Selig and Co. blew it

The commissioner's office is totally in the wrong over how they handled the Yankees-Devil Rays forfeit feud.

Originally Published: September 7, 2004
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

It's always fashionable to blame the Yankees for just about anything and just about everything these days. Traffic. Inflation. Bad haircuts. Whatever.

So why not the weather?

Why not a hurricane?

Why not a headline that looked something like this:

HURRICANE FRANCES RAVAGES FLORIDA. STEINBRENNER BLAMED.

OK, it never quite came to that this week. But it did come to this:

DEVIL RAYS DELAYED BY HURRICANE. YANKEES DEMAND FORFEIT.

If you weren't paying attention, that looked like the clear seven-word summation of what happened Monday at Yankee Stadium, when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays failed to show up on time for a doubleheader without a valid note from their mothers.

But of course, it's more complicated than that. And as best we can tell, after hearing all sides in this fiasco, it isn't the Yankees who deserve to take the heat on this. Or the Devil Rays.

It's the poobahs at Major League Baseball, who must have been the only people on the planet not watching the Weather Channel over the weekend.

Does anybody out there really believe the Yankees are so desperate to hold onto their lead over the rampaging Red Sox that they tried to squeeze a forfeit out of a team caught in a hurricane?

Come on, friends. George Steinbrenner may believe that the goal in life is to go 162-0 and sweep the World Series by a score of 57-1. But he isn't that inhumane.

All the Yankees were really doing, in requesting that forfeit ruling Monday, was asking the commissioner's office, in that diplomatic way of theirs: Why the heck were we forced to wait around all day for a team that had no more chance of arriving in New York by 3 p.m. than it did of swimming from Tampa Bay to the Bronx?

Why were they there? Not because they wanted to be. They were there because MLB's COO, Bob DuPuy, assured them repeatedly all weekend that the Devil Rays would show up in plenty of time to play.

As early as Friday, Yankees president Randy Levine told ESPN.com, the Yankees called the commissioner's office and said: "There's a hurricane coming. What do you want us to do (about Monday's doubleheader)?"

"If they had just told us Friday, 'The Devil Rays are not coming,' all of this would have been avoided," Levine said.

But that isn't what the Yankees were told. They were told by DuPuy on Friday they should prepare to play, Levine said. They were told the same thing on Saturday. They were told again on Sunday. They were reassured yet again Sunday night, despite forecasts that showed the storm had slowed in the Tampa Bay area.

So all the Yankees did was what they were told. They prepared to play. They showed up to play.

And when game time rolled around (a couple of different game times, in fact) and there was nobody to play, they got slightly annoyed. Can't blame them.

There should have been a simple announcement Sunday, if not earlier: "The health and safety of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and their families is more important to us than any Labor Day doubleheader. Therefore, we're postponing both games." How complicated is that, huh?

But what were they doing there? Why were they told to play? Why did MLB even think it was possible to play? That still isn't clear.

DuPuy didn't return two calls for comment. But MLB spokesman Rich Levin says baseball was assured by the Devil Rays "that they would be there on time." Which is interesting, since the Rays themselves say they never had any intention of leaving until the storm had passed and they knew their homes and families were safe.

"We'd do it again tomorrow," said Rick Vaughn, the Devil Rays' vice president of public relations. "There's no way we wanted to come up during that storm."

Even the Yankees admit that Devil Rays GM Chuck LaMar talked to Yankees GM Brian Cashman as early as Friday and told them just that. They even relayed that message to MLB.

But Levine says the Yankees were then told by the commissioner's office: "That's not true. We're telling them to get up there."

There have been intimations that it was Devil Rays owner Vince Naimoli who told DuPuy his team would show up Monday right on time, ostensibly because it planned to leave Sunday.

But Vaughn says that while there was some preliminary talk about trying to fly out Sunday night, the forecast continued to worsen. So "by Friday night, when we left the ballpark," Vaughn said, "our traveling secretary told me, 'We'll leave Monday morning, unless you hear (otherwise) from me.' "

The commissioner's office, however, would not confirm that Naimoli had sent DuPuy a different message -- or, in fact, that he had told them anything about anything.

"We're not going to talk about what conversations we had with the Devil Rays," Levin said. "We were led to believe the Devil Rays could make it there in time for the game. As far as who said what to whom, we're not going to get into it."

The other bizarre aspect of this story is the Yankees' suggestion that the Devil Rays took their time getting out of Tampa on Monday, when they could have flown out first thing in the morning.

"Let me tell you about our day," Vaughn replied. "We got to the park at 7:30 in the morning, because the bus was supposed to leave at 8. And we were ready to go. But the airport in Sarasota was closed.

"So then we tried to fly out of Fort Myers. But there were tornado warnings along I-75. And Chuck said, 'I'm not going to jeopardize these players' safety by trying to drive 2½ hours (to Fort Myers) in this weather.'

"Finally, around 11:30, we heard that the Tampa airport would be open around noon. ... But the bridge was flooded, and they only had one lane open, and it took us an hour just to get across the bridge. So there was no way we could leave Tampa until 3 o'clock.

"We left Tampa at 3 and played a game -- in New York -- at 7." Vaughn said. "I never heard of anybody doing that. But we did it. We walked in, put our uniforms on, went out, stretched and started the game."

The Yankees, on the other hand, say they were told at one point that the Devil Rays would leave Saturday, before the storm even hit -- then were told Monday that the Tampa airport was open all morning.

With all these different stories flying around, of course, who knows what any of us should believe. So Levine said the Yankees didn't demand they be handed this win by forfeit. All the Yankees asked MLB to do, he said, was "investigate."

"What we said to Major League Baseball was, 'Do an investigation,' " Levine said. "If you determine that Tampa Bay was supposed to leave and it didn't have a valid reason for not leaving and not showing up, then the rules say there should be a forfeit."

But MLB's "investigation" didn't exactly last as long as the Iran-Contragate hearings. Before Monday night's game was even over, Bud Selig had issued a statement saying MLB believed in determining the outcome of its games by playing them, not forfeiting them. And by Tuesday afternoon, MLB had rescheduled the postponed game as part of a Wednesday doubleheader.

The Yankees had asked for that game to be rescheduled for after the season and only played if necessary. But MLB rejected that argument, too.

"We try to play all our games," Levin said, speaking for Selig. "Things like hurricanes do happen. When they happen, you have to make an adjustment. And we made an adjustment."

That, however, isn't the Yankees' beef. They understand there was a hurricane. They understand that created issues for a lot of people. They understand why the Devil Rays didn't want to leave until the storm had headed elsewhere.

"We're not objecting to any of that," said the Yankees' president. "What we're objecting to is: That's not what (MLB) told us. ... If (the Rays) couldn't get there -- or baseball was telling them they didn't have to get there -- why didn't (MLB) just tell us that? If they'd come to us Friday, Saturday or Sunday and said, 'This is not going to happen,' why would we have opened the gates?"

Uh, good question. And one that could have been easily answered, too, had anyone from the commissioner's office just taken a good look at the Doppler, considered all the human issues involved and thought this through.

There should have been a simple announcement from Selig or DuPuy on Sunday, if not earlier: "The health and safety of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and their families is more important to us than any Labor Day doubleheader. Therefore, we're postponing both games and we're telling the Devil Rays to wait out this storm. We'll stay in constant communication with all sides. And when it's safe for them to leave for New York, we'll have a further announcement on rescheduling these games."

How complicated is that, huh? But instead, the Devil Rays probably will be fined and/or disciplined. Lucky them.

And all that forfeit hoopla has probably led most of the continent to think the Yankees' official hurricane policy was something to the effect of: "We deserve that forfeit. And oh by the way, we don't care if your power stays out till November."

Ridiculous.

But when in doubt, blame the Yankees. It's been a can't-go-wrong formula for 80 years. No reason to abandon it now.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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