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The Padres reacted harshly to news of No. 1 draft pick Matt Bush‘s arrest on underage drinking and assault charges last week, suspending him indefinitely and threatening to void his signing bonus (Bush’s assault charges have subsequently been dropped). I don’t want to minimize the stupidity of Bush’s behavior, nor to suggest that the Padres would have been better served by adopting a boys-will-be-boys approach–if Ryan Wilkins were caught, say, dropping his pants in front of a police officer while sipping from a Jagermeister and OxyContin Slurpee, we’d probably take a similar course of action.

But let’s get a few things straight:

  1. Eighteen-year-olds do stupid things.

    Insofar as his underage drinking goes, Bush is in safe company–according to a survey conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about 70% of 12th graders have admitted to consuming alcohol within the past year (by comparison, about 6.7% had used chewing tobacco in the same period, while an alarming 82% reported having enjoyed a Limp Bizkit song). Expecting some sort of preternatural maturity from athletes is not realistic.

  2. It can be hard to tell the smart 18-year-olds from the stupid ones.

    This is perhaps the more important point. Teenagers and young adults are, by and large, highly impressionable folks whose characters, temperaments, and preferred behaviors are highly subject to change from day-to-day and moment-to-moment. Think back to the kids who shared your dorm floor during your first year of college; how many of them turned out on Graduation Day anything like what they were during Orientation Week?

    For that reason, reports on “character” and “makeup” are likely to be of limited use. Certainly, if a kid has a track record of misbehavior, that needs to be considered, and ought to have a material impact on the desirability of adding him to your organization. But, among their other talents, 18-year-olds are good at covering their tracks. The slacker who misses three days of school a week and shows up to his math class reeking of pot is easy enough to spot, but there are plenty of kids who might have serious emotional or substance-abuse problems and are nevertheless charming enough to make a good impression on authority figures. Not every transgression, thank goodness, shows up on one’s Permanent Record.

    What’s more, previous behavior is no guarantee of future success. By all accounts, Josh Hamilton was an A+ character guy who had devoted his life almost entirely to baseball. And yet, Hamilton admitted to a North Carolina television station earlier this month that he has been battling an addiciton to cocaine. Whatever the impetus behind Hamilton’s drug use–he cites difficulties related to his injury problems–his situation is a sad reminder of the difficulties that a teenager can face in transitioning to young adulthood. Bush, for his part, was also regarded as having good makeup before the draft, although Kevin Towers has hinted that some problems might have been uncovered had the Padres conducted more extensive research.

    Certainly some people are going to read this as yet another slam on the scouting industry–“makeup,” after all, is one of those qualities that scouts prize but statheads are quick to dismiss. That’s not what I’m trying to say here. On the contrary, I think “makeup” is responsible for a large degree of the variance in the differential development of prospects, and that, if “character” could be measured accurately, it would deserve a high priority as a team sorted through its draft board. But I question whether the sorts of techniques that a team employs to evaluate “character”–typically consisting of interviews with coaches and school personnel, home visits, and a rudimentary background check–can really do an accurate job of it, especially when a team must sort through thousands of potential draft picks in a season. Moreover, I question whether a snapshot of a guy’s character when he’s 18 has much to do with how he’s going to behave at age 21, much less at age 27.

  3. This is a matter of policy, not morality.

    Ours is a hypocritical society, especially when it comes to evaluating our sports heroes. Although there’s a lot of middle ground between holding athletes to a higher moral standard than we would apply to our friends, family, and co-workers, and excusing their every vice in the name of their contributions on the field, we rarely seem capable of finding it.

    What’s needed in the case of players like Bush and Hamilton is neither excuses nor alarmism, but rather, some commonsensical thinking about exactly what situation young ballplayers are being placed into. Consider an environment that contains the following:

    • A substantial number of 18-to-20 year-olds based in small cities, usually far away from friends and family, with a travel schedule that would make some management consultants blush;
    • A series of kids who have been tremendously successful in high school and amateur ball, many of whom will struggle in spite of high internal and external expectations;
    • In some cases, young men who have come into a substantial amount of money in a short period of time;
    • In some cases, a substantial language barrier;
    • All the young male hormones of a fraternity party, but in a machismo, sink-or-swim environment that probably does not offer the support mechanisms that would be available, say, on a college campus.

    You think there’s any way you’re not going to have some behavioral problems given that set of conditions? I don’t mean to suggest that the lower minors are like some sort of Siberian labor camp–there are worse ways to earn a living–but it isn’t an easy life, and it’s all but inevitable that a substantial number of players are going to fall by the wayside, including some who might otherwise have had the chance at a meaningful major league career.

As Evan Grant and Todd Wills point out in the Dallas Morning News, baseball lags behind other sports in providing off-the-field support and counseling services to its young players. Part of this is a problem of economics–there are about as many rookies in the Los Angeles Dodgers system every year as there are in the entire NBA–but this is an investment that could potentially yield a high return. Almost every Fortune 500 company provides some form of employee assistance program, free-of-charge to its workers.

And this isn’t because, say, General Electric feels some sort of moral obligation to an engineer who has developed a coke habit, but rather because that drug problem leads to poor performance, high absenteeism, a greater risk of accidents–in short, lost productivity. The same is true in baseball. Although, from speaking with a handful of major league executives, I am confident that some organizations do a better job of providing support services than others, it nevertheless seems obvious that there is an industry-wide disconnect between the large signing bonuses that are conferred to prospects and the tendency to regard these same prospects as disposable once they begin to be perceived as “more trouble than they are worth.”

Matt Bush isn’t Josh Hamilton; there’s a huge difference between getting out of line after a night of heavy drinking, and exhibiting a consistent pattern of self-destructive behavior. But Matt Bush isn’t the first high-profile prospect to encounter behavioral problems, and with the developmental system being as it is, he certainly won’t be the last. We wish him the best of luck.