It is mostly not a good thing that the Pittsburgh Pirates are continuing to put their prospects through risky, ridiculous crypto-SEAL-ish "Hell Week" training sessions. But for Pirates fans who believe that the greatest triumph can only come after the lowest of lows—and no other Pirates fan can still be a Pirates fan after the last two decades—then the latest revelations about the organization's enduring dedication to unorthodox/idiotic training methods could be the best thing to ever happen to them. But first, they'll have to get sued.
This might not be what fans want to hear. This might seem like another chapter in the argument about America becoming too litigious for its own good. This might sound like a bad movie pitch. But these are the Pirates, and desperate times call for desperate measures and, sad as it may seem, a civil suit may be the thing that could save the Pittsburgh Pirates. Because it’s the only way to both expose to the public just how poorly we all suspect they’ve been handling business and create some accountability for it.
Let’s start with the drama, with the caveat that this is all based on what’s been published so far, and that we presumably remain far from knowing the full truth about what is going on with Pittsburgh. In September, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Dejan Kovacevic broke the story that the Pirates had decided to put their prospects through three days of Navy SEAL exercises at the team's facility in Bradenton, with some bizarre corporate motivational exhortations mixed in with hand-to-hand combat stuff. It left many baseball watchers scratching their heads, laughing, or both. Without even getting into the "Dream like a Hippie" rhetoric of assistant GM Kyle Stark, it raised a number of questions. Foremost among them: why would an organization risk injuring players while practicing very un-baseball skills?
Pirates officials said the exercises were only for a few days, but on Tuesday, Kovacevic again broke the news in his column that, despite the negative reaction, the Pirates kept the SEALs style for something this month called “Hell Week.” Pirates prospect Gregory Polanco, he reported, reinjured his already tender ankle during the first day of it. The proper response to this, at least for Pirates fans, is "ugh." Everyone else is free to split their response up between head-shaking and laughter, per usual.
(The Best Pirates-Related Psychic award goes to Rumbunter.com, where Tom Smith warned back in September, “We trust that a player isn’t pushed into an injury situation, it just seems like the type of headline that would captivate DEADSPIN.” Tuesday's Kovacevic report, of course, made Deadspin).
As a fan and a decent person, I hope Polanco recovers to a nice, long, successful MLB career. But if he doesn’t, and if Kovacevic’s reporting is correct, Polanco should file a civil suit for damages, not only to compensate him for lost wages and career advancement but also to shed light on just how far the Pirates have fallen. The first part would be for him; the rest would be for Pirates fans.
Because they publish so much information about themselves (statistics! more statistics!), it’s easy to forget Major League Baseball teams are, almost always, private companies; it is easy to remember that MLB itself has an antitrust exemption. Teams don’t have to tell anyone anything that they don’t want to, even though they love to bill themselves as community members and play in stadiums financed with public money. That’s a facade, of course. This isn’t City Hall or the School Board. Multimillion-dollar privately held companies rarely have to tell community stakeholders anything they'd rather not, and so seldom do. Public records available to you about your local baseball team are, approximately, zero. Fans are, in a sense, at the whim of these companies. We can always leave, of course. But if we don't, we're stuck trusting team management to do the right thing. Sometimes this works out. Sometimes the team in which we invest our time and money puts its best prospects—teenagers, in many cases, and many of them in no position to decline the invitation—through some dunderheaded early-morning steeplechase, and people get injured.
This is the team's private business, like it or not. But a civil suit for damages? Public record. The evidence gathered by investigators and submitted into the court? Public records. Contracts submitted to the court? Public records. Depositions with personnel? Public records. Kovacevic is good, but a court case would lay bare a whole host of things that no journalist could.
Even better, let’s do this in Florida, where the Pirates hold Spring Training, as well as the periodic gonzo pseudo-Crossfit exercises Kovacevic reported on. Florida happens to be a state known for having one of the broadest public records laws in the country.
Don’t think a court case can help inform the public? Think about how much the flurry of lawsuits over concussions have changed the image of the NFL, and grudgingly drawn the NFL to display even a little bit of fight on the issue. Many of those cases have only recently gotten started.
As a baseball fan, I'd love to see Gregory Polanco sharing an outfield with Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen. But I would also love to see a good-hearted, Pirates-loving, butt-kicking lawyer take the organization to court. Get the injured player (or players, if it turns out that way) the money they lost and shed some light on how messed up the Pirates are. Polanco is a good prospect, and may someday be a Major Leaguer. But as a litigant, he could be the team’s last hope.