What should Major League Baseball do to Larry Baer?
Earlier today Larry Baer, CEO of the San Francisco Giants, was caught on video in an altercation with his wife, Pam Baer. In the video he was seen attempting to grab a phone out of her right hand. She held on to the phone, her chair tipped over and she was sent to toppling to the ground. She yelled for help during the altercation.
A witness told the San Francisco Chronicle that, “she seemed pretty terrified.” While Baer did not attempt to strike or otherwise harm his wife after she was forced to the ground, witnesses came to move him away said he only calmed down once they put their hands on him.
Soon after the incident Larry Baer said, “My wife and I had an unfortunate public argument related to a family member and she had an injured foot and she fell off her chair in the course of the argument. The matter is resolved. It was a squabble over a cell phone. Obviously it’s embarrassing.” Later in the day, the Baers issued a joint statement:
Just moments ago, Baer issued a followup statement:
The police were not called, but police did show up on the scene later to interview witnesses once they saw the story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Major League Baseball issued a terse statement, saying it was aware of the incident and it would gather the facts.
Legally, it’s doubtful anything will happen at this point. The altercation was enough, in my view, to lead to charges -- Baer was the cause of his wife being forced to the ground, and that’s battery -- but unless Pam Baer was willing to cooperate with authorities, it’s not likely they would move forward and prosecute. The joint statement suggests that she would not do so. That may change, it may not. We’ll see.
Under Major League Baseball’s domestic violence policies, however, charges are not necessary in order for someone to face discipline from the league. Aroldis Chapman, for example, was suspended for 30 games in 2016 despite not being charged with any crime. Assuming Major League Baseball does the right thing and treats an owner of a team the same way as a player, Baer should be subject to discipline here.
Disciplining a player is one thing -- they play games, so you suspend him for a set number of games, docking his pay during that time. But what do you do with an owner who does not play games and who is not paid by the game?
Major League Baseball’s history can help us here, but only to some degree. Let’s look at the history.
In the very distant past, the league had forced the sale of at least one team upon a criminal conviction of the owner. That was the St. Louis Cardinals, whose owner, Fred Saigh, went to jail in 1953 for tax evasion after which Commissioner Ford Frick pressured him to sell his team, which was purchased by Anheuser-Busch. While the league would later force out Dodgers owner Frank McCourt for various perfidies and embarrassments, those were mostly financial matters. Beyond that, the league has no real history of forcing the sale of ownership interests for the bad acts of owners.
There have been owner suspensions, however.
In 1992, baseball’s executive council investigated Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott for using racial slurs toward players and employees and making anti-Semitic remarks. The investigation took a while, not because there was a question about Schott’s actions -- she was as racist as the day was long and no one, her own attorney included, disputed that she had done what she was accused of -- but because the league didn’t know how to discipline an owner for such things.
There was brief talk of forcing her to sell the Reds, which is what the NBA would later do with Donald Sterling’s Los Angeles Clippers, but ultimately it was decided that she would be suspended for a year from day-to-day operations of the Reds and leveled a fine of $25,000. It was considered a somewhat lenient sentence, with the counsel for the National League later telling the New York Times that the other owners did not consider her conduct to be “malicious” because the then-64-year-old Schott was a “creature of her times.” Her attorney called the outcome “favorable.” A few years later Schott would again step in it, making favorable remarks about Adolf Hitler. As the gears of baseball began to grind in an effort to punish her a second time she voluntarily stepped down as the team’s managing partner and later sold her shares.
Before Schott, Major League Baseball suspended Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Not once, but twice. The first time came in the mid-70s thanks to being convicted of making illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon. Steinbrenner was deprived of day-to-day control of his team for two years at that time, but it was later commuted to 15 months. The second suspension came in the early 90s after Steinbrenner hired a gambler to follow Dave Winfield around in an effort to dig up dirt on his star outfielder. He was given a permanent ban from baseball at that time, but again, it was commuted and, in the event, Steinbrenner was suspended from management of the Yankees for three years.
On one level, Schott’s and Steinbrenner’s suspensions were instructive, in that it showed how Major League Baseball might discipline an owner, but neither case is a perfect fit for the situation with Larry Baer.
Schott’s case may involve some odious behavior, but it was also the sort of behavior which didn’t, technically, violate any league rules or even strongly held values of league ownership. Sure, everyone agreed her racism was horrible and an embarrassment, but as Schott’s attorney famously argued, she didn’t say anything publicly that many other owners hadn’t said privately many, many times. Heck, other owners even said racist stuff publicly and didn’t get in trouble, so why should Schott, the argument went.
In light of that -- and in light of the fact that now Major League Baseball has a very strong anti-domestic violence policy and that no one can reasonably excuse Baer the way they excused Schott as lacking malice -- can’t one argue that Baer should be punished more harshly than Schott? Maybe given a suspension of more than a year or, for that matter, to step down from his role as team CEO permanently?
Steinbrenner got more than a year each time he was suspended, but the behavior is hard to analogize with Baer’s. Before the first suspension he tried and convicted federal crime. Before the second he was involved in what can only be seen as a shocking violation of norms that threatened the integrity of the game. While the current domestic violence policy does not require charges or a conviction, even the players who had been convicted of crimes since the policy has been in place haven’t received two-year suspensions. While Baer’s behavior is, at least in my mind, odious, it feels different than what Steinbrenner did to Winfield and a lifetime ban, even if later reduced, seems rather harsh.
All of which is to say that this is a hard case for Rob Manfred. If I were in his shoes, I’d probably think about the precedents for owner discipline -- a year? two years? -- and try to incorporate some of the elements of player discipline we’ve seen under the domestic violence rule, which have run from 15 games to 100 games. Since an owner’s day-to-day duties can be easily delegated or moved to a time before or after a suspension takes effect, I’d think that anything less than a year would be insufficient to send a message. At the same time, since an owner does not get paid by the game, that year away may be relatively meaningless, financially, so I’d consider a large fine, perhaps on par with what a player might expect to lose in pay over the typical 15-100 game suspension in play. A few million bucks?
It may also be something that the Giants handle, in at least in part, for Major League Baseball. After all, Baer is just the CEO of a large ownership group. He does not possess a controlling share in the business. He could simply be removed and relegated to silent partner status if the other co-owners deem it so. Depending on how this story plays out in the coming days, they may deem it so. At that point all baseball will have to do, practically, is level a hefty fine.
It’s certainly messy, but again, it’s something for which we have no precedent at the moment. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.