Tampering? Does Maddon-to-Cubs deal feel icky? Deal with it

Yeah, it’s a little dirty. Baseball is a little dirty. Life is a little dirty.

But rest assured, most will quickly move on from the sordid details of L’Affaire Maddon. Only those personally affected are likely to carry a grudge, and they, too, will need to bury their resentment if baseball cannot prove that the Cubs violated rules on tampering.

On Monday, the Cubs will introduce Joe Maddon as their new manager. His former team, the Tampa Bay Rays, is convinced that the Cubs brazenly tampered with Maddon while he was still under contract, according to major-league sources. Others in baseball are appalled that Maddon forced the firing on Friday of one of his peers, Rick Renteria.

The Rays probably are right. The people bothered by Maddon’s conduct definitely are right. But while I have sympathy for both the Rays and Renteria, this is the way baseball operates. Actually, it’s the way most large businesses operate. The end justifies the means, however unseemly those means might be.

Which isn’t to say that baseball should just congratulate the Cubs on a great hire and act like nothing ever happened. Baseball appointed Bryan Seeley as the new head of its department of investigations in September. If you’re going to have a DOI — and rules for a DOI to enforce — then you damn well had better put the DOI to work.

Yes, tampering is common in baseball, almost to the point of being comical. But if baseball could bring Alex Rodriguez and others to justice in the Biogenesis scandal, one would think that it could at least establish that contact occurred between the Cubs and Maddon’s agent, Alan Nero, before Maddon opted out of his contract one week ago — and that the contact was less than innocent.

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As one prominent agent likes to say, “There are no coincidences in baseball.” Sure, it’s possible that Maddon opted out blindly with the confidence that some team would want him, even a team with a manager under contract. But at the time, the Twins were the only team with an opening.

If I were Maddon, I would have asked Nero to at least quietly explore the landscape, even if it meant skirting the rules. That’s how the world works. And in the words of one executive, “Nobody takes a leap into a giant abyss without knowing where their next paycheck is coming from.”

Yet, even if baseball could prove that tampering occurred, what type of penalty would even be appropriate? This is where it gets interesting. The Rays could claim that the Cubs’ actions caused Maddon to opt out — and demand a player as compensation. A good player, too, considering that the Cubs value Maddon enough to give him what is certain to be a monster contract. Think Javier Baez. Or Addison Russell.

Maddon, remember, had said publicly that he was happy with the Rays, even after general manager Andrew Friedman left for the Dodgers. The Rays had wanted to make him one of the top five highest-paid managers in baseball, according to major-league sources. Maddon had just bought a house in the area and was planning to open a restaurant. Why would he opt out unless he was being tempted?

Cubs president Theo Epstein, in announcing the firing of Renteria, laid out a timeline for how the team proceeded with Maddon, clearly stating that the Cubs did not tamper without actually using the word.

“Last Thursday, we learned that Joe Maddon — who may be as well suited as anyone in the industry to manage the challenges that lie ahead of us — had become a free agent,” Epstein said.

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“We confirmed the news with Major League Baseball, and it became public knowledge the next day. We saw it as a unique opportunity and faced a clear dilemma: be loyal to Rick or be loyal to the organization. In this business of trying to win a world championship for the first time in 107 years, the organization has priority over any one individual. We decided to pursue Joe.”

OK, baseball, your turn. Did the Cubs tamper or not? And if they did, would they receive more than token punishment?

If the Cubs were fined for hiring Maddon — the more likely outcome, perhaps, for a tampering offense — they would regard the penalty as little more than the price of doing business. They would end up with Maddon, right? And their fans would love that Epstein and Jed Hoyer played a little rough to get their man.

Ah, but even then, it’s not quite that simple.

Maddon’s reputation already has taken something of a hit — he forced the removal of another manager, Renteria. Think back to Maddon’s first year with the Rays in 2006, when the team lost 101 games. How would he have felt if a more experienced manager pulled the same fast one on him that he is pulling on Renteria?

Maddon addressed this issue last week, telling me, “For me, it’s not my responsibility to think of other organizations. I’m controlling what I can. I had this two-week window of opportunity (to decide whether to opt out). It’s about myself, my family, my charities. At the end of the day, I would never ask or tell an organization what to do. That’s not my business.”

The truth is, Renteria never figured to be more than a transitional figure, and the Cubs will pay him off for the final two years of his contract, which one rival manager estimates in the range of $800,000 per season. If Maddon wasn’t replacing Renteria, some other manager would have. And Maddon is correct when he says that this is not his decision. None of this would be happening if the Cubs did not want it to happen.

In the end, Maddon will get a fat new contract and a chance to lead the Cubs to their first World Series title since 1908. The Cubs, meanwhile, will get one of the game’s best communicators, a perfect fit for their emerging young roster at a time when the franchise is becoming relevant again.

Yeah, it’s a little dirty. These things usually are.

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