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Friday, July 23, 2004

The Unclear Methodology of Suspensions in MLB: David Ortiz and his Bat Tossing Contest

Major League Baseball has decided that a five-game suspension is warranted for a player who bumps his manager into the home-plate umpire, and who then, upon returning to the dugout after being ejected, throws a handful of bats in the direction of two other umpires, coming within inches of hitting them.  Although I am an avid Red Sox fan (and I watched the particular incident on live television), the suspension for David Ortiz strikes me as woefully insufficient, and an unfortunate reflection of how Major League Baseball determines the severity of its sanctions.  Ortiz is expected to appeal the suspension, which will likely knock off one or two games.

To objectively gauge the appropriateness of the Ortiz suspension, let's briefly consider other recent suspensions in baseball:

  • In 2000, then Red Sox center-fielder Carl Everett purposefully head-butted the home plate umpire, drawing a 10-game suspension.  
  • Earlier this year, Los Angeles Dodgers' center-fielder Milton Bradley received a four-game suspension for deliberately throwing a bag of balls onto the field after being ejected (but, unlike Ortiz, Bradley did not throw the objects in the direction of any umpire, and he did not push his manager into an umpire).
  • More recently, Chicago Cubs' pitcher Victor Zambrano was suspended for five games for intentionally throwing at Jim Edmonds of the St. Louis Cardinals, while Zambrano's teammate, LaTroy Hawkins, was also suspended for three games for inappropriate comments directed at an umpire. 
The most meaningful illustration appears to be that of Bradley.  He received a four-game suspension (which is what Ortiz will likely wind up with after his appeal), even though he neither threw objects at, nor made intervening contact with any umpire.  In light of Bradley's comparatively less-serious conduct, how then can Ortiz receive the same punishment, when he did throw objects at umpires and he did make intervening contact with an umpire??

It just doesn't add up. 

Granted, one might point to the history of the player.  Bradley has a reputation for poor behavior, while Ortiz, until now, has played without incident.  However, in determining an appropriate sanction for a particular action, should a player's history trump the severity of that action?

Also note the impact of team lobbying efforts, and whether Ortiz was fortunate because he had a good "defense team" on hand:  Immediately after the game, Red Sox CEO (and one-time Williams & Connolly attorney) Larry Lucchino met privately with the umpiring crew and apologized on behalf of Ortiz, which the home plate umpire later said "showed tremendous class."  I agree that Lucchino's entreaty may have been classy, and it was certainly indicative of skillful crisis management, but should an apology from the team's CEO really mitigate a player's actions? 
The Ortiz suspension also begs inquiry into the underlying purposes of a suspension: Is it merely a tool to punish the player, or should it also be used to deter other players?  Applying that question to the Ortiz incident, if a player can heave dangerous objects at umpires without serious ramifications, does that then endanger the safety of future umpiring crews?  Moreover, why should an umpire have to be hit by an object for a serious penalty to be imposed -- wouldn't it make more sense to judge the action (i.e., throwing bats onto the field at umpires), rather than its consequences (i.e., hitting or missing the umpires)?  Equally troubling, when a player lacks deterrence in throwing objects onto the field, can that potentially incite fans to do the same?   

One might pause to consider whether predictable guidelines should be in place, similar to how legislatures have imposed sentencing guidelines on courts.  For instance, take throwing objects from the dugout onto the field.  It is difficult to envision a scenario when such behavior is either justified or accidental.  So, might it make sense for MLB to impose an automatic 10-game penalty for throwing those objects?  This would seem to add both predictability and fairness, particularly for behavior that is conceptually inexcusable.


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