Legal, Unethical, and Despicable: The Seattle Mariners’ Contract Squeeze Play On Randy Wolf

"We made Mr. Wolf an offer he couldn't refuse. Oddly, he refused it."

“We made Mr. Wolf an offer he couldn’t refuse. Oddly, he refused it.”

What is it worth to a baseball team to save a million bucks? Apparently it’s worth being shunned by future players for being sleazy and dishonest.

Oh, it was all legal, don’t get me wrong. The Seattle Mariners, who, it should be noted, recently signed second-baseman Robinson Cano to a ten year contract averaging 24 million dollars a season, inked a deal with veteran pitcher Randy Wolf that guaranteed him a paltry million dollars if he made the team’s roster based on his performance in Spring Training. Sure enough,Wolf pitched well and not only made the team, but was told that he would be in the Mariners’ starting rotation.

There was a catch, however. Wolf was told that his being officially named to the team’s 2014 25 man roster to start the season—that’s next week, baseball fans—was contingent on him signing a legal document known as a 45-day advanced-consent release form. This would  allow the Mariners to release or demote Wolf after the first 45 days of the regular season and be obligated to only pay him a pro-rated portion of his million dollar salary, rather than the entire one million dollars his original deal guaranteed. In other words, “Gotcha!” The perfect Catch 22. “Yes, you are guaranteed a million dollars, Mister Wolf, if you make the team, and you made the team. We keep our promises. We want you on the team. But if you don’t waive that guarantee, we won’t let you make the team.

Brilliant! Most other teams have their pitching staffs set now; it’s a risk for Wolf to try to make another squad at this point. What Seattle offered him was virtually a contract of adhesion, which is what the law calls contract terms that you agree to with a gun pointed at your head. But who wants to work for an employer who treats people like this? Randy Wolf, to his credit, told the Mariners to go to hell.

I hope the Mariners feel their bait-and -switch gambit was worth the sinking of the team’s reputation deep into the muck. Fans, sportswriters, pundits, player and, yes, ethicists, are disgusted with their squeeze play. The first pitch hasn’t been thrown yet in the 2014 season, but the Seattle Mariners have already branded themselves as losers just to save part of a million dollar commitment, in the same week that another American League team, the Detroit Tigers, committed $300,000,000 to one of their players, Miguel Cabrera (which is insane, but at least it’s ethical).

If the baseball gods do their job, Randy Wolf will find employment this year with another, fairer American League team, and at some point in the season, will get a chance to hang a loss, one of many, on the bastards who tried to cheat him…legally, of course.


Sources: USA Today, SI, Detroit Free Press

15 thoughts on “Legal, Unethical, and Despicable: The Seattle Mariners’ Contract Squeeze Play On Randy Wolf

  1. Being from Michigan I think I have some sort of legal obligation to fawn on Cabrera- but while he IS a hell of a baseball player, his eyes give me the creeps. They look vaguely dead, like a TV sociopath’s…

  2. But more to the point, are the 45-day release forms standard baseball fare? They seem kind of sleazy, but if they are industry standard then what makes this case special? It seems like that form is saying, to EVERY player who signs it, “we agree to pay you X dollars, unless you look crappy in the early season, in which case we pay you a pro-rated version.”

      • If they’re rare, then it makes sense to be angered about this one, that makes more sense.

        And while “everybody does it” may be a rationalization, doesn’t it get brought up on here a lot that professional ethics aren’t the same as normal ethics? I wouldn’t want a contract like that at my job, but if 3/4 of all minor leaguers are expected to sign one when they start with a new majors team, or something like that, then I’d say it’s just part of the job.

        • “It’s just part of the job” is also a rationalization. You’re on a roll.

          Unethical policies aren’t professional ethics. To begin with, the business of baseball has no professional ethics. It’s just business ethics, and mistreating and exploiting employees is and will always be unethical, no matter how standard it is. Child labor was unethical, even while it was standard and accepted in some industries. Making employees work under unhealthy conditions was unethical, whether it was permitted and common or not. Slavery was unethical even when it was legal…and so on.

          One of the best examples is the baseball’s reserve clause, which was traditional, legal, and completely unethical.

          • Oh come on, you’re going to compare a trial clause in a contract with child labor and slavery?

            It makes perfect sense to have a contract say “Your salary for the year is X. If we decide within the first so many days we don’t want you, we can fire you at will and pay you a prorated portion of X.” Trial periods happen all the time everywhere. If they are very rare in a given field, then yes, by all means look askance when they’re used, but other than misdirecting at completely unrelated horrible employee treatment how do you connect “mistreating and exploiting” to “period during which you can be let go?”

            • The contract says “We will pay you a guaranteed X if you make the team.” That is a lie if what it really means is “but to make the team, you’ll be forced to give up the guarantee.” If they didn’t disclose that little wrinkle, it was fraud in the inducement, withholding material terms of the agreement.

              And sure I compare them: they are all unfair labor practices. Some are worse than others. Would I compare burning a baby with a cigarette to parboiling it in oil? Sure. Both are cruel, both are abuse, both are illegal, both are wrong.

              • Read the part where I said that IF these were rare then I fully agreed with you- springing an unusual contract on someone by surprise is way out of line. I’m just surprised that they don’t get those contracts from every player except those of sufficient superstar status to flex and get out of it.

                You’re confusing me- are you saying that the 45 day advanced consent forms are unfair in and of themselves? Or only that they are unfair when they are sprung on a player after other contract details have been worked out and agreed on?

  3. I am wondering the same as Luke.

    (For all my love for and interest in baseball, the business side of MLB does not interest me much at all. If anything, every new thing I observe about that business makes me cringe at least, and outrages me typically. I try to avoid observing and thinking about it, so that I can continue to enjoy the sport. Plus, I already proved myself incompetent to handle contract law, in law classes decades ago.)

    Is there some incentive on the part of the clubs to conclude contracts like the one Wolf rejected? On one hand – maybe it is a cynical hand, but I am not sure – I can see how a club might want to protect its interests by “hedging,” preventing itself from having to pay the initially expected, full-season cost of a player who shines in the spring, but wilts in the summer. Isn’t such an arrangement an ethical incentive to impose on a player, too?

    On the other hand, if Wolf was in fact treated to a bait-and-switch, then boo to the Mariners.

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