So here is the risk, if you want to call it that, the Los Angeles Dodgers took Friday by making, in my opinion, the right call by cutting ties with Trevor Bauer.
The San Diego Padres, the Dodgers’ biggest threat in the NL West, can now sign Bauer for the $720,000 minimum salary. The Dodgers would owe Bauer the rest of the $22.5 million he is due, potentially paying him to beat them for both the division title and National League pennant.
To which there is only one logical response: Who cares?
All teams want to win. All teams shudder at helping a rival. But every so often, professional sports executives must ask themselves, “Who are we? What do we stand for?”
The Dodgers, until Friday’s deadline to part with Bauer or reinstate him to their active roster, repeatedly failed to provide adequate answers about the pitcher. Even when they released him, they delayed their decision practically to the last minute as they fretted over the potential competitive disadvantage, according to sources briefed on their thinking but not authorized to speak on the matter publicly.
And that wasn’t all. The Dodgers issued a statement announcing their decision on Bauer, but still have yet to say they will not tolerate the behavior that prompted his suspension. Bauer, meanwhile, issued his own statement saying the Dodgers’ leadership “told me that they wanted me to return and pitch for the team this year.” If that is true — and a Dodgers official said it was not — the Dodgers’ desire to keep Bauer might have hinged on him agreeing to several conditions he perhaps refused to meet. He has yet to apologize or show any hint of remorse.
Dodgers will still pay the remaining $22.5 million on Trevor Bauer’s contract (which factors in the 50 games’ worth of docked pay). They have seven days to find a trade partner before putting him on waivers. If he clears, any team can sign him as a free agent for $720,000.
— Fabian Ardaya (@FabianArdaya) January 7, 2023
The Dodgers’ choice should not have been so difficult. Frankly, I don’t think it should have been difficult at all. Bauer’s 194-game suspension was the longest any player has served under the joint domestic policy agreed upon by Major League Baseball and the Players Association. He has been accused of hitting and choking multiple women during sex. He has acknowledged such actions, but said they were agreed upon beforehand and then requested during consensual rough sex.
The league, in its notice of discipline to Bauer in April 2022, offered a different account according to the Wall Street Journal, which viewed a copy of the letter. Bauer, the league said, subjected two women to “violent and non-consensual acts during sex.” He also choked a third woman to the point of unconsciousness on multiple occasions, the letter said, and had sex with her while she was unconscious. The league also cited a defamation lawsuit against one of the women and her attorney as “intimidating or tampering” and said Bauer made verbal threats against another of the women, all prohibited actions under its joint policy.
A superior court judge in Los Angeles denied one woman’s request for a restraining order against Bauer. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office declined to pursue charges against him. But two separate bodies, MLB and a neutral arbitrator approved by the league and union, determined that he violated the joint policy. The arbitrator upheld the league’s suspension, but reduced it from 324 to 194 games.
The Dodgers did not see the arbitrator’s decision, which, under the joint policy, is confidential. But how much more did they need to know? The woman who requested the restraining order provided multiple photographs to the court. In those photos, which Bauer’s team claimed “appear to be edited,” the woman’s face was visibly bruised and swollen, including under both her eyes. And Bauer’s unprecedented 194-game suspension was reason enough for the Dodgers to let him go.
Yet the Dodgers, the franchise that made Jackie Robinson the first African-American player in the majors and now features former tennis great and social activist Billie Jean King as one of its owners, seemed more preoccupied with the fear of Bauer succeeding elsewhere than with doing the right thing.
Another team might sign Bauer, who turns 32 on Jan. 17, viewing him as a possible bargain at the minimum salary. But Bauer has not pitched in a major-league game since June 28, 2021. He would be returning to a league that has cracked down on sticky substances. And while the Dodgers’ concern about the Padres signing Bauer would appear, on the surface, well-founded from a baseball perspective, it’s also rather myopic. The Padres would have a lot of explaining to do if they added Bauer when the woman who requested a restraining order against him is from San Diego.
Any club that wants to take a chance on Bauer would inherit all of his baggage. The Dodgers signed him to a three-year, $102 million free-agent contract in Feb. 2021 knowing his reputation as an online bully, particularly towards women. At his introductory news conference, he said, “I’m doing my best to be better. I am committed to being better on social media, being better on the field, being better in the clubhouse, being better in life in general.”
Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations added, “In our conversations, he’s alluded to past mistakes he’s made. We came away from it feeling good about it. Now, obviously, time will tell, but I feel like he’s going to be a tremendous addition, not just on the field, but in the clubhouse and the community.”
How did that work out?
The alleged acts that got Bauer suspended were significantly worse than his previous behavior. Yet, the Dodgers, until the very end, acted as if they were passive observers in the process. Their public stance, or lack of one, was in direct contrast to that of the Washington Nationals, who in Sept. 2021 followed through on a pledge to release infielder Starlin Castro immediately after he served a 30-game suspension for violating the joint domestic violence policy.
Castro, who was owed about $1 million at the time, has not played in the majors since, even though he is just 32. Bauer is owed more money and is more talented, as evidenced by the National League Cy Young Award he won in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. But a team either follows a zero-tolerance policy or it doesn’t. With Bauer, it was as if the Dodgers were afraid to admit their mistake.
When the request for a restraining order against Bauer first became public, the team initially said he would make his next start, deferring to the league, which then placed him on administrative leave. Team president Stan Kasten made flippant remarks following the start of the sport’s investigation of Bauer, prompting a rebuke from commissioner Rob Manfred. Finally, the team took the full 14 days to determine Bauer’s fate after the arbitrator announced his decision on Dec. 21.
The holidays were one reason for the delay, according to a source. The death of Scott Minerd, one of Mark Walter’s business partners at Guggenheim Partners, was another. But for months, the Dodgers knew a decision on Bauer was coming. Why were they not prepared to make an immediate stand?
They did just that when they struck an agreement to acquire Aroldis Chapman from the Reds in Dec. 2015, then backed out upon learning the reliever was the subject of a domestic-violence inquiry. At the time, baseball writer Jon Heyman quoted Walter saying, “Nobody did (favor getting Chapman). It wasn’t (just) ownership.” But Kasten indicated the Dodgers were also concerned with the competitive aspect — a potential suspension of undetermined length for Chapman. “We did not know what the findings would be,” Kasten said. “There was plenty of reason to be cautious.”
The Yankees acquired Chapman later that month amid the same uncertainty. The league suspended Chapman for the first 30 games of the regular season. The Cubs acquired him from the Yankees near the trade deadline, then went on to defeat the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series and win their first World Series since 1908 with Chapman playing a prominent role.
Might the Dodgers have won that Series if they had kept Chapman? Perhaps. Do the Cubs and many of their fans care that a pitcher coming off a suspension for domestic violence was part of their otherwise feel-good story? Probably not. All professional sports franchises make compromises in one way or another, decisions ranging from uncomfortable to cringeworthy.
Some decisions, though, are so necessary, so important, they should not require much thought.
The Dodgers’ parting with Trevor Bauer qualified, and then some.
(Photo: Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)