By Neil deMause
One of the weirder sidebars to the A's big trade for 40 percent of the Cubs' starting rotation has been what it meant for Tommy Milone. One of Oakland's hottest incumbent starters going into the trade, Milone found himself bumped all the way to the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats, in part because he still had options remaining.
If you're a serious baseball fan, at this point you say to yourself, Ah, of course, options. It's one of the basics of baseball's byzantine rules: Once a player makes it onto a big-league team's 40-man roster, he can be "optioned" back to the minors a limited number of times -- actually as many times as the team desires, but only during the course of three separate seasons -- without having to go through waivers, which would allow other teams to claim him for a nominal fee.
Growing up, I always accepted this as an ineffable baseball truth, like "bunting foul with two strikes is an out" or "foul poles are in fair territory." It wasn't until I read the invaluable classic baseball history trilogy by former Dodgers batboy Harold Seymour and his wife Dorothy Seymour Mills that it became clear that the option rule -- and, for that matter, the waiver rule and half a dozen other staples of the modern transaction listings -- are less dictates handed down by Alexander Cartwright on stone tablets than surviving remnants of a slice of early baseball history: the half-century-long war between the major and minor leagues.
In baseball's formative years, one of the most contentious issues was how to decide who could play for what team. After years of players jumping from club to club, often mid-season, in search of the best deal -- something that had the dual effect of making it hard to field stable teams and driving up salaries -- in 1879 National League owners instituted the "reserve list": Each team could designate five players on their team who would be off-limits to the rest of the league.
When salaries plummeted as a result, at least in years when there was no competing major league that would pirate players away without regard to the reserve, the "reserve clause" was eventually made a standard part of the player contract. Teams would henceforth retain rights to players indefinitely, whether they wanted to sign new contracts or not, a status quo that would remain in place until Curt Flood's court challenge and the introduction of free agency in the 1970s.
Just because major-league owners agreed not to steal each others' players, of course, didn't mean that they wanted to refrain from grabbing players from minor-league rosters. After years of squabbling, in 1892 a compromise was reached: The minors could reserve players, but at the end of each season big-league squads could "draft" players from their rosters for a set fee. The minors were split into two classes, A and B, with Class A players warranting a $1,000 price, while Class B teams received a whole $500 payment.
(Before you ask, yes, this was the origin of the letter system that classifies the minor leagues to this day, with Classes C and D soon added to accommodate still lower rungs with chintzier draft prices. Multiple-letter designations didn't appear until 1911, after several A leagues groused at a potential demotion to the B level, leading baseball's leaders to instead bump the International League, American Association, and Pacific Coast League to "AA" status, with accompanying premium draft rates. That trio of leagues got an extra A appended in 1946, and the additional letters from B through whatever were all abolished in 1963 -- the Green Grass League notwithstanding.)
For major-league teams, meanwhile, there remained a problem. With the invention of farm systems still decades away, if your team wanted either to stockpile promising youngsters or to keep extra players on hand as, say, backups to the one pitcher who started almost all your games, the only solution was to sign them yourself. To get around limits on how many players any one team could keep on a roster -- even then, team owners were torn between the desire to hoard all the talent themselves and the competing desire not to see their rivals do the same -- the only solution was to sign players and then find a way to stash them with an accommodating minor-league club in exchange for players, cash, or other considerations.
For years, this was done under the table and considered an evasion of the rules. For example, the 1903 National Agreement bringing peace between the then-warring National and American Leagues explicitly banned this "farming" or "covering up." But Charles Ebbets, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers and eventual namesake of its ballpark, figured a way around the ban: He would "sell" his players to a minor-league club with an "option" to repurchase them. The major leagues finally agreed to accept this practice, with the caveat that teams could legally option only a limited number of players a limited number of times.
The minor leagues weren't crazy about this, as they preferred to sign promising youngsters themselves and then sell them to the highest big-league bidder. (Jack Dunn, owner of the then-minor-league Baltimore Orioles, was particularly adept in this regard, with his highest-profile sales including Babe Ruth and Lefty Grove.) In the ensuing battles, the precise option rules bounced around for a while, until in 1931 the major leagues exacted a new agreement, under which a maximum of 15 players (which, added to the 25-man "active" list, made for a 40-man roster) could be optioned three times and no more without having to first ask that other teams "waive" on signing him; in exchange, the minors received higher draft prices that ranged all the way up to $7,500 for a top-rank minor leaguer. And thus was Tommy Milone's fate written.
All of which makes for a fun ride through the history books, and helps make sense of a lot of abstruse baseball minutiae. (And I didn't even get around to the bit, also picked up from the Seymours' trilogy, about how coaching boxes were introduced to stop skippers from screaming in the ears of the opposing catcher.) But more than that, it's a valuable reminder that the entire apparatus of baseball roster moves -- from the 40-man roster to waivers to options -- had little to do with the desire to protect players' rights not to be bounced around like chattel indefinitely, even if it does create the side benefit that players who are out of options must be made available to competing clubs, occasionally giving them a new lease on life. (See Alfredo Simon.) Rather, like the reserve clause itself that continues to bind players to their original teams until they've reached six years of major-league service, they're the residue of long-ago wars among teams and leagues to determine how to best divvy up the spoils of their industry without having to share too much of them with their employees -- a battle that, needless to say, goes on today.
It's a system with huge consequences, from teams paying a premium for players still in their "control" (that is, with reserve years remaining) to the increasingly weird games teams play with their 40-man roster limits. It's all the result of a delicate compromise among teams and players, one that could easily be redrawn at any time. There's no reason why baseball couldn't, say, be run under the same rules as international soccer, where players are free to jump from team to team as soon as their contracts expire. It's just that everyone involved has decided that it's for the good of baseball to stick with some variation on the old rules, because who knows what would be unleashed if they were unraveled.
All of which is no doubt cold comfort to Milone, who A's manager said was "shocked" by his demotion, and who is currently burning up Triple-A while waiting for another shot at the majors. Which may not seem fair, but then, you know what John Lyly said about fairness in times of war.
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Neil deMause is a Brooklyn-based journalist who has covered sports economics for Slate, the Village Voice, Baseball Prospectus and a bunch of other places you wouldn't remember. He runs the stadium news website Field of Schemes, and co-authored the book of the same name.