The Complicated Case of Melky Cabrera
Down two games to none and on the wrong end of seemingly every bounce in the Fall Classic to date, the Tigers will take any advantage they can get going forward and with the World Series moving to Detroit for Games 3, 4 and 5, the structure of the game reverts to American League rules. Of course, that means both teams will replace their pitcher in the batting line up with a designated hitter. As it does in virtually every interleague contest staged in American League parks through the regular season, this creates an advantage for the home team. Although Delmon Young will almost certainly be the DH for Detroit tonight, he played left field in Games 1 and 2 so on the margin, the Tigers gain the services of Andy Dirks. Dirks hit .322/.370/.487 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) in 2012 and whether the Giants go with Hector Sanchez (.280/.295/.390) Aubrey Huff (.192/.326/.282) or Joaquin Arias (.270/.304/.389) they don’t have nearly as strong of an offensive threat to add to their line up.
The Giants did have a player available for the World Series who hit .346/.390/.516 but they elected not to activate him. This brings us to a discussion about Melky Cabrera and the very complicated set of circumstances the Giants front office faced in making its decision not to activate him once his suspension for performance enhancing drugs ended five games into the Giants postseason.
Since there has been so much already written on this topic, I promise to take the discussion down a different path and to that end, I’ll start with a Bruce Springsteen story. At some point during my high school years, my mother came into my room one weekend morning to find me reading on my bed and listening to Greetings From Asbury Park, Springsteen’s debut album. My mother does not have a succinct style of communication so I grew increasingly alarmed as it became clear she was going to be in my room for at least a few minutes. That’s because at some point during her stay, Lost in the Flood began to play on the stereo. Now, my mother is a devout Catholic, and for periods of her life attended Mass on a daily basis. While she was talking to me the following lyrics filled my room:
Nuns run bald through Vatican halls, pregnant
Pleading Immaculate Conception
I don’t remember what my mother was saying but I do vividly recall that the words actually stopped in mid-air, hovered, and then crashed onto the floor. My mother quickly changed topics and as I endured a lecture I remember thinking to myself, whatever happened to your complaint that “I can’t even understand the words in the music you listen to”?
Those are incredibly cynical lyrics, especially when you consider that they were written by a 23-year old. They also have relevance to the topic of this newsletter because they mock the absurdity of the “false positive” claim.
The “false positive” claim is familiar to every even casual sports fan of the last twenty years. Whether it’s been a phantom twin, Jack Daniels, tainted meat, tainted B-12 Vitamins from a teammates locker, unknowing ingestion, unmarked supplements, and on and on and on, the excuses and defenses athletes have taken over the years are downright laughable. And, to my knowledge, none of them have ever been legitimized. (Ryan Braun avoided suspension for the use of testosterone due to a “chain-of-custody” technicality.) And this is why the Giants treatment of Melky Cabrera is thorny.
(I will state up front I think the idea that Melky Cabrera would be too rusty after a 50-day absence from, not only playing, but also the Giants’ training facilities is a red-herring. Any studies on the topic of long layoffs almost exclusively deal with players coming off of major injuries. Comparing Cabrera to the line up alternatives, it’s not like a less-effective Melky still isn’t an upgrade. I think that narrative is as silly as the one that blames the Tigers loss in Game 1 on a 5-day layoff. Very reasonable people can disagree, however.)
No, it appears to many observers that the Giants front-office made the decision to leave Cabrera off the post-season roster (once eligible) for reasons relating to Cabrera’s behavior. Reportedly, a contracted associate of Cabrera’s inner-circle attempted to create a fake website in order to convince investigators that Cabrera unknowingly ingested the banned substance, testosterone. The ruse, while laughable and amateurish, was simply another in a long line of “false positive” defenses used, behind closed doors, by possibly every single player caught with a tainted urine or blood sample.
Earlier this same season, another Giants player, Guillermo Mota also served a suspension for performance enhancing drugs, this one for 100 games as it was Mota’s second violation. While it’s been widely reported the 2012 suspension was for the use of Clenbuterol, as far as I can tell there has been only one reporter who has gone out of his way to report, via unnamed sources in the Giants, that the violation was caused by Mota “taking a swig” of his child’s cough or asthma medicine. (It seems to vary.)
(Clenbuterol is not a legal ingredient in any drug sold in the United States. In some foreign countries it is used for asthma patients – and for use in livestock because it increases the muscle-to-fat ratio of cattle and horses. It is this trait which makes it a common PED and when swimmers and cyclists have been caught with it in their systems they almost always use the “tainted meat from a foreign country” excuse. Again, anyone is free to buy the argument advanced on behalf of Mota in selected articles. On the other hand, I may not have been half as cynical as Springsteen at age-23, but I’m probably 2x as cynical now.)
The problem with the “taking a swig” angle is that it is never attributed, never credibly documented, and, to some, appears to fit the agenda of both the reporter and the Giants front-office, from where the information comes. Remember, Cabrera was confronted by a Giants-beat writer about a failed test some two weeks before his suspension was announced in August. When Cabrera lied to his face, the reporter, Andrew Baggarly issued a somewhat humiliating public apology. In other words there is an appearance that, perhaps having graduated from the Mike Lupica School of Journalism, other beat writers have decided that that was Cabrera’s biggest crime. In any event, advancing the undocumented and unattributed story also gives the Giants front office cover against charges of hypocrisy. (Mota, at the end of his suspension, was reinstated on the roster and in his first four appearances, came out of the bullpen to face batters in above-average to very-about average leverage situations, per baseball-reference’s game log.)
Let’s also state this: The word hypocrisy gets misused quite often, maybe not as much as “ironic” but still fairly often. It is not hypocritical to change your mind as a reaction to a change in facts of circumstance, far from it in fact. Hypocrisy is railing against a government’s leniency towards drug offenders and the ills they impart on American society all while fraudulently obtaining massive amounts of OxyContin. Changing your mind is not hypocrisy.
Some, in fact many, may choose to believe the Giants have acted in a hypocritical manner in embracing Mota’s return while shunning Cabrera’s. I however want to believe that a change in culture may have occurred in the Giants’ clubhouse. To illustrate that, in one more attempt to take this piece in a non-traditional direction, I liken a PED offense to insider trading.
Baseball, in one way, is something like the short-term trading of stocks: it’s a zero-sum game. For each run scored by one team, another team and pitcher allowed it. There are a fixed number of spots on each roster, and although there is not a firm salary-cap in baseball, there is, lightly, a fixed amount of money spent on player salaries. The success and money earned by one player comes at the expense of another. When a trader decides to pursue the procurement of inside information he’s going through the same thought process an athlete does when he takes a PED; he believes the action he is taking is going to give him an advantage over his competition (whether it does or not) and he absolutely knows what he’s doing is illegal.
For all of well-documented faults of, and bad actors within American investment banks, one thing they do well – based on my fifteen years on sell-side trading floors – is inhibit insider trading. (This is in contrast to the behavior at a number of hedge funds where insider trading was, at least, tacitly condoned.) If there is even a whiff of insider-trading taint on you, your career as an investment bank employee is essentially over. I’m not talking about a conviction in which regulators enforce an industry-wide ban, I’m talking about perception. I’ve been a part of the hiring process when the personnel department has been unable to get a candidate past the legal department because the prior firm the candidate worked at had an insider-trading scandal. Heck, I knew a person whose spouse at a different firm got a Wells Notice – a notice that the SEC is considering a charge – that never resulted in a charge, let alone conviction, and yet the spouse was quietly removed from the firm and never worked on Wall Street again. Traders know that if the market-maker down the row is caught insider-trading it’s quite possibly going to bring down the entire firm and permanently damage the career prospects of the innocent traders as well.
I would like to think that when Melky Cabrera’s suspension was announced in August, the Giants’ clubhouse was livid not because they were insulted he didn’t address the team or because an associate of his engaged in a laughable plot of deception, but because the under-30 leaders of the team who didn’t play at the height of the Steroid Era were enraged. I hope Buster Posey was furious because he busted his tail to come back from a horrific injury in 2011, without shortcuts, and the actions of Cabrera had tainted the success of the team that he, Posey, was leading. I want Matt Cain to want nothing to do with Cabrera because the first-half of the Giants’ season must now contain a discussion of Cabrera’s actions as well as Cain’s perfect game. I want the front office to be furious because it dawned on them that unlike a middle-reliever’s actions if they win a second ring this year there is a tiny taint on the division title. (I use the word “taint” freely because that’s the term Cabrera used in taking his name out of consideration for the NL batting title and that view was apparently embraced by the Giants.)
If that is what happened and what cause the Giants to take different stances with Mota and Cabrera, then I believe it represents huge progress; it means the culture in baseball clubhouses has changed as a younger generation of players enters the game. I have never liked hockey because the first time I went to see an NHL game, I was appalled at the cheap shots players took at each other out of the sight of the referee. (Granted, it was a Flyers game.) My cousin, a Division-1 hockey coach explained to me, with pride, that the point of the game was to get away with as much as possible. NASCAR’s entire culture revolves around the motto, “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.” Ten years ago, I’m certain a common, if not majority, reaction in an MLB clubhouse to a player caught in a drug scandal was, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
I’m glad Melky Cabrera isn’t on the Giants and I hope it’s a sign that the organization recognizes it doesn’t have to hold its employees to the minimum standard of conduct in deciding who it employs*. If that’s the reason the San Francisco Giants didn’t activate Melky Cabrera – supported by the players in the clubhouse – it represents a change in the culture of baseball that I view as hugely positive. If, however, it’s because some feelings were hurt, or Cabrera didn’t accept his punishment “the right way” a la a character on The Sopranos or The Wire, then the Giants are rightly accused of being petty and hypocritical.
*This creates another sticky issue. The punishment for PED use is collectively-bargained between management and the players and no team may impose additional penalties. All teams must, and should, adhere to this contractual obligation. As the Giants have shown with the post-season roster decision though, you can satisfy both a player’s contract and this clause. Nonetheless, there really were a lot of moving parts to the Giants decisions surrounding both Mota and Cabrera.
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) March 7, 2013 release. The book is available for pre-order here: http://www.amazon.com/Trading-Bases-Gambling-Baseball-Necessarily/dp/0525953647/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1346604029&sr=1-1&keywords=trading+bases
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