrahan Gutierrez;
  • Kevin Maitan;
  • Juan Carlos Negret;
  • Yenci Peña;
  • Yunior Severino;
  • Livan Soto;
  • Guillermo Zuniga;
  • Brandol Mezquita;
  • Angel Rojas; and
  • Antonio Sucre

These guys, most of whom were highly-sought-after prospects — are now starting to sign with other teams.

Coppolella, who reportedly would not cooperate with Major League Baseball’s investigation and who has threatened litigation — has been placed on baseball’s permanently ineligible list — the same list Pete Rose is on — banning him from a job in baseball forever. His assistant, Blakeley, was suspended for one year. Other Braves’ international baseball operations employees who participated could still be suspended as the league finishes its investigation.

Beyond that, the Braves received what, in many ways, is an international signing death penalty. Thy will be prohibited from signing any international player for more than $10,000 during the 2019-20 signing period. Their international signing bonus pool for the 2020-21 signing period will likewise be reduced by 50 percent. They are, functionally, out of the blue chip international prospect market for the next four years.

There are a lot of problems with baseball’s international signing pool system, which amounts to a salary cap for international players. It’s also likely that other teams, besides the Braves, were breaking these rules in one way or another. But rules are rules, and Coppolella’s breaking of them was insanely egregious, causing baseball to lower the boom, both to punish the Braves and to send a message to the other 29 teams who may or may not be operating in a shady fashion.

In so doing, Coppolella handicapped the Braves in significant ways for many years to come and, of course, committed professional suicide.

How long do you stay a fan of a team that left town?

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File this under “not a really deep thought, but there isn’t much going on this morning, so why not?”

I was catching up with the latest, and final, season of “The Americans” over the weekend. I will give no spoilers and ask that you do the same, but I want to talk about something that came up in the second episode.

The episode takes place in October 1987 and a character is listening to a Twins playoff game on the radio. He later talks about baseball and the Twins with some other characters. The context is not important, but the guy — probably in his mid-late 40s, living in the Washington D.C. area — makes a point to say that he has been a Twins fan since the beginning, and then says he was, in fact, a fan of the franchise back when they were still the Washington Senators.

In case you are unaware, the original Washington Senators moved to Minnesota following the 1960 season and became the Twins. At the same time an expansion team, also called the Senators, was placed in D.C. to replace them. That franchise would stay in D.C. for 11 seasons before moving to Texas in 1972 to become the Rangers.

In light if that, am I the only one who has a hard time buying that such a man actually existed? How would the character, who was a kid when the original Senators moved, be a Twins fan some 26 years later?

There were relatively few televised baseball games back then. Just a game of the week and some out of town coverage of local teams. There was obviously no internet. Outside of the 1965 World Series, it’d be a shock if more than a couple of Twins games were broadcast to the D.C. area during the rest of the guy’s childhood. Maybe he kept up with the Senators players like Harmon Killebrew and Bob Allison via box scores, baseball cards and The Sporting News, but I couldn’t imagine a D.C. guy raised on the Senators keeping up with the Twins through the 1970s and 1980s. Would he not become a new Senators fan or, eventually, a Rangers fan? Maybe, like so many people on the D.C. area, he picked up the Orioles as his team due to their 1960s-70s dominance? Any number of things could happen, but I’m struggling to imagine the existence of a Senators guy who becomes a hardcore Twins fans up to and including 1987.

All of that got me thinking about other relocated teams.

The Dodgers are the most famous example, of course, with the narrative being that Dodgers fans in Brooklyn felt betrayed by Walter O’Malley and thus turned their back on the club, later adopting the Mets as their rooting interest. The betrayal narrative is less pronounced with the Giants, but that’s the same general story with them too. I mean, there’s a reason the Mets picked orange and blue as their colors. They wanted to, and largely did, co-opt the old NL New York fans.

I’m sure a lot more Dodgers and Giants fans continued to follow their teams in California than would let on, given that many of the same players starred out there in the ensuing years, but that likely died out as those players retired. Bob Aspromonte was the last Brooklyn Dodger to play in the bigs, retiring after the 1971 season. Willie Mays played through 1973. I assume NL fans in New York kept some nice thoughts for them — particularly because the Mets picked both of them up for the tail end of their careers — but I can’t see those guys rooting for, say, Steve Garvey and John Montefusco in 1979.

Others:

  • There likely aren’t many St. Louis Browns fans left — they last played in Missouri 65 years ago — but even if the ones they had in 1953 felt like rooting for the Cardinals was impossible, I bet most of their kids and grandkids became Cards fans;
  • The A’s fans in Philly — and later Kansas City — probably have a similar story. I mean, there’s a reason that franchise skipped town twice, so to expect undying love over the decades, with the Phillies and Royals around, is a bit much. The Philadelphia A’s glory years were like 90s years ago now anyway, and all of those fans are dead. The A’s modern glory years have all come in Oakland. No one in Philadelphia or Kansas City is looking to the California with an aching in their heart;
  • I could imagine someone’s grandfather in Milwaukee still thinking that the Braves are his team, but not many other people. The Braves won a World Series and two pennants in Milwaukee, but that was an awful long time ago and they moved to Atlanta before the A’s moved to Oakland. Don’t even get me started about Boston Braves fans. They all have to either be dead or have long since moved on. Following a team to a new city is a big ask, but following them to two new cities over 66 years seems pathological. UPDATE: OK, there are some pathological people out there.
  • I have some Nationals fan friends and they tell me that there is a small, weird contingent of Expos fans who root for Washington now. I get that since it wasn’t terribly long ago, but was Brad Wilkerson really a good enough reason to carry a torch? I’d like to talk to some of those people and ask them about their value system;
  • The only other team to move was the Seattle Pilots. They played one season in Seattle and no one would remember that if it wasn’t for Jim Bouton’s book, “Ball Four.” If you find someone claiming to be a Pilots fan in Seattle, you’ve found yourself a hipster peddling revisionist b.s.

Anyway, that’s a lot of words wasted on a couple of lines from a TV show, but as always, your thoughts are appreciated.