Madison Bumgarner in action for the San Francisco Giants.
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A Dirt Bike MRI

Much to the chagrin of many, politics and baseball are intertwined at every level. When it comes to Major League Baseball, politics are brought into the fold during every game, on every telecast, and at every stadium. The flag ceremonies, the National Anthem, the singing of God Bless America during the seventh inning stretch. These are but some of the overt ways in which MLB exudes its political nature. What is interesting to me, at least, is that in much more subtle ways MLB flexes its political muscle on a daily basis.

Perhaps the most subtle way in which MLB is political is in the treatment of the players. It goes beyond the labor disputes, negotiations, and contracts. Rather, the players are essentially political pawns. Now, more than ever, the league has created a state where the player is a part of the machine.

Most conversations about the role of the player usually center on how much better they have it now as compared to in years past. There is truth to that statement, most of which is found in the amount of money that players can make. Knowing that Madison Bumgarner is operating under a contract that is paying him $35,000,000 over the length of said contract certainly puts him in a well-off place financially. Modern players have it better than the players of yesteryear because, for instance, when Bumgarner’s contract expires in 2019 he can always negotiate another one with the San Francisco Giants, or seek to make even more money through free agency. That is the way it should work, at least, with players benefiting from the business done by MLB.

The politics start to come into play when the actions of the players off the field are taken into account. Before the 2017 season Bumgarner suffered a grade 2 shoulder sprain while riding a dirt bike through the Colorado mountains. This injury caused Bumgarner to miss nearly 5 months, and probably put a nail in any playoff hopes the Giants were still clinging to that year. Those are all bad things, and proof that actions have consequences. However, the questions I must ask is this; why was it a bad choice for Bumgarner to spend his off day on a dirt bike?

Around the internet directly following the Bumgarner injury, the answer was a resounding, “because of how much money the Giants have invested in him.” I understand that argument, I really do. I get why owners have spent years structuring players contracts so that numerous “dangerous” activities are off limits. But, understanding does not mean I agree with the contract culture that currently exists in MLB. Being a professional ballplayer should not mean that one has to forfeit the right to live their life. Just because Bumgarner laces up his spikes for the Giants on every fifth day that doesn’t mean the Giants should have control over every aspect of his life. Yet, that has become the norm and the expectation, not just among fans but among players and writers/analysts alike.

Shortly after the Bumgarner injury, another pitcher caused waves with his actions. The New York Mets Noah Syndergaard elected to not have an MRI done on his possibly ailing arm. A few days later the Mets trotted out Syndergaard for a start gone horribly wrong. Not only did Thor look awful and only last 1.1 innings, he later found out he tore his lat muscle and was out for an extended amount of time. Again, I am in agreement that none of this is any good. Where I differ from most is that I do not agree with the outcry against Syndergaard refusing to have an MRI in the first place.

It wasn’t all that smart for Syndergaard to refuse an MRI, but it is within his right in our healthcare system for him to refuse any medical procedure as long as he is alert & oriented. There is a catch with Syndergaard’s situation in that the labor agreement MLB players are currently operating under has a provision which states players need to undergo medical procedures that their team deems necessary. This is where a problem should have started, and the Mets should have enforced the contractual rules in the form of not allowing Syndergaard to pitch post-MRI refusal, or fine him, or some sort of reactionary measure. The Mets would have been within their contractual rights to take such action, just as Syndergaard was within his rights as a human being to refuse a medical procedure he didn’t believe was necessary.

The crux of the issue, the politics behind it all, resides in the fact that baseball players are human beings. They are free human beings at that, they are not indentured servants. They have a skillset that a particular business feels is worth spending exorbitant amounts of money on. Just because an MLB team spends millions of dollars on a player does not mean they should own the actions of that player at all times. This is not a concept that most people seem to be able to either understand or get behind. Rather, the expectations are that a player will always do what is best for the team and have no life outside of being a ballplayer.

Life is full of risks, every single person reading this article is aware of that fact. We all take risks that could affect our ability to do our jobs, as well as hurt the bottom line of the companies we work for. The work I do requires a specific skillset, a lot of which is dependent on my ability to do intricate medical work with my hands. Does that mean then that my work should be able to stop me from undertaking any task in my off time that would possibly put my hands at risk of an injury? I think most people would say no to that, but when it comes to ballplayers there appears to be a separate set of rules and expectations.

Ballplayers are human, they are not indentured servants who are nothing more than the value of their contract. They will continue to undertake actions that put their ability to do their job at risk. That’s the risk owners take when they sign human beings to play ball for them. They will make medical decisions that owners, and fans, will not agree with. That’s their right as human beings who are in control of their own bodies and the things that are done to said bodies. MLB is a political being, but its players do not need to be treated as automatons at the service of the league. Dirt bikes are dangerous, but it’s far more dangerous for a human being to be stripped of their right to be human simply because they are being paid a lot of money.

Lead photo courtesy of Arturo Pardavila III – flickr

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