As we posted earlier this week, umpire Angel Hernandez filed a discrimination lawsuit against Major League Baseball. His primary claim: that there is racial discrimination in baseball’s umpire promotion and post-season assignment policies.
Adding to that and coloring it is Hernandez’ claim that MLB chief baseball officer Joe Torre — the man in charge of evaluating and supervising umpires — has held a grudge against him going back to his managing days.
The facts and evidence in the case will shed light on or rebut the alleged discrimination, depending on how it all plays out, so I don’t have any insight on that. I am rather fascinated with Hernandez’s claim of personal animus on Torre’s part, however.
Out of hand, it may be something most would dismiss. Hernandez doesn’t necessarily have a great reputation outside of the umpiring fraternity and Joe Torre is a baseball legend. It would be easy for one to assume that Hernandez just threw that allegation out there and that Major League Baseball will quite easily portray Torre as a respected steward of the game who is above such pettiness. And, of course, that all may be true.
But lawsuits are not the same as public debate and discussion in the media and the parties’ mutual reputation does not determine the outcome. Sometimes, lawsuits turn on seemingly insignificant things. Such as, you know, the man in question going on national television and joking about how he uses his position to “get even” with umpires he dislikes.
Watch both of these, from Torre’s appearance on Joe Buck’s TV show from August of last year:
Again: Torre is joking here. His chuckle and the offhand way in which he says it makes that clear to you, me and anyone watching it. But in a deposition, that’s not gonna play well. Torre will be asked about why he’d say such a thing. About the nature of that humor behind that joke. He’ll be asked, in detail, about his run-ins with Angel Hernandez over the years as well.
If the case goes to trial, Hernandez’s lawyer will make a big deal out of this, and he will be right to do so. He will not characterize it as a baseball man telling an age-old joke about how no one likes umpires. He’ll characterize it as someone’s boss in an employment discrimination suit “joking” about the very thing the lawsuit claims he did: get even with Angel Hernandez due to personal animus. And he’ll ask every member of the jury to ask themselves how they’d feel if their boss went on national TV and “joked” about how they liked to “get even” with them.
I presume most of you will say I’m being silly about all of this and that no one could possibly take this seriously as a problem for MLB in Hernandez’s lawsuit. I can assure you, however, that it is a problem. Maybe a manageable one. Maybe one that does not, ultimately, impact the outcome of Hernandez’s suit. But it is certainly one Major League Baseball’s lawyers will take seriously. It’s one that will cause them to exhale deeply and mark off far more time on their calendar to prep Joe Torre for his eventual, acrimonious deposition. It’s one that could, if presented just so by plaintiff’s counsel, give Hernandez a much better chance at success than he might otherwise have in a tough suit.
Joke or not, it’s something that, I predict, Joe Torre will soon regret that he ever said.