The lesson to take away from Yasiel Puig’s benching

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As Ken Rosenthal notes in his excellent column on the matter this morning, Yasiel Puig’s mid-game benching yesterday was the result of him not breaking up a double play when most players would, making some showy catches and for loafing it out to the field at the end of an inning.  Rosenthal also notes that manager Don Mattingly’s handling of the situation — and Puig’s accepting responsibility for it after the game — was quite good.

Can’t disagree with any of that. I will make an observation in the wake of one of Rosenthal’s comments, however:

A number of statistical analysts howled last week at the notion of benching Puig, noting that his various mistakes paled in importance to his overall contribution.

I can’t speak for anyone besides me, but to the extent I took issue with the bench-Puig stuff last week it wasn’t in terms of how Mattingly was going about his business or even the need to do something to reign in Puig’s alleged excesses.  The Dodgers are Don Mattingly’s team and he knows it best. If a player is in need of some discipline it is the manager’s decision. Both the fine and/or benching which happened in Miami last week and pulling him out of yesterday’s game was A-OK with me.

Where I did (and still do) take issue is with the reaction to all of this by many in the media who are acting as if Puig is some special case or if a player ruffling feathers is something new and scandalous. Players are benched or disciplined multiple times a year for such things. Sometimes it’s even established veterans like Jimmy Rollins who had his own little issue with this sort of thing a year ago tomorrow.

That isn’t to say it isn’t newsworthy. Puig is an exciting and important player so if he does have a run-in with his manager it is certainly news. But what it is not is an occasion to make it a referendum on his very character or to describe it as “Berzerk-O” behavior that puts the Dodgers’ very future at risk like some did last week.

This happens. It’s a story. It’s a bigger story if the manager refuses to handle it or the player refuses to respond. But we’re not seeing that with Puig and, as such, it doesn’t justify the sort of outrage and hyperbole the matter has thus far gotten from some quarters.

Free agents who sign with new teams are not disloyal

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Most mornings my local newspaper is pretty predictable.

I know, when I navigate to its home page, that I’ll find about eleventeen stories about Ohio State football, even if it is not football season (especially if it’s not football season, actually), part 6 of an amazingly detailed 8-part investigation into a thing that is super important but which no one reads because it has nothing to do with Ohio State football and, perhaps, a handful of write-ups of stories that went viral online six days previously and have nothing to do with anything that matters.

Local print news is doing great, everyone.

I did, however, get a surprise this morning. A story about baseball! A baseball story that was not buried seven clicks into the sports section, but one that was surfaced onto the front page of the website!  The story was about Michael Brantley signing with the Astros.

Normally I’d be dead chuffed! But then I saw something which kinda irked me. Check out the headline:

Is Michael Brantley “leaving” the Indians? I don’t think so. He’s a free agent signing with a baseball team. He’s no more “leaving” the Indians than you are “leaving” an employer who laid you off to take a job at one of its competitors. This is especially true given that the Indians made no effort whatsoever to sign him. Indeed, they didn’t even give him a qualifying offer, making it very clear as of November 2 that they had no intention of bringing him back. Yet, there’s the headline: “Michael Brantley leaves Indians.”

To be clear, apart from the headline, the article is unobjectionable in any way. It merely recounts Ken Rosenthal’s report about Brantley signing with the Astros and does not make any claim or implication that Brantley was somehow disloyal or that Indians fans should be upset at him.

I do wish, though, that editors would not use this kind of construction, even in headlines, because even in today’s far more savvy and enlightened age, it encourages some bad and outmoded views of how players are expected to interact with teams.

Since the advent of free agency players have often been criticized as greedy or self-centered for signing contracts with new teams. Indeed, they are often cast as disloyal in some way for leaving the team which drafted or developed them. It’s less the case now than it used to be, but there are still a lot of fans who view a player leaving via free agency as some kind of a slap in the face, especially if he joins a rival. Meanwhile, when a team decides to move on from a player, either releasing him or, as was the case with the Indians and Brantley, making no effort to bring him back, it’s viewed as a perfectly defensible business decision. There was no comparable headline, back in early November, that said “Indians dump Brantley.”

Make no mistake: it may very well turn out to be a quite reasonable business decision for Cleveland to move on from Brantley. Maybe they know things about him we don’t. Maybe they simply know better about how he’ll do over the next year than the Astros do. I in no way intend for this little rant to imply that the Indians owed Brantley any more than he owed the Indians once their business arrangement came to an end. They don’t.

But I do suspect that there are still a decent number fans out there who view a free agent leaving his former team as some sort of betrayal. Maybe not Brantley, but what if Bryce Harper signs with the Phillies? What if Kris Bryant walks and joins the Cardinals when he reaches free agency? Fans may, in general, be more enlightened now than they used to be, but even a little time on talk radio or in comments sections reveals that a number of them view ballplayers exercising their bargained-for rights as “traitors.” Or, as it’s often written, “traders.” I don’t care for that whole dynamic.

Maybe this little Michael Brantley headline in a local paper that doesn’t cover all that much baseball is unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but it’s an example of how pervasive that unfortunate dynamic is. It gives fans, however tacitly, license to continue to think of players as bad people for exercising their rights. I don’t think that belief will ever completely disappear — sports and irrationality go hand-in-hand — but I’d prefer it if, like teams, athletes are likewise given an understanding nod when they make a business decision. The best way to ensure that is to make sure that such decisions are not misrepresented.