San Diego Padres Outfielder Brian Giles
(August 2008)

The absence of Barry Bonds from the baseball scene has limited the opportunities for baseball writers to remind us how ethically-challenged they are, but when they get an opening, they sure run with it. Thus Brian Giles, an outfielder for the miserable San Diego Padres, was attacked by many scribes when he exercised a clause in his contract to block a pennant stretch trade to the Boston Red Sox, a team in a close race for a division title and a strong World Series contender, when the deal would have put an extra 2 million dollars in his pocket.

Why did Giles refuse to go? The outfielder likes playing and living in San Diego, where he grew up, and would prefer to end his career there. His family is in San Diego, and happy. And he is a starting player for the Padres, losers that they are, while he would be only a part-time performer with the deeper and more talented Red Sox. Sounds reasonable…admirable, even. Doesn’t Giles' choice seem like a completely defensible decision, showing that this is one professional athlete who has his priorities in order?

Oh, no! Here is veteran sportswriter Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe, expressing the view of many commentators:

“Any major league player with a competitive bone in his body won't understand Brian Giles's decision to stay in San Diego. There’s talk of not wanting to leave two daughters behind. Understandable, for sure, but part of the job description is players coping with being away from their families as they pursue lifelong dreams and lucrative careers. Giles is a player who talks a lot about winning, but if that's the case, and you don't want to leave San Diego to be part of a pennant race in Boston, then your words are forever hollow…He wants to stay in San Diego, where only the weather is first-rate. The ballpark is horrible for him, and friendly to pitchers. There's nothing to play for, but when Giles had the chance to change that, add $2 million to his wallet, and go to a place where for the next two months the juices would be flowing again, he turned it down.…Baseball players are supposed to have a pulse. They wake up every morning and hunger to win. At least most of them. They hunger to play in a city where baseball is important to the fans. They want to play for something…Giles talks about commitment, but obviously the Padres were in favor of ending that commitment. They wanted to move Giles for two minor leaguers, feeling Giles was no longer a useful part of their team. When that happens, the player should go…The Red Sox probably are better off not having such a player. If you don't have enough fire to play when the heat is on, in a city that has passion for baseball, and would rather stay where you're "comfortable," in a place where your lifestyle takes precedence over your job, then the Sox surely were making the wrong choice in Giles to be the protection they were seeking with their injury-riddled lineup…”

Throughout the free agent era, many have found it remarkable that players who command salaries far in excess of anything they could possibly need or spend, let their services be purchased by the highest-bidder alone. When a player professes to be comfortable and happy, near his family and tied in to a community, while making 12 million dollars a year, why give that up to be making 14 million? Is money the only rational consideration…even money in amounts that make each additional dollar increasingly irrelevant? Isn’t the more logical course for a player to use his financial independence to choose to play where it is best for his children, his family, and his quality of life?

Ah, but a player is supposed to care about winning, sneers Cafardo. Yet Cafardo is defining “winning” in an extremely narrow and abstract manner. Is being a minor player on a team that is likely to win with or without you a more worthy goal than playing a key role in helping a less talented team win more games than it otherwise would…to be the best it can be? Is it now a character flaw to have loyalty for one’s hometown team, and not to jump ship the second a stronger organization and more lucrative situation beckons?

Critics like Cafardo are hypocrites extraordinaire. They cheered when stars like Kirby Puckett and Cal Ripkin chose to stay with their original teams even though the organizations were struggling and the money would be less. How can that attitude be reconciled with the attacks on Giles? It cannot. The argument being made against Giles would seem to hold that any player who doesn’t sign with the team that has the best chance of winning lacks competitive fire. Ridiculous. You don’t stoke competitive fire by sitting on the bench. Giles would rather play more often, helping his mediocre home team do the best it can, while being close to his family and enjoying the quality of life that the beautiful city of San Diego allows. He constructed his contract to continue doing that even if his team found it advantageous to trade him, and Cafardo’s argument that Giles has some kind of obligation to waive control over his life that he bargained to acquire is absurd.

Brian Giles’ principled choice shows that he values family, personal autonomy, loyalty, security and integrity over money and hitching himself to a remote organization’s existing success. This makes him an admirable exception to the self-centered and venal athletes whose antics infest the sports pages, and an Ethics Hero. Sportswriters who see ethical conduct and call it a character flaw no longer can tell the good guys from the bad guys. That is a serious professional handicap.

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