Last night, incomplete fragments of news came through the baseball media that Chicago White Sox pitching ace Chris Sale had been pulled from his scheduled start against the Tigers. Was he about to be traded? No, we learned that there had been a “non-physical” altercation with someone in the White Sox front office. Huh? What did that mean?
It turned out that the truth was stranger than any speculation. Sale, we learned, had refused to wear a retro White Sox uniform during a “Turn Back The Clock” promotion that nigh, and to ensure that he wouldn’t have to, he cut up all the vintage uniforms, using a scissors and a knife, while the rest of the team was taking batting practice.
As soon as I heard this, I told my wife,”I bet I know exactly which uniforms the team was supposed to wear.” I was right: the White Sox promotion involved giving out free facsimile 1976 uniform jerseys to the first 15,000 game attendees, with the team wearing the infamous fashion abortion perpetrated on baseball by puckish former White Sox owner Bill Veeck, the same iconoclast who sent a midget up to bat in a real game.
Here are those uniforms, almost unanimously agreed-upon by all critics as the silliest baseball garb ever to appear on a Major League player (that’s Veeck in the middle; the ones on the left are the uniforms in question):
It is recorded that the players and the fans hated the 1976 uniforms, which were quickly discarded, especially the version with the shorts, which only appeared in one game. No wonder Sale was upset.
Now to the ethics issues:
- Sale had no right to single-handedly veto his employers’ promotion, and was completely in the wrong. He could have boycotted that game himself, and pay the consequences: Sale gets a bit over 9 million dollars a year, or $56,000 a game. He could count on a suspension of at least four games, preferably more, if he refused to pitch, so his principled act could have easily cost him a quarter of a million dollars. But what he did was far, far worse. He destroyed team property; he undermined a team promotion; and he defied management, and probably the terms of his contract.
[UPDATE: The White Sox have suspended Sales for five games. ]
- If Sale were a reserve outfielder or a slumping veteran with a burdensome contract, the White Sox would simply fire him: release him, and say good riddance. If the team wanted to send a clear message that it wouldn’t tolerate such conduct, it would do this to Sale, too. It won’t, however. No team would. Sale is a rare commodity, a great pitcher who is young and under contract for much less than he is worth. Welcome to the King’s Pass. Sale can and will get away with what no lesser player could survive.
- Tough question. Last year, the BBC was faced with a major star, Jeremy Clarkson, who engaged in massive misconduct, and fired him even though it wounded one of its most popular shows. That was principled and right, but no TV show star is as irreplaceable as a young, star pitcher, or as important to as many people as a great pitcher is to a baseball team. Properly punishing Sale would have a negative impact on the team, its players, their chances of making the play-offs, fans, merchandisers, and the health of the franchise. In substantive terms, moreover, Sale wouldn’t lose anything if he were fired; he might even come out with more money and playing on a better team.
- That dilemma one of many reasons why Sale’s conduct was so wrong. He placed his team in an impossible situation. If it asserts, as it must, that the pampered millionaire athletes in its employ must still follow the team’s directions, it weakens the franchise. If the team lets Sale escape with minimal discipline, then it has announced that big stars can defy management, and worse, though childish tantrums, and face minor discipline. That kind of message can tear an organization apart, and has.
- By one interpretation, however, Sale was making an important statement that should have been made long ago. Reportedly he argued that the team was placing promotions and marketing above winning by making players wear uncomfortable, ridiculous uniforms. Baseball has been engaging in an increasing amount of these stunts, making players use pink bats on Mothers Day, giving them neon shoes in the last All-Star Game, putting them in ugly customized caps on holidays, and, of course, using them as models during games to sell really bad uniforms of yore. This is unfair to the players, humiliating, and disrespectful. They all have contract clauses requiring them, as a condition of employment, to cooperate with team marketing and promotions, but those 1976 uniforms are just a hop, skip and a jump from making them play dressed like Carmen Miranda. There have to be limits. Management should consider the players’ dignity: just because the team can make them play in horrible uniforms—and remember, the 1976 edition is famous because everyone agrees those uniforms are absurd—doesn’t mean the team should. Sale feels he and the other players were being exploited at the cost of their dignity, but not only that, he felt having to pitch while looking like a member of the Temptations’ softball team would adversely affect his performance. By this analysis, he was standing up for the integrity of the game.
Just to show how far out-of-control these uniform promotions are getting, a Houston Astros minor league team was forced to play a game in these uniforms, inspired by the (bad) Steve Martin-Chevy Chase comedy, “The Three Amigos”:
- Chris Sale and the White Sox could mitigate this mess, if Sale sincerely and publicly apologized to the team and the fans for going Edward Scissorhands on the uniforms, and in return the White Sox management promised not to make the players dress like clowns in the future.
I’m betting neither will do it
So where do we stand? Well..
…Sale breached his contract, his duty to the team, abused his position as a star and role model, and destroyed team property.
….The White Sox sparked his misconduct by disregarding its obligation to treat the players with respect, and not abuse the employer-employee relationship.
….Sale had a legitimate reason to protest, but chose an unethical manner in which to do it.
….The White Sox are in ethics zugswang, placed there by their own inattention to their players’ sensitivities and Sale’s irresponsible conduct. Barring mutual apologies, no matter what course the team takes, it will have negative consequences to the team.
The trade deadline is approaching. The best of many bad alternatives is for the White Sox to get as much as they can in exchange for Sale, and to try to send him someplace he’ll hate, like Cleveland, so his misconduct doesn’t result in a favorable outcome for the player.
Source and Graphics: Washington Post