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The Angels bungle the Josh Hamilton case, again

Josh Hamilton is still flailing, but the Angels management is flailing worse

For an organization that consistently fields an entertaining, fan-friendly ball club, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have a bizarre habit of acting like bums when it's completely unnecessary.  

The latest example is the team's treatment of Josh Hamilton, 33, the slugging outfielder the Angels signed to a five-year, $125-million contract before the 2013 season. Hamilton has a history of substance abuse and recovery, and during this off-season he relapsed. In response, the Angels have showered him with disdain and showered themselves with discredit.

Before we get into the details of the Hamilton case, here's a quick recap of the team's previous missteps.

There was the great ticket fiasco of 2012, when the team required buyers of low-price advance ticket vouchers to travel to Angel Stadium on a given date to redeem them personally, opened only a handful of ticket windows to accommodate a crowd of thousands, and then acted as though these one-step-up-from-deadbeat fans were getting such a good deal on seats they should count themselves lucky that they weren't subjected to worse. 

Then there's how the Angels treat their stadium workers, offering them a union contract that keeps them mired well behind Dodgers employees in hourly wages and post-season bonuses. In their latest contract talks with ushers, gate attendants, and ticketing staff represented by the Service Employees International Union, the team initially offered a $1 hourly raise over six years; the final deal, inked last month, provides for $1.50 an hour over five years.

According to the SEIU, the team originally proposed to raise the pay differential for World Series games to 15% from 10%, then withdrew the proposal. The final settlement allows for a 15% raise for working games five, six, and seven of the Series, assuming the Angels get that far. But at Dodger Stadium, SEIU-covered employees are entitled to double-time pay for all home playoff games, and time-and-a-half or double-time for World Series (depending on how many games are played). The SEIU has been trying to achieve parity for Angel and Dodger Stadium workers, but the former seem to be falling further behind. 

There must be a reason Angels owner Arte Moreno wants his front-line customer service staff to feel nickel-and-dimed. If so, he hasn't explained it. 

That brings us back to Hamilton, who voluntarily self-reported his latest bout of substance abuse during the off-season. An arbitrator ruled last week that under the terms of Major League Baseball's drug treatment program, he could not be disciplined for the relapse.

The Angels, who were hoping Hamilton would be suspended, reacted with fury. "It defies logic that Josh's reported behavior is not a violation of his drug program," Angels President John Carpino said. General Manager Jerry Dipoto issued the following statement, which belongs in the dictionary under "disingenuous":

"The Angels have serious concerns about Josh’s conduct, health and behavior and we are disappointed that he has broken an important commitment which he made to himself, his family, his teammates and our fans. We are going to do everything possible to assure he receives proper help for himself and for the well-being of his family." 

So Dipoto pledges to "do everything possible to help" Hamilton and sheds tears over "the well-being of his family." But first he makes sure Hamilton is subjected to outright humiliation.

The management statements roiled the Angels clubhouse, at least for a day or two, which isn't great strategy as a new season is just getting underway. The remarks also pointed to what really angered the Angels about the arbitrator's ruling: it left the team on the hook for Hamilton's $23 million in salary for 2015 and, barring a future suspension, $30 million a year guaranteed for 2016 and 2017. An $83-million invoice will buy a lot of petulance. 

Throughout this episode, MLB insiders--whether the Angels or someone else--have exploited what they assume to be public disdain for players with substance abuse problems. This is not unusual in the sports world, where everyone from league officials to the International Olympics Committee acts as though accusations of drug use should automatically deprive the accused of all semblance of due process and the rule of law: Hey, they're cheaters, why should they be treated fairly? (For my investigation of abusive practices by international sports agencies, see here and here.)

When a big-name athlete is accused of drug abuse, all guarantees of confidentiality and due process afforded violators of other rules go out the window. Details of their cases are ruthlessly leaked to the press. That happened with Alex Rodriguez, and as Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports observes, it happened with Hamilton

It has escaped nobody's notice that the Angels and Hamilton reached their five-year deal fair and square. His history of substance abuse was no secret. The likelihood that they were overpaying for a slugger on the downslope of his career was well known in the baseball world. In 2012, before the Angels' signing, Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus predicted that Hamilton's skills were on the verge of falling off a cliff and set his value at a bit more than half the sum the Angels eventually put up. 

Hamilton has lived down to those expectations. In 2013 his production fell off sharply in every offensive categories; home runs were cut in half. Angel fans got used to seeing rallies killed by a wild Hamilton flail at a ball out of the strike zone.

After barely six weeks, Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus took a painstaking look at Hamilton's swing and declared: "This is a whole other level of suck." Last year things seemed to be looking up, but then Hamilton got hurt and ended up playing in only 89 games. As this season starts, he's on the disabled list, nursing a bad shoulder. 

But the Angels made the deal. By attacking Hamilton now for a relapse requiring treatment and support rather than petulance and anger, they're showing their true colors. Even for those of us who love the team on the field, every year brings a new reason to detest the organization.

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