For those who may not know, Ariel Soriano, one of the most electric players in France’s D1 baseball league and currently a member of the Montpellier Barracudas, was barred from playing in this weekend’s semi-final series against the defending champion Rouen Huskies.
It wasn’t for bad behavior, or cheating, or anything of the sort. Soriano, in addition to being one of the D1’s biggest talents, is also one of its most affable and passionate players. The dynamic Dominican simply loves playing baseball, and the league is lucky to have him.
No, the argument put forth by the Huskies organization — and accepted, ultimately, by both the French National Olympic Committee and the FFBS, French baseball’s governing body — is that because Soriano’s mid-season switch from the Sénart Templiers to the Barracudas came after the league’s established recruitment deadline he’s thus ineligible to participate in post-season play.
Never mind that he already played — and played well — in games 1 and 2 of the semi-final series, and that the FFBS had already voted to allow his participation based on the reasoning, presumably, that there’s no sense imposing a one-size-fits-all deadline in a season that began a full two months behind schedule due to reasons we’re all painfully familiar with: the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
The recruitment deadline exists for a reason. Putting together a roster is no easy task, and the top organizations in the D1 league make careful personnel decisions based not only on each team’s individual needs, but also on how they expect to stack up against their primary competitors. It’s a delicate job, and one that could be thrown out of wack if teams — especially those with more money at their disposal — are allowed to stack their deck, so to speak, by adding additional, difference-making talent relatively late in the season.
The rule, in other words, is there to ensure fair play. And yet, in this particular case, Rouen’s determination to disqualify Soriano based on the letter of the law was anything but.
The D1 season normally kicks off in April. Sometimes play begins a bit later, sometimes a bit earlier. But in either case, the June deadline gives teams somewhere in the vicinity of two months to tweak their rosters.
Montpellier acquired Soriano in early July — past the deadline as it officially stands. Yes. But keep in mind that the season, delayed because of the public health crisis, didn’t begin until early June.
The club made the move, therefore, only about five weeks after the start of the season. The Barracudas followed standard practice, in that sense, and did so assuming — naively, in turns out — that rival teams would surely understand, and that there would be general consensus, given the extenuating circumstances, that the “normal” deadline shouldn’t apply in this case.
Except now, all these months later — and with a berth in the league finals at stake — the Rouen Huskies suddenly decided that yes, the rule should absolutely apply. Forget the circumstances! No need to look beyond the letter of the law. Rules are rules.
It’s an argument that, from a purely legal perspective, is hard to challenge, as evidenced by the fact that yes, Soriano did end up getting benched. But when it comes to common sense, Rouen’s case doesn’t stand up. Nor does it pass the smell test.
The Huskies insist they’re just respecting the sanctity of the rules as they stand. But that’s a bad faith argument, because the real reason they challenged Soriano’s eligibility is obvious: They wanted to win — by any means necessary — and barring the opposing team’s best batter on a technicality was a way to help make that happen.
It was, at the end of the day, a rotten move. It stinks! And it’s all the uglier given that it comes from a team that has already won 14 of the past 15 league championships. The move feels greedy, in that sense, and blatantly unfair.
It’s unfair to the Barracudas, who could certainly have used Soriano’s skills this past weekend, when they were eliminated in a game they lost by just one run. It’s also deeply unfair to Soriano himself, who was deprived of doing precisely what he’d spent months practicing and preparing to do: play and perform in the season’s most crucial moment.
Sadly, Soriano’s disqualification is bad too for French baseball as a whole. Fans and players alike want the best possible product, not something that’s been diluted by technical nitpicking. They want clubs to compete on the field, not in back-room meetings.
Nobody likes to lose. But how you play the game — integrity, sportsmanship, call it what you want — all of that matters too.
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