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On weaponizing shame [Updated]

Players opting out because of COVID-19 don’t owe teams a thing.

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MLB: AUG 01 Mets at Braves Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Editor’s Note: After this article was published, the tweets on which part of the article was based, concerning Nick Markakis, were retracted and deleted by the reporter who originally made them. Those sections of the article have been removed.

By now, you’re doubtlessly aware that erstwhile Mets outfielder Yoenis Céspedes opted out of the 2020 Major League Baseball season. But whilst the main story was how the Mets’ mishandling of the situation was the latest example of the Mets being the Mets, the saga You probably know the story by now, but as a brief primer, let’s go over things quickly. Saturday night, the Mets acquired outfielder Billy Hamilton from the Giants; the deal was announced Sunday morning. A couple of hours later, the Mets released a statement saying they didn’t know where Céspedes was.

Céspedes had, of course, opted out of the season; he has a relative with a preexisting condition and the recent COVID-19 outbreaks with the Marlins and Cardinals convinced him that it wasn’t safe to play. The Mets claimed that they weren’t informed, but he evidently said his good-byes in the clubhouse Saturday night, and the Mets knew enough to trade for Hamilton ahead of Sunday’s game.

In other words, the Mets decided to publicly shame Céspedes for opting out of the season.

When the Mets got caught with their proverbial pants down, they then decided to argue that Céspedes was simply disgruntled about his playing time.

But multiple sources confirmed that twice in the first nine games of the season, Céspedes confronted Mets officials concerned about playing time and that he would be kept out of lineups to prevent him from reaching lucrative performance bonuses. One of those came Saturday, when Céspedes first talked to Luis Rojas and then Brodie Van Wagenen about his playing status and bonuses. Then Céspedes knew before the buses left for Truist Park on Sunday he was not in the starting lineup and he never showed for the game against the Braves, triggering a bizarre day even for the Mets.

Of course, the problem with this argument is that it’s a violation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement - and a pretty serious one - to keep a player out of the lineup just to keep him from racking up performance bonuses. If that were the issue, Céspedes would probably just bring (and win) a grievance against the team. More remarkably, though, the Mets are essentially arguing that Céspedes is the bad guy because he really opted out over . . . the Mets’ violations of the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

(The conflicts of interest about Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen, who is Céspedes’ former agent, handling this issue over a contract he negotiated for Céspedes are legion and deserve their own column.)

We should note that some teams have, actually, handled opt-outs in a professional and compassionate manner, most notably the Baltimore Orioles. At the same time, the Mets’ actions towards Céspedes this past weekend were the culmination of a disturbing pattern of MLB teams shaming players for opting out. Joe Girardi would have us believe that no one on the Phillies is worried or considering opting out because the team is so important. The Brewers, in announcing that Lorenzo Cain had opted out of the season, insisted that his decision had caught them by surprise and they had no idea it was coming.

Player opt outs, in other words, are now presented by teams as an adversity to be overcome by the organization and a betrayal by the player, instead of acting in the best interests of the player and his family. It is, to be sure, the natural result of dehumanizing players into assets, the same attitude that has led to exploitation of minor leaguers, service time manipulation, and the use of domestic abuse suspensions as an inefficiency to be exploited. But unlike service time manipulation, this time teams’ dehumanization of players has real life and death consequences.

Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author’s. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.