Much has been made of Major League Baseball's decision to suspend Boston Red Sox pitcher Ryan Dempster for five games, for throwing at New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez on Sunday night. We should probably put quotes around "suspension," there. Dempster technically will have to skip a start, though not really; as The Boston Globe put it, "with the Red Sox off on Thursday and Monday, the suspension has virtually no effect on the team." He also will be paid during the suspension. MLB threw the book at Dempster, but it was a children's flipbook, and they purposely missed.
As baseball writer Joe Sheehan joked on Twitter during the Yankees' game yesterday afternoon, "Ivan Nova leaves the game with a lead, and now serves a four-game suspension with pay." The joke's even better when you realize that the Yankees were playing a doubleheader, which makes it five games, which means Nova, in fact, is serving the exact same "suspension" as Dempster. He didn't even get the satisfaction of throwing at A-Rod for his trouble.
In any institution, certain punishments are going to come across as inconsistent, arbitrary and bewildering to those outside the institution. Donte Stallworth served only 30 days in jail for killing a man in a drunk-driving accident; Plaxico Burress did two years for dumbly bringing a gun into a nightclub. Legal systems are arcane and byzantine worlds, run by human beings with their own biases and peculiarities. It's going to be different for everybody.
But baseball fines strike me as particularly strange. Theoretically, the same people are in charge of every fine, but it never seems to make a lick of sense. Fines actually should be the most important aspect of any baseball punishment, considering the Collective Bargaining Agreement doesn't allow players to be suspended with pay for disciplinary reasons like Dempster's. (The global terror that PEDs inflict on an unsuspecting populace obviously is excepted.) It's the only real power MLB has to inflict any pain in the wallet. But I can't figure out a lick of rhyme or reason from any of them. The ones we even know about.
I dug through the publicly available fine amounts from the last couple of decades or so -- note that MLB rarely releases the dollar amount of fines, so most of these are from outside sources. (I couldn't find a single physical dollar amount to any of Ozzie Guillen's fines, for example.) I couldn't find any pattern; let me know if you can. (It's also worth mentioning that fines in baseball are dramatically smaller than the other three major professional sports, and they're usually suspended without pay as well. This might be because they were so historically confrontational between union and management.)
$50,000 -- Albert Belle, for screaming at then-NBC reporter Hannah Storm before Game 3 of the 1995 World Series.
$5,000 -- Joe Girardi, for arguing after Ryan Dempster threw four pitches at Alex Rodriguez.
$5,000 -- Jonathan Papelbon, for taking too long to throw a pitch.
$2,500 -- Ryan Dempster, for throwing at Alex Rodriguez four times.
$1,000 -- Deion Sanders, for dumping a bucket of ice water on Tim McCarver.
$500 -- Joe Madden, for yelling at Indians catcher Victor Martinez.
And that's all I can find, publicly; Major League Baseball appears to have learned its lesson on letting the word get out on fines. The surprise is that the Dempster and Girardi fines leaked at all. Though considering how tired MLB is of A-Rod right now -- and how much they seem to be encouraging people to throw at him until he leaves the game all together -- perhaps the world knowing that Girardi's fine was worse than Dempster's shouldn't be a surprise at all.
This is another reminder that of all the major sports leagues, baseball players are punished financially at dramatically reduced rates. In the NBA last month, four NBA players were fined $15,000 each for playing in an unsanctioned alumni game at the University of Washington. Dwight Howard got $35,000 for a flagrant foul. And those guys, like the NFL players, lose salary for games under suspension, too -- for Von Miller, the Broncos player just busted for six games for substance abuse, it's gonna cost him more than $800,000. For crying out loud, in the NFL, they give out five-figure fines for things that happen in preseason games. (At least that's proof that someone, somewhere, is watching.)
So the MLB fines, the ones we know about it, don't make much sense. But it doesn't really matter because the amounts, regardless of the offense, are so low that it's basically like fining you five bucks for being late to the office. And even if they were a lot …most of the time, the fines are never collected anyway. Baseball fines, like all fines, are about making it look like people are getting tough, when they're not. What they're trying to look tough about, as with all nods to a theoretical resolution, depends on the situation, the mood of everyone involved, the weather … pretty much everything but justice. Sort of like the actual legal system.