I made a mistake: I thought about this from the player’s perspective. I thought about the player. Or perhaps, I thought about it as mostly mattering with respect to individual players, as mostly serving to modify their behavior. On Thursday, Hal Steinbrenner reminded me of my error.
It’s not that I was unaware of the incentives that existed for teams when assessing what to do with players implicated in domestic violence incidents. I did. I fretted over it because, among other things, I want to be able to like baseball. We want to like baseball free of the worry we have when we like football. That feeling of being implicated. We should admit that the desire to like baseball is a not small part of our concern over baseball players engaging in violence toward their intimate partners. We would care about it on its own because we aren’t bad people, but we care a little harder in public because we don’t want to be bad people while liking baseball.
We know that liking bad people gets in the way of liking baseball, or should, and so we dislike those who are bad for their badness but also for the inconvenience their badness poses. Our stakes are inherently lower, and we like to be good. We worry about ourselves—an inherently personal concern—and so it is no surprise that I have thought mostly about players when evaluating domestic violence in baseball. They are clearly delineated and their victims individuals. They have victims. I didn’t worry about teams, but I should have. I should have worried more about the Yankees.
The Yankees had exactly the same incentives as any other team. There was, and is, nothing uniquely awful about them. The moment when they traded with the Reds was a moment that we could pick on, but who knows? Who knows if theirs was the first call answered, or the first prospect package that made sense. Who knows how much Aroldis Chapman’s contract status mattered. Maybe others tried to be icky just like this and failed. We don’t really know.
What distinguishes the Yankees wasn’t their innate moral fortitude, or lack thereof; what distinguished them was their options. What distinguished them was their ability to execute. And execute they did, all along the way. They saw a distressed asset and acquired him for far less than he was worth. They lost some games, realized they weren’t going to contend for a playoff spot, and turned that asset into Cubs prospect Gleyber Torres. In the process, they made the future cost of that asset more straightforward, freeing him from a qualifying offer.
Chapman wasn’t worth less in value so much as he cost fewer things. And when it was all said and done, New York proved to be a safe harbor, or a rich one. When that distressed asset was interested in no longer being so distressed, the Yankees made him wealthy, as the Yankees are wont to do. I can only speculate how comprehensive that strategy was, how fully it was designed in advance. They needed willing partners along the way, teams with their own incentives centered around these gross circumstances. As with any bit of mischief, it is hard to act alone. But they managed to get a lot without giving up much when it mattered, in part because of their initial willingness to execute on their options.
On Thursday, Steinbrenner was discussing Chapman’s popularity with Yankees fans and said, "He paid the penalty. Sooner or later, we forget, right? That’s the way we’re supposed to be in life.”
He did pay; the Yankees didn’t. In the future, other teams might under different gross circumstances, but the incentives will always exist for them to exploit, waiting for a moment to match. The first phase of Major League Baseball “dealing” with domestic violence was to acknowledge that baseball players hit women, too. The next phase is grappling with the incentives teams faces employing them once they do.
I’m not sure I know the answer. I know that much of the research tells us that zero-tolerance policies create their own perverse incentives, ones that move beyond whether policy works in the clubhouse and into the realm of it not working in living rooms. I know that it is hard to disincentivize teams from signing players with a history of domestic violence when they are available to be signed, and that we’ve taught teams to think of players as commodities and inefficiencies as prizes.
I know that employers aren’t the ideal arbiters of this sort of thing anyway. I know the Yankees aren’t unique, though it would be easier if they were. I know that we want to feel good about baseball, and have faith that human beings might be remorseful. I know that, after justice has been meted out, the taint of violence fades from view. Part of why Steinbrenner’s remarks were so upsetting is that they’re true; we do forget.
We worry about how to mention it. We search for words because the details aren’t as ready. This guy gets to work, so how do we talk about it; how do we deal? I imagine it will continue to be a hard, stupid, imperfect process, but I think part of it is at least acknowledging where we are. Teams will buy broken things under gross circumstances. Those are among their options.
I made a mistake. On Thursday, while telling us we’d forget something else, the Yankees reminded me of it.