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Dodgers Ex-Staffer Alleges Discrimination as Veteran

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Daily News of Los Angeles

 

Nick Francona's name is in the news because, he believes, his story is worth sharing if it saves the life of one military veteran.

Remember that.

Remember that, while Major League Baseball investigates the circumstances surrounding Francona losing his job in the Dodgers' Player Development department. Remember that, while peeling back the layers of a situation Francona said he still doesn't understand.

And remember that, when considering the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2016. The unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans over 25 years old with a four-year degree is 2.9 percent, higher than the 2.4 percent unemployment rate among all four-year degree holders in the same age group.

From the Dodgers' standpoint, Francona - a 31-year-old Marine Corps veteran and a graduate of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania - need not be a statistic.

At one point the team offered to extend his contract beyond 2016. Francona declined. He was given the option to transfer from the player development department to research and development. He declined. He also declined to resign. That's when the Dodgers elected to terminate Francona's contract in April 2016.

Francona eventually alleged in legal documents that he'd been discriminated against as a veteran. The case never went to court. At one point, Francona said, he had an offer to settle for $150,000. He declined that, too.

"I wish I had the money - who wouldn't - but the principles are more important," he said.

So what are the principles?

Not only do veterans need help finding work, Francona found that he needed help once he was hired. He even needed help asking for help.

Seeking help

Reluctantly, Francona said, he spoke up.

His mother, Jacque, works with Home Base, a Boston-based nonprofit dedicated to assisting veterans. The baseball allusion is intentional; Home Base was created by the Red Sox Foundation in partnership with Massachusetts General Hospital. Red Sox chairman Tom Werner and vice chairman David Ginsberg are listed on its board of overseers.

Jacque urged Nick to visit. To Nick, this seemed like a logical step. Before following his father, Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona, into professional baseball, Nick Francona was a scout sniper platoon commander in Afghanistan. He had attained the rank of captain when he was discharged from the Marine Corps. Four years had passed since his last sniper mission, but Francona still carried the reminders of war with him to work.

Nick acquiesced. He discussed the plan with his boss, Dodgers player development director Gabe Kapler.

Kapler eventually drafted an e-mail to Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. In it, he wrote: "... as uncomfortable as some of (Francona's) conclusions are, he can't look at his struggles to feel fulfilled and content any other way he believes they stem from his unresolved issues from his time in combat. He recognizes that it is affecting how he is dealing with people (he believes he has left a 'trail of destruction'). Moreover, he acknowledges now that he has engaged in brinksmanship-type behaviors with coworkers and teammates, at times escalating situations unnecessarily. He affirmatively wants to put a stop to this behavior and is actively taking steps to do so. Further, things have been a bit of a 'blur' for him, and he's struggling to put it all together at the moment."

Francona reviewed the draft first. He didn't challenge this part of the e-mail. He even elaborated to Kapler on the idea of the "blur."

"Some of the numbness is a result of an extreme degree of compartmentalization of what were some fairly significant life events, whether that was being on both the giving and receiving end of extreme violence, or having friends maimed and killed," Francona wrote. "I thought to some degree that the more time and distance I put between myself and certain events, they would just recede and go away. While some memories do fade, some become sharper with time and these are the type of things that you just don't pretend they didn't happen."

When Home Base connected him to a psychiatrist, Francona learned he had physical and psychological needs to address. Some of his issues were connected to concussions ("I got my bell rung a few too many times," he told Kapler). He would regularly wake up in the morning with headaches. Other issues were connected to compartmentalization, a kind of psychological defense mechanism that serves to separate stress-inducing concerns from day-to-day tasks.

According to the Veterans' Affairs website, specific side effects are associated with service in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom: "They may see others hurt or killed. They may have to kill or wound others. They are on alert around the clock. These and other factors can increase their chances of having PTSD or other mental health problems."

What happened next

When Francona first discussed visiting Home Base, Kapler encouraged him. So did Friedman. Kapler also suggested that Francona take a leave of absence, but Francona resisted. He wanted to keep working, and he believed he didn't need time off to implement the psychiatrist's recommendations or make subsequent appointments.

It was around this time, in December 2015, that Kapler announced he was returning to his job as Player Development director. Kapler was the runner-up for the manager's job that ultimately went to Dave Roberts; he also briefly considered taking a job on Roberts' field staff.

Francona contends his professional relationship with Kapler began to deteriorate in the weeks and months that followed. Francona said he was surprised when, at a February meeting to discuss a separate issue, Kapler suggested it was in Francona's best interest to quit. But sources familiar with the course of the probe said Francona's recollection of this event has been disputed to MLB's investigators.

In providing evidence of his discrimination charge to MLB, Francona did not hide his professional quibbles, large and small. Francona shared a total of 814 files - text messages, e-mails, voicemails and various documents - with the league. Some of the exchanges are ugly, others cordial. Some came before Francona's contract was terminated, others came after.

Interpreted differently, the facts point to a different heart of the matter: A dispute between co-workers. After rejecting the contract extension, after alleging that Kapler suggested he quit, after he was offered a job in R&D for the same pay, Francona's ultimate desire was to remain in Player Development and build on what he and the department had begun.

Why he could not, or did not, depends on who you ask. MLB's investigation is nearing its conclusion. A decision could come as early as this week.

In a statement, the Dodgers held their ground against the allegation of discrimination: "The Dodgers cannot comment on the specific facts or reasons leading to a former employee's departure from the organization. However, we can categorically state that Nick Francona's departure was not the result of any type of discrimination, and it certainly was not the result of his being a veteran."

The league believes it has made strong inroads with the military community beyond the pomp and circumstance that accompanies nearly every major league game.

In 2008, with the financial support of Fred Wilpon and matching funds from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, MLB established the "Welcome Back Veterans" fund. According to the league, initial funding "supported a variety of nonprofits targeting veterans' greatest needs, including mental health and job training/placement." Later funding benefited research that sought treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Meanwhile, Francona said he still wants to forge a career in baseball "under the right circumstances." He's worked with one team as a consultant since leaving Los Angeles.

The legal avenues once open to Francona might still exist. Again, it depends on who you ask.

But remember why Nick Francona's name is in the news.

"Getting tied up in a long lawsuit," he said, "is not necessarily the best approach for policy changes."

jhoornstra@scng.com @jphoornstra on Twitter

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May 24, 2017
 
 
 

 

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