Constitutionally protected free speech sometimes has a cost in the private world of baseball.
Sometimes it does not.
And somewhat surprisingly, whether or not you are punished for being outspoken may depend on what outfit you wear to work every day. Wear a pinstriped suit and sit in a boardroom and you might get in trouble for your critical words.
Wear a pinstriped uniform and sit in a dugout, though, and you'll have a better chance of getting away scot-free, no matter how politically charged your statements are.
When Boston Red Sox owner John Henry decided to criticize the competitive balance in baseball, he never expected his free speech would be nullified with a whopping half-a-million-dollar fine. Yet the billionaire says his pocketbook was made 500 Grover Clevelands lighter back in December 2009 when he chatted openly and brazenly with the Boston Globe about his ideas for fixing the controversial revenue-sharing system. He claimed that small-market teams take money from big-market teams like the Red Sox and spend it carelessly, like a pimply faced teenager throwing away twenties at the video-game store instead of spending it on useful things like relief pitchers or new slacks.
Henry revealed the fine during a recent interview on WEEI's The Big Show:
"There's not much I can say, because the last time I made a comment, I was fined $500,000. The large markets aren't allowed to give their opinions. Did you know I was fined $500,000? ... I made statements which turned out to be true, or at least there were various documents that were leaked after that. But anyway, the large clubs are not allowed to talk about it."
Henry claims that the owners of his otherwise rivals, the New York Yankees, are in the same situation because they also put millions of dollars into the petty cash drawer so the less fortunate clubs can dip in when they need to hire peanut vendors or sign Randy Wolf's(notes) paycheck. But according to Henry, the "small-market" teams are allowed to openly criticize free-wheeling spenders like Boston and New York, just like Milwaukee Brewers owner Mark Attanasio did in 2009 when he called for a salary cap in baseball.
On the other end of the financial spectrum in the majors, Brewers infielder Craig Counsell(notes), who will make less than three John Henry fines in 2011, struck a chord with union members everywhere when he came out in support of Wisconsin's state workers who have been tirelessly rallying in the state capital building for well over a week. Counsell, who has been active for years in his own union, the MLB Players Association, released the following statement:
As a Major League baseball player for the Milwaukee Brewers who works in Wisconsin under a union contract and whose right to bargain collectively is guaranteed under federal law, I support the thousands of public sector employees who are threatened with the loss of that right under recently-proposed state legislation. These employees are real people with real families whose livelihoods, careers and futures are being jeopardized. I urge the government of Wisconsin not to take away this most basic of union and human rights.
Unlike Henry, Counsell has received no fine and no stern talking-to for his politically charged statement. Why is it politically charged? Well, as is apparent in Madison right now, not every American believes that collective bargaining is a "basic human right." In fact, most Southern states ban it outright for state workers. So it's not like Counsell went public with a non-controversial stance like coming out in support of cheap and cold beer at a ballgame. Nope, he firmly planted his feet on a very specific side of a fence while many of his fans are on the other side.
So what makes the two statements different? Well, Henry is a dues-paying member of a very exclusive and massively rich club known as baseball owners. Bud Selig is not their boss and he doesn't have an actual yardstick ready to rap Henry on his knuckles. But as commissioner, he doesn't lead the owners so much as he represents them. When an owner gets fined, he is getting fined not by Selig, but by his peers who would rather keep everything peaceful. The other owners are just trying to protect this good thing they got going; revenue sharing makes 30 owners very rich and it keeps the sport competitive.
Counsell, on the other hand, is a dues-paying member of a labor union that is governed by a specific set of bylaws and that can challenge ownership's rules and regulations with appeals. Translation? If MLB ever tried to fine a player for constitutionally protected speech, they'll get sued back to the Stone Age by a combination of the MLBPA, the ACLU, Ben Matlock, and this guy. That's why players like Adrian Gonzalez(notes) can take a stand against immigration laws in Arizona, or why baseball players, as long as they are not screaming "FIRE!" in a crowded dugout, can get away with saying just about anything. Counsell could have even attacked the revenue-sharing system or other financial mechanisms in baseball without impunity because, again, he is not directly invested in the ownership cabal like Henry.
Even Baltimore Orioles outfielder Luke Scott's(notes) controversial responses in a December 2010 interview by Answer Man David Brown regarding his wildly incorrect belief that President Obama was not born in the United States is still protected free speech. Neither the Orioles nor Bud Selig fined Scott for his crazy talk. What a country we live in! Even wackadoo comments by wingnuts are covered by the Constitution ... Bud Selig and his fine-collecting henchmen can do nothing about it!
Still, that didn't stop Selig from going after former Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker in January 2000, for a now infamous Sports Illustrated interview. Rocker effectively denigrated every single ethnic group, gender, sexual preference, and economic status with his bafflingly offensive comments to writer Jeff Pearlman. Selig tried to suspend Rocker a full month and fine him $20,000 but an arbitrator cut the suspension in half and knocked the fine down to $500 after the MLBPA complained that the fine was too high. Again, it doesn't matter how offensive the speech is, as long as you are backed by the MLBPA and the Constitution, a player is free to offend anyone and everyone.
And if John Henry wants a future outlet to spew his invectives against the Tampa Bay Rays and Kansas City Royals of the world, he can always take to his own personal blog at NESN, which he hasn't updated in nearly a year and a half.
Blogger exhaustion: I know how that feels.