Assessing a Potential Adam LaRoche Grievance

Adam LaRoche’s unexpected retirement announcement on Tuesday – along with the many twists and turns that followed – dominated the baseball headlines last week. To recap, on Wednesday we learned that rather than walking away from the game voluntarily due to a perceived diminution in talent or lack of desire, LaRoche instead elected to retire after being informed by Chicago White Sox Vice President Ken Williams that LaRoche’s son Drake was no longer welcome in the team’s clubhouse (or, at least, was not welcome to accompany LaRoche quite as frequently as he had in 2015). Then on Thursday, reports emerged that the Major League Baseball Players Association was considering whether to file a grievance against the White Sox on LaRoche’s behalf.

It’s currently difficult to determine exactly how strong a legal case LaRoche might have against the White Sox because there is still a lot we don’t know about what agreement, if any, LaRoche reached with Chicago regarding the extent to which his son could accompany him to games. For instance, on Friday, White Sox union representative Adam Eaton told the media that LaRoche’s contract with the team did in fact include a provision regarding his son’s access to the clubhouse. Meanwhile, other reports have suggested that any agreement between LaRoche and the team regarding his son was limited to a verbal understanding, and was not embodied in his written contract.

Ultimately, this distinction between a written and verbal agreement is likely to determine whether LaRoche has any real hope of prevailing in a grievance against the White Sox, should he choose to pursue one.

Under Article XI of Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement, a player has the right to file a grievance against his team should he believe that the team has violated the terms of his contract in some way. I covered the basic procedure for filing such a grievance last year in a post regarding Kris Bryant’s reassignment to the minor leagues to begin the 2015 season. In short, though, if LaRoche were to file a grievance, and is ultimately unable to reach a settlement with the White Sox, then his case would eventually be decided by a neutral arbitrator.

When resolving the case, the arbitrator will apply traditional principles of contract and labor law. Along these lines, if LaRoche’s written contract with Chicago expressly included a clause dealing with his son’s access to the clubhouse, then the arbitrator would have to determine whether Ken Williams’ recent request was consistent with, or in violation of, that provision.

Without seeing LaRoche’s written contract, it is difficult to tell whether Williams’s request violated the terms of LaRoche’s agreement or not. For instance, if the contract specified that Drake LaRoche would have unlimited access to the team’s clubhouse before, during, and after any game (home or away), then any suggestion by Williams that LaRoche needed to dial back his son’s presence would – if enforced by the team – presumably constitute a violation of his contract.

Alternatively, it is also possible that LaRoche’s agreement may be more equivocal, stating something along the lines that LaRoche’s son could accompany his father so long as his presence did not create a distraction for the team. Should this be the case, then an arbitrator would likely have to delve into the facts of the case in order to determine why Chicago believed Drake’s presence was creating a distraction, and to assess whether or not these concerns were legitimate.

On the other hand, it’s entirely possible – and perhaps even likely, given existing reports – that LaRoche’s contract did not include any written provision at all dealing with his son’s access to the clubhouse. Indeed, if LaRoche’s contract did in fact expressly include such a provision, one would assume that his first move after meeting with Williams would not have been to announce his retirement, but instead would have been to notify the MLBPA that he wished to file a grievance.

Should it turn out that any agreement between LaRoche and the White Sox regarding his son was in fact only verbal, then it will likely be difficult for LaRoche to win a grievance against the team. MLB’s uniform player contract – the written agreement all players must sign with their teams – expressly states that the written contract and the CBA “fully set forth all understandings and agreements between” the player and team, and that both sides “agree that no other understandings or agreements, whether heretofore or hereafter made, shall be valid, recognizable, or of any effect whatsoever…”

In other words, LaRoche’s written contract with Chicago explicitly states that any verbal side agreements between him and the club are not enforceable. Therefore, unless LaRoche and his agent insisted that any agreement regarding the son be included in his written contract, it will be difficult for LaRoche to argue to an arbitrator that the White Sox violated his contract. (MLB’s CBA does not itself include any provisions regarding children’s access to the clubhouse.)

That having been said, as Eugene Freedman noted over at Baseball Prospectus on Friday, even if the terms of LaRoche’s agreement regarding his son were not included in his written contract with the team, LaRoche could still argue that the fact that the White Sox allowed Drake to accompany him throughout the 2015 season created a legal presumption that LaRoche would be afforded the same privilege in 2016.

Under federal labor law, courts have held that even if a specific policy was not expressly included in a CBA, the policy may nevertheless still be viewed as an implied provision in the agreement if its existence was well established at the time the CBA was signed. In other words, courts do not necessarily hold that a CBA represents the entire agreement between a union and management; instead, the CBA is the starting point, with the parties’ past practices potentially providing evidence of additional terms governing their relationship.

However, while it’s certainly possible that an arbitrator could conclude that the fact that the White Sox allowed Drake LaRoche to accompany his father in the clubhouse throughout 2015 created such a presumption of past practice, realistically the arbitrator would likely want to see proof that this practice had been well established on a more widespread – if not uniform – basis across MLB at the time the last CBA was signed in 2012.

Unfortunately for LaRoche, it does not appear that unrestricted access to team facilities for children is the norm across the league. As ESPN has reported, MLB teams vary regarding the extent to which they allow players’ children to accompany their parents within the stadium.

Indeed, the fact that LaRoche reportedly felt the need to expressly negotiate this point with the White Sox would tend to suggest that its not an implied right that all MLB players enjoy. Therefore, an arbitrator is unlikely to rule that a right to unlimited clubhouse access for players’ children is implied in MLB’s CBA, since it does not appear that any such league-wide policy exists.

As a result, while it’s not inconceivable that LaRoche could win a grievance against the White Sox even if the agreement regarding his son was not written into his contract, it would appear that his chances of prevailing are nevertheless pretty slim if his understanding with the team on this point was only memorialized in a verbal side agreement.

Nathaniel Grow is an Associate Professor of Business Law and Ethics and the Yormark Family Director of the Sports Industry Workshop at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business. He is the author of Baseball on Trial: The Origin of Baseball's Antitrust Exemption, as well as a number of sports-related law review articles. You can follow him on Twitter @NathanielGrow. The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not express the views or opinions of Indiana University.

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6 years ago

Who really thinks that Kenny Williams would knowingly violate a term of a player’s contract? KW is not a rookie baseball exec.

It’s prob safe to assume it was a verbal agreement. And then it’s really no different than the team telling ALR before signing that he would be the team’s 1Bman. When the team situation changed, he was moved to DH. Is that also grounds to file a grievance? I don’t think so. The team certainly has the right to change it clubhouse and field access policy, as does a player the right to pull up his tent and go home.

6 years ago
Reply to  Dooduh

Well, if you remember how poorly KW handled Frank Thomas at the end of his tenure with the White Sox, then him handling this poorly does not surprise me at all. KW has a reputation for butting heads with players, especially in instances like this.

6 years ago
Reply to  estone

Well the team has a few hotheads, one of whom is the boss. We’ve all heard (assuming you guys live in the Chicago area) Kenny Williams’s press conferences. We all know the tone in which he speaks… I’ve never heard him sound relaxed.

They’re now saying the kid was there for 120 games ~75%, Kenny wanted under 50%… not unreasonable… but if he bumbled it and ADR didn’t take it well, it’s not unrealistic that something that should be easy to work out turned into something like this…