Manny Ramirez’s announcement that he is coming out of retirement may have grabbed more headlines, but his earlier decision to play winter ball in the Dominican Republic may ultimately generate more debate. Ramirez’s plan to play with the Cibao Eagles for the first time since 1994 has caused very different reactions in New York and the Caribbean, highlighting a legal gray area between the two leagues. And the ultimate outcome may depend simply on how much Ramirez is willing to force the issue.
Ramirez’s winter plans seemed to have been definitively stalled earlier this week when Rob Manfred, MLB's executive VP of labor relations, told ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick that the player needed approval from the commissioner in order to play with the Eagles. However, the president of the Dominican Baseball League, Leonardo Matos Berrido, quickly took umbrage to the categorical nature of the league’s stance in a pair of Spanish-language interviews:
“As of right now, our organization has not received any documents from the [Major Leagues]. Everything that has been heard is speculation,” Matos Berrido told Juan Mercado at the Domincan daily Hoy (link in Spanish), adding, “everything that is not prohibited is permitted.” He expounded on his answer in a piece co-authored by Enrique Rojas of ESPN Deportes and Freddy Tapia of the Dominican Listín Diario (link in Spanish), saying: “I don’t know where it says that the office of the commissioner can influence or decide things for the Dominican League. I don’t know where. We haven’t received any information about Manny Ramirez, but I understand that he hasn’t been sanctioned by the Major Leagues. He retired, and I understand that the agreement between the Winter Leagues and the Major Leagues doesn’t have any regulation in respect to that.”
His quotes point the crux of the debate, which is the unclear nature of the affiliation between the Major Leagues and the Winter Leagues. In a lengthy guest piece for ESPN Deportes yesterday, lawyer Arturo Marcano analyzed the link within the context of the Winter League Agreement between the two leagues, and concluded, “Technically, Ramirez can put on whatever uniform he wants, and without restrictions.” The case would be different should Ramirez want to join a major or minor league team, but the rules in the Winter League agreements that Marcano cites are unequivocal: “The Winter Leagues are not, and should not be considered, minor leagues.”
By this logic, because Ramirez retired prior to being suspended, he would not need league approval to play this winter. Retired players often fill spots on foreign rosters for years after their retirement from Major League teams, while the two leagues have a more specific prohibition in place in regard to anti-doping.
“That is why the allegation of such an affiliation does not have much basis, since the Winter Leagues are independent, and they have a working agreement with MLB, just as there are agreements between MLB and Japanese and Korean leagues,” Marcano wrote. “In fact, the same rules prohibit owners in the Winter Leagues from buying minor league teams, which further confirms that they are distinct things.”
But there’s a catch, which Marcano ceded to have merit: "Article 11 of the Winter League agreement indicates that the commissioner has the last word in regard to executing the Winter Agreement and can take whatever disciplinary actions it deems necessary to maintain the honesty and integrity of the game of baseball, its players, umpires, and officials."
These sweeping powers seemingly put the ball in Ramirez’s court: Will he force the league to exclude him, or does his decision to come out of retirement mean he has given up on playing in the Dominican and set his sights elsewhere? If the former is true, Marcado notes, “Now all that remains is to wait on word from the commissioner, keeping in mind that it has nothing to do with the Winter Leagues being affiliated with MLB, nor with the affects of the anti-doping program, but rather with the powers established in the Winter League Agreement.”