MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at New York Mets

Major League Dads: On deBaby, paternity leave, and bringing the kids to work

This weekend, the Mets placed pitcher Jacob deGrom on emergency medical leave after his newborn son, Jaxon, remained hospitalized in Florida for some health complications. deGrom, who had had been with his family since the birth of his son on April 11, was originally scheduled to start yesterday against the Phillies. His son and wife are now home from the hospital, but deGrom will remain inactive for the rest of the work week, after which he will start Sunday against the Braves.

Of course “inactive” is a strong word to describe deGrom’s status, who on top of dealing with his family emergency, squeezed in bullpen practice in Port St. Lucie on Sunday and faced hitters there on Tuesday. deGrom had previously been experiencing some muscle soreness, and hasn’t pitched since the home opener, but Collins had hopes that he could take the Mets into the fifth or sixth inning upon his return.

So far commentators have been mum about deGrom’s absence, but we need look back only as far as 2014 to find then-Met Daniel Murphy under attack for missing two games following the birth of his first child, Noah.

WFAN talk show host Mike Francesa criticized the second baseman on-air for his absence, questioning Murphy’s commitment to the team and reminding listeners that, “In the old days they didn’t do that.” He then offered Murphy some childrearing advice: “hire a nurse to take care of the baby if your wife needs help.”

Commentator Boomer Esiason also fancied himself font of knowledge on childbirth, adding that Murphy should have demanded his wife have a C-section before the start of the season to get the birth out of the way. (He later apologized.)

Murphy wasn’t the first to take heat for a paternity absence—in 2011 Rangers’ pitcher Colby Lewis became the first MLB player to have paternity leave under the league’s new ruling, and was met with similar C-section suggesting criticism by SB Nation’s Rob Neyer.

Perhaps the critics were more pleased with pitcher Jonothon Niese’s headline-making fatherhood in 2015; Niese pitched a three-inning start for the Mets against the Dodgers while his wife went into labor with their second child, daughter Graylee. He left the game to fly to Ohio, but didn’t make it in time for the birth—he watched along on FaceTime while on the plane waiting for his flight to take off.

Mets manager Terry Collins has spoken about the importance of taking care of one’s family with respect to deGrom’s absence, and had previously leveled a harsher response to the Murphy controversy, suggesting that his critics were out of line and should “look in the mirror a little bit.”

Though Esiason is not old enough to be a Baby Boomer himself, his nickname and his worldview do seem evocative of an older era in which fathers were disinterested in the births and rearing of their children. But research shows that dads of the younger generation—both Murphy and deGrom fall into the oft-aspersed Millennial category, while Lewis straddles the Gen-X line—are spending more time with their children, and are more likely to participate in “household” tasks like grocery shopping, than ever before.

No surprise then that big tech companies have increasingly upped the stakes in paid parental leave in recent months, with a special emphasis on including fathers or secondary caregivers in the benefits. Currently Netflix is the reigning king of parental leave, paternity or otherwise, offering unlimited paid leave within the first year of a child’s birth or adoption. Runners-up Reddit and Facebook offer seventeen weeks and four-months’ paid leave, respectively, for parents of either sex. And a host of other large companies including Microsoft, Amazon, Twitter, Google and even less likely suspects like Bank of America and Goldman Sachs all offer a month or more of paid paternity time.

MLB players have, since the 2011 rule change, three days of paternity leave.

It’s stickier for baseball, of course—it’s seasonal, it’s competitive, the players depend on one another, and each individual is under contract for a huge sum of money. But to question the commitment of a player to his team because he took a one or two-game leave is an extreme leap. The criticism falls especially short in the case of a player like Murphy, who played 161 games in 2013 (the season before the leave in question), the most of any Met that year.

One answer to the strict travel schedules to which a major league player adheres has been the tradition of major league dads bringing their children to work with them. deGrom spoke of the dream of bringing his son to the clubhouse before Jaxon was even born. Designated hitter Eduardo Perez spoke fondly of his time spent at the clubhouse when he was a child, his father the Baseball Hall of Famer Tony Perez. And White Sox first baseman Adam LaRoche recently caused a stir on the subject after resigning over an argument with Chicago management about how much time his son was allowed to spend in the clubhouse, forfeiting a contract worth $13 million. LaRoche also spent time in the shade of the big leagues growing up; his father was a pitcher, then a coach for the White Sox.

LaRoche’s case was an extreme one—he wanted his son to have access to the clubhouse without restriction. But the discussion around his retirement brought an interesting argument to the fore: people who criticized LaRoche’s decision to leave all noted that people working “normal jobs” don’t get to bring their kids to work.

Maybe so. But baseball is not a “normal job,” the stadium far from a normal workplace. The MLB works hard to market baseball as a family-friendly activity—but what about the players and their families? As with any controversy, the balance lies somewhere in between. Children can’t be given access to clubhouses at the expense of the privacy or performance of the other players. To that end Collins has said the Mets’ policy (that children are welcome in the clubhouse until an hour before the game and after a post-game cooldown) was decided based on veteran player feedback: “We do it as a team,” he said.

The MLB has been slow to evolve with the times on pretty much all levels of the game and fan experience. The fact that paternity leave wasn’t even factored into a player’s contract such that he could be removed from the active roster until 2011 speaks volumes. But Collins’ notion of inclusive policy development seems a step in the right direction. There will no doubt be some teamwork and compromising involved in ensuring that MLB can find new ways to support the needs of all its players, including those new fathers who have designs on seeing their kids born, and then bringing those kiddies (and their wife) to the old ball game.

Photo Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports


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