Baseball culture has been changing a great deal recently, particularly when it comes to valid reasons for players to miss playing time. Way back in the old days, teams used to go shorthanded a lot more often than they do now. As Bill James recently wrote, “When a player has a minor injury now, we move him to the minors and let him get healthy before we put him back in the lineup. Thirty years ago players would sit out a week — on the active roster — then play their way back into shape at the major league level.” As specialization increased, and each team began to carry six or seven relievers, teams simply couldn’t afford to lose a player for that length of time. In 2002, the only way a player could leave his team without leaving them a man short was to go on the 15-day or 60-day disabled list. Anything short of being disabled — including a concussion, a childbirth, or a death in the family — and the team would have to play with a 24-man roster. Players were forced to make a difficult choice — essentially, they had to chose between doing the best thing for their families or the best thing for their teammates.
Times have changed. In 2003, MLB instituted the “bereavement list.” Now also known as the “Family Medical Emergency List,” it allows players to take time off for family emergencies, including the death of a relative. And in 2011, MLB instituted both the seven-day DL for concussions and the “paternity leave list,” which allows players to leave their teams for the birth of a child. Colby Lewis was the first person to use the list to attend the birth of his child in mid-April, and seven more players have made use of it since then: Grant Balfour, David Purcey, Ian Desmond, Kurt Suzuki, Jason Bay, Ross Gload and most recently Ian Kinsler. For the most part, the paternity leave list has gone off without a hitch. It’s hardly controversial for a father to want to witness the birth of his child. Right?
The basic procedure for putting a player on the paternity list is simple: The club submits a written request to the commissioner’s office for a player whose child’s birth is imminent or has occurred within the previous 48 hours. Players can miss between one and three days. The bereavement list works in a similar way, and MLB spokesman Pat Courtney told me that its usage has not significantly changed over the years. Roughly 15 teams use the bereavement list every year, without too much variation. This suggests that, while players and teams are always looking for an edge, they don’t appear to be abusing the bereavement list, and it’s not too likely that they will abuse the paternity leave list, either.*
* The disabled list, of course, been subject to more fraud over the years. When a team can’t figure out what’s wrong with a player, or just want to get him out of the way, they may simply shove them onto the disabled list with the vaguest possible medical description. Famously, in 1998, the Braves disabled Mark Wohlers with perhaps the simplest diagnosis of all: “Inability to pitch.”
Most of the players who have made use of the paternity leave list this year have met either approval or silence for doing so. The brunt of the weak criticism was borne by the pioneer, Colby Lewis, who was greeted by a sarcastic blog post by Richie Whitt in the Dallas Observer:
A pitcher missing one of maybe 30 starts? And it’s all kosher because of Major League Baseball’s new paternity leave rule? …
If it was a first child, maybe. But a second child causing a player to miss a game? Ludicrous.
Rob Neyer half-heartedly agreed: “As a human being, I think this is fantastic. As a baseball fan, though? If my team’s in the playoff hunt, I’m sorry, but I don’t want one of my starting pitchers taking the night off.”
A year ago, before the inauguration of the paternity leave list, it was put even more harshly by Bill Simmons’s friend John O’Connor (“JackO”). He expressed his sentiments on a B.S. Report podcast last August, when Mark Teixeira missed two games for the birth of his son. O’Connor was clearly playing for laughs, but he also clearly agreed with Neyer:
He’s a professional athlete. In exchange for that $20,625,000, he’s expected to play in the games. It’s not his first kid. It’s his third kid.
It’s one thing if he has a 9-to-5 job and he’s making $60 grand. You wanna be Mr. Mom, and be there every day and give him a bath, that’s fine. You signed on to be a professional athlete to make more money in one year than most people will ever see in their lives. In exchange for that there are certain sacrifices that you have to make. Like not being there for the birth of your third kid when the Yankees are in the midst of a pennant race.
Women were quick to notice the irony. The Miami Herald’s Cindy Krischer Goodman wrote: “As a country, we’ve been quick to criticize the choices and sacrifices mothers have made. Now, it’s dads’ turn and I think that shows we’ve made progress.” The Hello Ladies blog added, “Whitt’s column, even if it was just intended to grab attention, makes it easier to understand why women, and mothers in particular, face discrimination at work.”
Clearly, though, baseball culture is changing, and as I said last week, that’s the most powerful kind of change. While the other major sports of football, basketball, and hockey each have an equivalent of the DL (usually called the Injured Reserve) to the best of my knowledge, none has an equivalent of the bereavement list or paternity leave list. Together with the seven-day DL for concussions, which have helped to reduce the stigma around concussions in baseball culture, the end result, in baseball, has been to create a more humane league, one in which players are permitted to engage in actions related to emotions that athletes do not always express: grief, worry, concern, and the joy of childbirth.
Last week, I discussed the political cover that Billy Beane gave Kurt Suzuki to attempt to avoid unnecessary injury in a play at the plate; the concussion DL, bereavement list, and paternity leave list each provide different types of protection for a player’s physical and emotional health. And, ultimately, because a happier player is a more productive player, utilizing these lists is not only a matter of principle, but also of strategy. Each of these weakens the double standards inherent in baseball’s traditional culture, double standards that demand that an athlete ignore and sacrifice his emotional and physical health by the justification of his salary.
So what are the next frontiers for this kinder, gentler MLB? Perhaps a disabled list for mental health or substance abuse treatment? An even more important step is one that no list can effectuate: the acceptance of an openly gay player. The more that baseball culture, baseball fans and baseball players get used to the idea that ballplayers can be whole emotional beings without shame or embarrassment, the closer that day will come.
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.