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Breaking down the Aaron Judge tampering controversy

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While the owners are actively depressing salaries, the Yankees gasp over what was certainly an innocent remark.

MLB: Spring Training-Pittsburgh Pirates at New York Yankees Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday, Yankees slugger Aaron Judge addressed the press, and referring to a conversation he had with Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado, remarked, “I told him, ‘You’d look pretty good in pinstripes, too.’” The comment did not go without response, as both Major League Baseball and the Yankees organization issued their own statements. MLB said that Judge’s “off-the-cuff comments were not appropriate and not authorized by the club,” and GM Brian Cashman talked to him to make sure it would not happen again, and that even with his pristine public image, “You can’t throw a perfect game every day, either.”

Part of why this was even made to be a controversy is obvious, and that’s because the press reported it, as tautological as that may seem. The press loves angling for statements regarding superstar free agents, especially when next offseason will feature both Machado and Bryce Harper. Let’s just say it’s been an SEO dream.

The other reason is because despite the fact Machado himself described the incident as “blown out of proportion,” the league still has strict rules around tampering. I would even argue they aren’t as strong as they could be, as leagues like the NBA fine any player who makes a comment about any player’s future.

What irks me, though, is that while a player making what is clearly a lighthearted comment about possibly playing with a competitor could be construed as tampering in the legal sense. The rule itself is incredibly vague, defined merely as there being “no negotiations or dealings respecting employment, either present or prospective.”

That would mean statements from Aaron Boone stating that Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn “aren’t really in play” would violate said rule, as I’m sure the Yankees manager saying they wouldn’t pursue a couple of players would certainly affect their market. It would also mean that Red Sox GM Dave Dombrowski’s comments on holding out for JD Martinez, full-well understanding the offer on the table, would change the market for his services. My point isn’t that these should all be punished with a slap on the wrist, but that Judge’s comments don’t warrant such a parochial response.

We are currently in the midst of an offseason where teams have openly tinkered with the market to restrict the payout of free agents. FanGraphs has estimated that teams have low-balled estimates by an aggregate $208.8 million as of March 7th. The causes of this are not tampering-related; if a team makes a comment that they are tanking, or that they are committing to get under the luxury tax, it does not interfere with a particular negotiation, but it certainly signals that the market is being depressed, the very thing the rule is trying to protect against.

All of this is to say that just like for much of our society, the rules of the owners and the rules of the players exist in a parallel and segregated state. While comments like Judge’s deserve scrutiny and a tut-tut, an owner saying they’re going to tear down their club while they burn their profits in an open fire pit is merely the owner exercising their rights as such. Call that what it is, but it is more evidence of a structural issue with not only the economics of the sport, but how we even speak about it.