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MLB and the MLBPA are discussing opioid testing. This seems like the wrong move.

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Evan Drellich of The Athletic reported this morning that Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association are in discussions that could lead to the creation of a testing regime for opioids. This, obviously, comes in the wake of the July 1 death of Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs and this past weekend’s report detailing his opioid use. Opioid use that was done with the knowledge and participation of at least one high-ranking Angels front office official.

Currently the Joint Drug Agreement does not provide testing for opioids, or other drugs classified as “Drugs of Abuse,” by Major Leaguers. Rather, if teams and/or the league become aware of a player’s problem with a Drug of Abuse, it is to be reported to the league which, in turn, refers the player to a treatment program. The purpose is to treat, not punish, a player for his addiction. If and only if the player repeatedly fails to cooperate or comply with a treatment program does discipline come into play. The talks to implement testing, therefore, would mark a major change in the JDA, both in structure and in overall philosophy when it comes to Drugs of Abuse.

It would also be a bad move in my view.

Based on how testing for Drugs of Abuse has gone in the minor leagues, a major league Drugs of Abuse testing regime will lead to the singling out of addicts for punishment. That could, in turn, discourage addicts from seeking the help they can theoretically get now under the JDA. We’ve seen this in broader society, of course. Drug addiction is rarely addressed effectively via punishment of users. It can be addressed by getting them treatment and examining and addressing the root causes of addiction and the sources of the drugs in question.

It also seems to ignore the very circumstances that led to Tyler Skaggs’ death.

Skaggs had an opioid problem. It was not some big secret. And, of course, at least one of the people who knew about it was a high-ranking front office employee of the Angels, Eric Kay. Under the Joint Drug Agreement Kay, and by extension the Angels, had an affirmative responsibility to report Skaggs’ drug use to the league, which would then get him into a treatment program. The club failed in its duties in this regard. If it hadn’t — if the system in place had been adhered to — there is a chance that Skaggs could’ve gotten the help that could’ve saved his life. It’s worth asking why, given that there was a reasonable and easily-implemented means of addressing Skaggs’ problem already in existence, the question is now “how should we go about adding more drug testing for players?” as opposed to “how should MLB punish the Angels for their violation of the JDA and ensure that it doesn’t happen again?”

To acknowledge that failure — to acknowledge that there were procedures in place that could very well have prevented this tragic outcome that went unused — and then to say that the solution is to put it back on the users themselves in a testing and discipline regime — seems nonsensical to me. And that’s not just from the perspective of “hey, the team should’ve done something, so it’s on them.”

The point of drug testing is to find out something that is not known (i.e. whether someone is using drugs). Skaggs’ case suggests to us that the issue is not about obliviousness. Yes, some addicts will go to great lengths to hide their addiction, but opioid use by big leaguers is not a secret inside the game. Rather, based on conversations I’ve recently had with MLB insiders, it is seen as and is often portrayed internally as “recreational.” This is not out of disingenuousness or out of some motive to hide a problem. Rather, there appears to be a genuine ignorance about the issue.

Yes, in some cases it’s about people in a position to help either not being willing to help, as was the case with the Angels, but more commonly it’s about them not truly understanding the nature or seriousness of opioid addiction. It’s not about them not having a positive test result in their hands in order to act. It’s not about outsourcing the problem to MLB when people in a far better position to observe problems and reach out with assistance — teammates and team officials who are around the player all day, every day, for months on end — could do more if better educated, better informed and better incentivized to provide help to players in need.

Based on people in and around the game I have spoken with over the past few days, the problem of addiction inside the game mirrors what’s going on in the country as a whole. As we’ve seen with the country as a whole, going after users is not an effective means of combating opioid addiction. That Major League Baseball and the MLBPA seem intent on making their first step in the wake of Skaggs’ death one in the direction of drug testing seems like a misstep to me.

Rob Manfred explains reasoning behind proposal to cut 42 minor league teams

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As we learned earlier this week, Major League Baseball wants to contract 42 minor league teams, mostly in short-season and rookie ball. The proposal earned a lot of backlash, including from some of the teams on the chopping block and from Congress. MLB responded with its own letter to Congress, written by deputy commissioner Dan Halem, explaining the league’s reasoning.

In the letter, Halem complains about the lack of competition between minor league teams and independent teams. Halem wrote, “The lack of competition among operators of teams for an affiliation with a Major League Club has reduced the incentive for some affiliated Minor League teams to improve their facilities and player amenities.” It is an interesting thing to write as someone representing a $10 billion business that has benefited for a century from an antitrust exemption.

Halem also noted that MLB has several goals that are supposedly attained by cutting 26 percent of the minors: ensuring the quality of the facilities for the players, reducing the travel burden, improving the “compensation, accommodations, and amenities” for players, improving the affiliation process between minor league and major league teams.

Commissioner Rob Manfred essentially echoed that sentiment on Thursday, per Newsday’s Laura Albanese. He gave four reasons behind the proposal: inadequate facilities, travel, poor pay, drafting and signing players who don’t have a realistic shot to make it to the majors. The last reason is a new one, but let’s go over those four reasons in context.

It is true that some, perhaps even most, of the facilities of the 42 named teams are inadequate. It’s not all of them. As NECN’s Jack Thurston reports, the owner of the short-season Lowell Spinners, Dave Heller, said that his team’s stadium is “arguably the best facility in the New York-Penn League,” speaking highly of its lighting and field conditions. The Quad Cities River Bandits, the Astros’ Single-A affiliate and also on the chopping block, renovated their stadium a handful of times over the last 12 years. In fact, it earned an award from BallparkDigest.com for “Best Ballpark Improvement” in both 2008 and ’09, and finished third in the 2018 running for “Best View in the Minors.” At any rate, if facility quality is such a big issue, why did the Athletics continue to play in a stadium that repeatedly had its sewage system overflow in 2013?

Travel is certainly a big issue for minor leaguers because they mostly travel by bus, not plane. Having teams located closer to each other would be more beneficial in this regard. Or — and hear me out, here — major league teams could take on the extra expenditure of paying for their minor leaguers’ airfare. Several years ago, the Phillies took on the extra expenditure of making sure their minor leaguers ate healthy food and that has worked out well. The Blue Jays took on the extra expenditure of giving their minor leaguers a pay raise and that has worked out well. The Red Sox took on the extra expenditure of installing a sleep room at Fenway Park to ensure their players were well-rested and that has worked out well. No one is suggesting that Single-A players have to fly first class on every flight, but the travel issue is an easy fix that doesn’t require contracting 42 teams. Teams have individually chosen to improve their players’ quality of life and it has yielded positive results. Imagine it on a league-wide scale for thousands of players in their formative years.

Manfred citing minor league pay as a basis for the proposal is laughable. His own league successfully lobbied Congress to amend language in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, classifying minor league players as seasonal workers. That means they are not entitled to a minimum wage or overtime pay, among other worker protections. If the pay of minor league players was so important to Major League Baseball, it wouldn’t have pressured the government to legally ensure they didn’t have to pay them a living wage. Every baseball team is worth at least a billion dollars. The league has set year-over-year revenue records for 16 consecutive years, crossing $10 billion in 2018. Minor leaguers could be compensated well without robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Lastly, it is true that a majority of minor league players will never reach the major leagues. That doesn’t mean that their presence in the minor leagues or their effort to realize their dreams have zero value. Lopping off the bottom 26 percent of minor leaguers might nominally increase the level of skill on each roster, but it eliminates so many jobs — well over 1,000. Furthermore, there are few incentives for athletes to want to slog through several years of the minors as it is, as Kyler Murray recently showed, but there would be even fewer incentives by shrinking the minors (and, consequently, the draft). Shrinking the minors and the draft could lead to more minor league free agents, but if baseball is actually interested in a free market (it’s not) then it should abolish the draft entirely as well as the arbitration system.

These reasons, each uniquely fallacious, hide the real reason behind the proposal: shifting money around so Major League Baseball can say it will award pay raises to minor leaguers, ending a years-long stretch of bad P.R., without actually cutting into profits. MLB could have afforded to pay minor leaguers a living wage years ago and it chose not to. MLB could have chosen not to lobby Congress for the ability to continue underpaying minor leaguers years ago, but it chose to do so. Everything since has been the league trying to avoid lying in the bed it made for itself.