Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 10/27/11

It’s a good thing Major League Baseball isn’t going to, you know, overreact to the Boston Red Sox collapse. After the famous Boston Globe article that gently blew open the clubhouse, revealing that — shockingly! — some of the Red Sox pitchers ate chicken and drank beer during the ballgames, the commissioner’s office felt it had no choice but to explore a total ban on beer in the clubhouse. Joe Torre finally decided against such a ban, but Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon was wise enough to call the ban what it was: “asinine.”

All of this knee-jerk stuff that occurs in our game absolutely drives me crazy. If you want to be proactive about some thoughts, go ahead, be proactive and I’m all for that. But to say a grown-up can’t have a beer after a game? Give me a break. That is, I’m going to use the word, ‘asinine,’ because it is. Let’s bring the Volstead Act back, OK. Let’s go right back to prohibition and start legislating everything all over again. All that stuff pretty much annoys me, as you can tell.*

* Not only do I agree, I give Maddon major props for referencing the Volstead Act, the 1919 law that led to the passage of the 18th Amendment banning the manufacture, sale, and transport of intoxicating beverages. It remained on the books until December 5, 1933, when the 21st amendment, repealing the eighteenth and ending Prohibition, was ratified. Both of these events have been commemorated by modern distillers and brewers: on December 5, 2008, Dewar’s Whisky celebrated the 75th anniversary of Repeal Day, and the 21st Amendment Brewery was founded in San Francisco in 2000 as a celebration of the law that let us drink again. I’m a fan of their Back in Black IPA. Later in the interview, Maddon identified himself as more of a wine drinker. De gustibus non disputandum est.

The problem that the article revealed was less about beer and more about a total breakdown in clubhouse communication. Different players operated by different rules, and Terry Francona was unable to foster any sense of community. The Red Sox, obviously, have had a reputation of clubhouse disharmony for a long, long time. (Peter Gammons’s pithy description, “25 players, 25 cabs,” was written three decades ago.) And just as obviously, it didn’t hurt them much when they were the best team in baseball this summer.

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone on a website like Fangraphs who believes that team chemistry is particularly determinate of success; we’ve all snickered our way through columns like this from retired Tufts professor Sol Gittleman in 2008: “With the Age of Clemens, there was still a lack of leadership in the clubhouse; it was still 25 players, 25 cabs. And then it changed. The Yawkey Age was over. There were new faces, new ideas and an understanding that talent and character won titles. … The Red Sox are getting what they deserve, and everyone is smiling. We have the Age of John Henry, Larry and Theo. All’s well.”

Of course, all wasn’t well this year, but it wasn’t the fault of the beer. When Bobby Bonilla and Rickey Henderson famously played cards by themselves in the dugout while the New York Mets lost the 1999 NLCS to the Braves, no one suggested banning Hoyle. But bans are in the air these days. At the start of the World Series, Sen. Dick Durbin renewed his call for a clubhouse ban on smokeless tobacco, which I argued against in February. In September, USA Today reported: “The Diamondbacks and Houston Astros have stopped providing energy drinks in their clubhouse and are discouraging players from using them.” This time, it was Diamondback closer J.J. Putz who called it “asinine.” (For that matter, so did fark.com.)

The Astros and Diamondbacks may be overreacting, but it’s certainly their prerogative to determine what they serve, and Gatorade isn’t exactly health food. (Yes, I know, it’s got electrolytes.) But let’s not go overboard and blame Torre et al for exploring the issue and determining to do nothing, a strategy they successfully employed after the allegations that Alex Rodriguez participated in illegal high-stakes poker games. Here’s the rough chronology: the Boston Globe article about the Red Sox appeared on October 12; the blogosphere exploded; Joe Torre announced on October 23 that MLB was considering banning beer in clubhouses; he then backed off the next day, saying the decision would be left to the teams. (Eighteen of the 30 clubs already prohibit beer in the clubhouse; the Red Sox are among just 12 teams that allow it.)

Through the Rodriguez and now beer incidents, it appears that Torre may be establishing a pattern in his brief tenure as Major League Baseball’s executive vice president of baseball operations: when something of concern occurs, get ahead of the news cycle by announcing that you’re looking into it, weather the storm of criticism and pundits pointing out that you have no authority for enforcement, and then announce that no action will be taken at this time.

Of course, that’s all he can do. After all, Torre doesn’t have the power to ban much of anything himself — that’s all fodder for the ongoing Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations. It’s easy to make fun of a public relations strategy like that, but in my opinion, it’s far preferable to the know-nothing posture of the steroid era: better that MLB feints an overreaction than uses ignorance as an excuse for underreaction. The key point for me, at the end of the day, is that Torre understood that public opinion was heated over the matter, and then came to the correct policy conclusion.

It may be asinine, but at least it’s moving in the right direction.

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