Thursday, March 23, 2006

Alfonso Soriano - The Next Curt Flood?

Is it possible that Alfonso Soriano’s recent struggles with the Washington Nationals allow him to be placed in the same company as Curt Flood?

Um, no. And, sadly in the end, he wasn’t even close. But there was an opportunity in the Soriano case that was missed. An opportunity to make a statement about a cold business. About fairness. It was an opportunity to do the right thing. And, unfortunately, Soriano chose to pass it up.

Let me refresh your memory about Curt Flood. After the 1969 season, when he was still just 31-years old and coming off a Gold-Glove winning, .285-hitting season as the Cardinals center fielder, Flood and three other players were unceremoniously traded to the Phillies in exchange for Dick Allen and two others. Flood refused to report to the Phillies, citing the racism displayed by their fans, the poor performance of the club, and the awful condition of their stadium as reasons why he didn’t want to play in Philadelphia. And, in his view, not wanting to play there meant that he shouldn’t be forced to play there. This was America, after all, where a man could choose to work wherever he saw fit.

Unfortunately for him, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn didn’t see things the same way. Citing the ages-old reserve clause that bound a player to one team for his entire career unless released (or traded, which transferred that right to his new team), Kuhn refused to approve a request by Flood that he be declared a free agent. Flood sued, claiming that the reserve clause had the effect of treating him and other players like property rather than people, an inherently un-American principle.

The case reached the Supreme Court, which upheld lower court rulings in favor of Major League Baseball. The impact on Flood’s career was extreme. Having sat out the entire 1970 season, he signed with the Washington Senators for the 1971 season, but faced with widespread criticism for his actions, he performed poorly, and retired after playing only thirteen more games. He was just 33-years old, and for all intents and purposes, had sacrificed five or six years at the end of his career, at six-figure salaries each year, to make the point that baseball players should have the same rights as other workers in this country. Thankfully, in Flood’s case, his sacrifice wasn’t fruitless, because the reserve clause he fought against was finally struck down just five years later.

All of which brings us to Alfonso Soriano. In a modern repeat of Flood’s situation, Soriano was traded against his will to a team he had no interest in, that plays in a league in which he has never played, in a stadium that doesn’t suit his skills, and with the expectation that he would switch to a position, left field, that would likely decrease his free agent value a year later.

From his perspective, it was a crappy deal, and he rightly was upset about it. Now, keep in mind that this isn’t a troublemaker. Soriano is a kid from the Dominican Republic who went to Japan for a couple of years as a teenager to establish himself as a professional ballplayer, and took it upon himself to learn to speak Japanese in order to fit in. He eagerly moved from his naturally position, shortstop, to left field when the Yankees acquired him. He did it without complaint and actually played the position well in Spring Training of 2001. Then, when the Yankees finally decided that Chuck Knoblauch’s throwing problems weren’t going away, Soriano agreed to change positions again, to second base. He flourished there, becoming one of the most dangerous power hitters in the history of the position and nearly winning the 2001 World Series by hitting an 8th-inning homer in Game Seven that gave the Yankees the lead. Only Mariano Rivera’s famous blown save kept Soriano from being the hero.

After doing all of this for New York, they dealt him to the Rangers before the 2004 season in exchange for Alex Rodriguez, essentially because the Yankees had a unique opportunity to acquire a great player and because they considered Soriano expendable after he had a terrible 2003 post-season.

So here we have a guy who has done nothing but work hard and travel far and wide to become a big league ballplayer, who has selflessly changed positions not once but twice for the good of his team, only to have that team trade him away when it suited their interests, and now he was faced with being dealt again and asked to change positions again, because the team that acquired him already had a second baseman.

How much more “good of the team” behavior should really be expected of this guy? He had already proven, time and again, that he’s a team player. And what did that get him? It got him the reputation of being a guy who could be moved around to suit the team’s needs, leading the Nationals to make the deal without ever asking him in advance if he would be willing to move to left field. Of course he would move, they must have thought. He’s done it before, twice.

Well, this time was different. Soriano had all the leverage in this case, since he was slated to make a ton of money and the Nationals desperately need him in their lineup, plus the fact that he’s going to be a free agent after this season, meaning the Nationals could lose him and get nothing in return if they make him unhappy.

Plus, he had every right to make a stink about how he was treated. The Nationals and Rangers, like the Cardinals and Phillies years ago with Flood, treated Soriano like property. They didn’t care about where he wanted to play, or which team he wanted to play for, or how much money a move to left field would cost him. They acted like all big businesses do these days, they treated the employee like an expendable asset instead of like a human being. This was a case of Corporate America at its finest.

“You’ve got Little League practice for one of your kids? Tough, I need this PowerPoint pitch done tonight.”

“You just bought a house here in town? Oh well, I need you to move to Detroit. You can commute back home on the weekends if you don’t want your kids yanked out of school mid-year.”

“I know you’re eighteen months away from retirement, but the company is restructuring after the recent merger, and your former job is no longer necessary, so we’re letting you go.”

Workers in Corporate America aren’t people anymore. They’re not even “personnel”. They’re “headcount”, all subject to some quaint euphemism for being forced out of a job they perform perfectly well. Reduction in Force. Laid Off. Downsized. Subject to Synergy. That last one is my favorite.

And yet, in Soriano’s situation, he has been widely criticized for standing up like a man and saying “Enough.” He didn’t take one for the team, and that makes him the bad guy.

Well, my question is this; when is the team going to take one for Alfonso Soriano? Sure, they pay Soriano a ton of money, and that makes his case even less sympathetic, but with that kind of money at stake, isn't is just good business for the Nats to make sure Soriano would be happy with the move? When did the Nationals become exempt from caring about their players’ well-being? Haven’t they just revealed themselves as an organization that has no interest in doing what’s right for their players? How hard do you think it’s going to be to attract quality people to play for them now?

I won’t criticize Soriano for the stand he started to take. I think it was noble, or at least qualifies for that description under today's standards. What I criticize him for is giving up. He caved in yesterday when he trotted out to left field, despite having all of the leverage on his side. Soriano passed up the opportunity to be this generation’s Curt Flood, a man who would sacrifice his own interests to make the point that ballplayers, and other workers in America, aren’t just inanimate assets for companies to spend as they see fit. They’re people, and you shouldn’t treat people, especially good people like Alfonso Soriano, the way the Nationals treated him. It would have been a great statement for Soriano to make.

Unfortunately, I guess we’ll have wait for someone else to make it.

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