Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Arte of War (on Drugs)

Arte Moreno is displeased. After a panel rightfully declined to suspend his left fielder, Josh Hamilton, for a recent drug relapse, Moreno's Los Angeles Angels issued a statement not supporting Hamilton, but rather castigating him for his disease. It smacked of sour grapes from the loser of what was essentially a proxy war between the owners and the union—a literal inside-baseball dispute. Still, it should have been over at that point—Hamilton had won, and he was destined to return to play for the team for 2015.

Moreno wasn't willing to leave it there. Without any provocation from Hamilton or the union, on Friday he lobbed a second grenade into the fray—this time from him personally. "I will not say that" Hamilton will ever suit up for the Angels again, the owner proclaimed, asserting that the Angels held a clause in Hamilton's contract annulling the deal in the event he turned back to drugs. The union immediately returned fire: such a contract provision could not exist (and, according to NBC Sports, does not exist) and could not supersede the collectively bargained Joint Drug Agreement. In other words, no matter how much they'd like to, the Angels can't void their deal with Hamilton over his personal failings.

The conventional wisdom is that Moreno is motivated by one thing: cash. The Angels inked Hamilton to a five-year, $125 million deal before the 2013 season, and they've regretted it ever since; the injury-plagued outfielder has hit just .255 with 31 home runs and 3.0 WAR in the two years hence. If Hamilton had been suspended by the drug-enforcement panel, or (obviously) if the Angels were able to void his contract, the team wouldn't have to pay him to continue to hit like Garrett Jones for the next three years. That's a powerful motivator, but to the extent Moreno is setting the tone for the whole organization, I don't think it's what drives him. I suspect it's a matter of pure morality to the staid Angels owner.

Moreno is a private man, but one of the few things we know about him is that he is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. Born in 1946 and coming of age during the 1960s, Moreno voluntarily enlisted in the US Army at the height of the Vietnam War. This was likely a man with nothing but disdain for the anti-war or counterculture movements; all the ingredients were there for Moreno to develop a deep hatred for drugs and those who used them.

Two years ago, Hamilton may have been a former drug addict, but he was also a poster child for religion and conservative values bringing redemption and leading to a healthy, clean life. That might have appealed to Moreno when he took the risk of committing nine figures to him. But now that Hamilton has fallen from that pedestal, Moreno may be less willing to forgive. (People are likely to react even more nastily than usual when they feel betrayed—say, denying your employee a physical space at his place of work.) It may also explain Moreno's seemingly irrational behavior of insisting he can sever ties with Hamilton even when there is pretty clearly no legal basis for doing so.

Moreno wouldn't be alone in such an anti-drug crusade. Once the young Arizonan made his fortune in the billboard industry, he became a commensurately generous donor to the Republican Party. According to Influence Explorer, over the years Moreno has given:
  • $8,200 to Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ), who has supported drug tests for employees—and making them ineligible for unemployment insurance if they fail and are fired;
  • $5,000 to presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who cultivated a reputation as a tough-on-drugs governor by increasing drug penalties on Bay Staters and funding schools that drug-tested their students;
  • $4,500 to former Rep. Bud Shuster (R-PA), who wrote in 1992 that the War on Drugs was working;
  • $2,300 to presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, who as New York City mayor oversaw an exponential increase in the number of marijuana arrests;
  • $500 to former Senator John Ashcroft (R-MO), who told Larry King he wanted to "escalate the War on Drugs" when he was the freshly appointed attorney general in George W. Bush's administration.
Of the Hamilton situation, Moreno himself has said, "It's not about money." With this record, maybe we should believe him.

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