MLB investigating Dodgers for alleged discrimination in termination of war veteran Nick Francona

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist
Dodgers president Andrew Friedman and others in the organization have been accused of engaging in discriminatory practices by ex-employee Nick Francona. (Getty Images)

Major League Baseball is investigating whether the Los Angeles Dodgers discriminated against Nick Francona, an Afghanistan war veteran and son of Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona, when his contract was terminated last year, sources familiar with the matter told Yahoo Sports.

Francona, 31, told MLB in a letter he believed the Dodgers gradually pushed him out of his job as assistant director of player development following his decision to seek an assessment at Home Base, a Boston-area organization dedicated to helping veterans treat so-called invisible wounds of war. MLB’s Department of Investigations launched an inquiry into the matter, during which the Dodgers denied that Francona’s service served as motivation for the end of his employment in March 2016. The investigation is expected to be completed within a week, according to sources.

It followed months of private negotiations during which the Dodgers said they conducted their own investigation and offered a pair of settlements — the first in June 2016 for $40,000 and the second in November 2016 for $150,000. Francona rejected both and has not taken legal action.

“While I don’t expect that speaking out on these issues will be universally popular within baseball circles, these issues are far too important to remain silent,” Francona told Yahoo Sports. “I am grateful that my family and friends urged me to stand up for the principles at stake rather than accept an offer of money in exchange for my silence. I believe strongly that the people involved need to be held accountable for their actions.”

Francona, in his letter to MLB, directed most of his ire at Gabe Kapler, the Dodgers’ director of player development and his direct superior. According to sources with knowledge of the investigation, the league is looking into whether Kapler, Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and others in the organization engaged in discriminatory practices by removing Francona from his position and offering him a role at the same salary in the research-and-development department. Francona declined the job, believing it was a demotion, and the Dodgers offered him the opportunity to resign or have his contract terminated. Francona chose the latter and was paid for the last year of his two-year deal.

In a statement, the team said:

“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. This was confirmed by an investigation conducted by independent outside counsel. The Dodgers have the utmost admiration and respect for all of the men and women who serve or have served in the armed forces, and we are very proud of the veterans whom we employ.”

Kapler and Friedman declined comment, deferring to the team’s statement.

After graduating from Penn’s Wharton School of Business, Francona in 2009 joined the Marine Corps as a second lieutenant. During his tour of duty in Afghanistan, he commanded a scout-sniper platoon. He was discharged a captain, and after spending a year with the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, Francona broke into baseball with the Los Angeles Angels in 2014, serving as a conduit between the front office and coaches. The plan was to shift Francona out of that role until the Dodgers called and asked him to help to leverage their massive financial resources into building a player-development machine.

Francona’s duties with the Dodgers reflected that. In addition to his role helping oversee the team’s minor league operations, he worked on the acclimation of Cuban players to the United States, oversaw a program that tested the efficacy of weighted-ball use among pitchers and worked with the R&D department on a computer-based training tool and a proposed virtual-reality initiative.

“If I needed something done,” former Dodgers pitching coordinator Rick Knapp said, “I would call Nick and it would be done.”

Francona regularly received praise for his work. His interpersonal relationships, Dodgers employees told investigators, were the issue. Francona’s reassignment, they said, had more to do with a personality conflict — the falling-out between him and Kapler that grew significantly worse in 2016 — than an active effort to use his service against him.

Kapler, who was a Dodgers managerial candidate in the 2015 offseason, announced to player-development employees on Dec. 15, 2015 that he would return as director. The next day, the Dodgers offered Francona a raise and contract extension. Five days after that, Francona called Kapler and informed him that he would be seeking a consultation at Home Base, a program started as a partnership between the Boston Red Sox and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Francona feared the aftereffects of concussions sustained from explosions in the war, and his mother, Jacque, works at Home Base and urged him to visit during a trip to Boston. The decision to seek treatment can be stigmatized, particularly for veterans integrating back into the workplace.

“People want to equate courage to a lot of different things,” said Brian Stann, a former Marine and UFC fighter who today is CEO of Hire Heroes USA. “It’s easy to be courageous when we’re doing our craft. You know what takes a lot of courage for someone from Nick’s background? That he’s going to get checked out. That’s real courage that most people of influence and impressive backgrounds won’t do. He showed amazing courage.”

The Dodgers told investigators they offered proper support to Francona. On Dec. 22, 2015, Kapler sent Francona a draft of an email he planned to send to Friedman. Amid the positivity — “We should support the [expletive] out of him as he works to get in a healthier place physically, mentally and emotionally,” Kapler wrote — was one element that bothered Francona: Kapler’s suggestion he take a leave of absence. The Dodgers told investigators they were trying to be flexible in allowing Francona to continue seeking treatment in Boston rather than his Arizona home. Friedman later texted Francona: “You have my full support to help in any way possible as you work through things.”

Francona believes the intentions were different. The conflict grew over the next two months, and less than a week after Francona spoke at an MLB Diversity Business Summit intended to target veterans in March 2016, the Dodgers informed him he no longer would work in the player-development department.

“As a highly visible institution, I think it is important for MLB to set a responsible example by making it known that there is no place for this type of behavior in baseball,” said Francona, who currently is doing consulting work for a major league team. “A failure to do so would only confirm the reason so many people are hesitant to acknowledge they might have an issue in the first place.”

In a statement, the league said: “MLB is committed to assisting veterans transition to the workforce. MLB and its Clubs have sponsored programs to help veterans obtain employment in baseball, including conducting job fairs targeted at veterans. Mr. Francona, himself, was provided a coveted opportunity to work in the Dodgers baseball operations department. In addition, MLB has contributed tens of millions of dollars to groups assisting veterans with their transition.”

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