Ben Sheets Work Comp Case
Free agent Ben Sheets is hurt and has a torn flexor tendon origin at the elbow. The injury happened last August, he tried to play thru the injury and his last Brewer appearance was 2.1 IP against the Cubs on Sept 27th. Missing the playoffs after 8 seasons as the Brewer ace plus being in a free agent year must have been nearly as painful as his elbow. Yet circumstances of impending free agency may have created some controversy as to who is responsible to pay for treatment of Sheets elbow malady. After all, if Sheets was still under contract with the Brewers and if they thought his injury needed surgery, wouldn't he have already undergone the surgery that is now proposed for him? The Brewers did offer Sheets arbitration, which he declined and no surgical decision was made as his season ended nor at the time he declined arbitration. This implies that the Brewers medical staff didn't think his elbow needed surgery and would heal with rest. So in looking for a new employer, the Texas Rangers were readying a 2 year deal when Sheets physical exam (functionally a second opinion) set off alarms.
From the above article:
Talks between the Rangers and Sheets reached an impasse within the past several days, according to a person with knowledge of the discussions. The two sides were close to agreement on a two-year deal, according to a major-league source, but they already had concerns regarding the right-handers' checkered health history. It is believed that the physical examination revealed the tear and caused the Rangers to scotch the deal.
The surgery, to repair Sheets' partially torn flexor tendon, is expected to be performed by noted orthopedist Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala. Sheets' agent, Casey Close, could not be reached for comment, but sources say that he maintains Milwaukee should pay for the surgery since the injury stems from his time with the Brewers. While that dispute is resolved, Sheets now hopes to have the surgery next week, sources say.
Brewers assistant GM, Gord Ash in an mlb.com article added:
We're working our way through all of the details and we don't know the answer yet," Ash said. "Major League Baseball has regulations related to workers' comp and there are procedures and protocols that have to be respected. We're working our way through those so I can't give you much insight other than that.
I always wondered if pro baseball players who get injured are covered under workman's compensation?
Just from reading the sports pages, I always thought the teams had some form of high end medical insurance for their players. Teams often have contractural arrangements with university specialists to provide medical services. The Cubs have long used physicians affiliated with Northwestern University dating back to the 1950's and my first ortho recollections were of Dr. Clinton Compere (who was the Cubs team doctor in the 60's and 70's). The Astro's have an affiliation with Baylor University, the Cardinals with Washington University. The Brewers team orthopedic surgeon, who has treated Ben Sheets over the years is Dr. William Raasch and is affiliated witht the Medical College of Wisconsin. Major leaguers receive premium treatment including first and second opinions from very illustrious orthopedic surgeons, internists, and other medical/surgical specialists. Any minor boo-boo usually gets an MRI (which can run $600-$3500). I understand that millions of dollars are on the line for these ballclubs if one of their players is injured enough to be "disabled". Two weeks just to rest. Six weeks to let a fracture heal. 4-6 months for a surgical procedure that if sucessful often needs an offseason to expect full recovery. When Alphonso Soriano missed about 6 weeks of a 26 week season with a fractured 4th metacarpal bone, that meant the Cubs lost $3 million dollars of value (Soriano got $13M last season). It's no wonder that they don't get generic treatment. No waiting weeks for HMO authorization for these guys.
But what happens if the ballplayer is no longer employed by any team (and their relationship is strained)?
In Sheets case, there is clear documentation that he did sustain this injury in August and he followed the Brewers medical advice. An injury so late in the season often gets nursed along until it's clear he could no longer pitch. If surgery is recommended, it's usually done soon, so that recovery is possible hopefully into the next season. If surgery isn't recommended then the injury is rehabbed with intent the player will be ready by next season. Even if surgical treatment isn't decided upon for several months (until non-surgical treatment has supposedly failed), as long as he was injured under the Brewer's employment, I believe he should be covered by Work Comp. Just because nonsurgical treatment has failed doesn't mean he's on his own after the employee's contract expired, as long as the injury history is clearly documented as work related.
Are there other examples of injured players who have contracts that expired and were released or granted free agency?
One example that I recalled was former Cub Jon Lieber. He injured his ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow while with the Cubs during the 2002 season. He underwent "Tommy John" ligament reconstruction that season, knowing he would be in postop rehab mode for 2003. By November he was granted free agency, although Cubs GM Jim Hendry negotiated to re-sign Lieber, the Yankees offered a more creative contract. The Yankees gave Lieber a $500K signing bonus, $300K minimum for 2003 (and bonuses if he did get off the DL in 2003) then $2.45M salary for 2004 with up to $4.75 in bonuses based on starts and innings. There was also an $8M option for 2005 with a $250K buyout (the Yankees did exercise the buyout of the 2005 deal and Lieber then went to the Phils). Lieber didn't pitch in 2003 and in 2004 for NY went 14-8 with a 4.33 ERA in 176 IP plus going 3-3 in the postseason. So he got a contract paying him for his year of rehab and the promise of returning as a solid starter, even when his free agent year was following his surgery.
Ryan Dempster's story is well chronicled here. He too had Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow in 2003, ending a short career as a Cincy Redleg when he was released in Nov 2003. Jim Hendry, possibly learning from his role on the other side of the Lieber experience signed Dempster in January 2004 for $300K, knowing he would be rehabbing at least half the season. In 2004, Dempster only pitched 20 innings but showed enough promise at season end that Hendry re-upped Dempster as a reliever for 2005 at $2M. 33 saves later, Dempster parlayed the next 3 seasons into a 3/15 contract and we all know last season's return for him as a starter has led to an even more lucrative 4/52 deal.
This history shows that Ben Sheets, even if he misses all of 2009 just might get a new contract from someone who wants to roll the injury dice for 2010. Sheets is a bit different in that his history is littered with many other injury/illness issues including shoulder, low back strains, dizziness from inner ear infection, pitching finger blisters and a torn latissimus dorsi (posterior trunk) muscle. The allure of getting a potential ace is a strong one, especially if he goes the Dempster 2003-4 contract route. Baseball and America's economics will hopefully be improved by then. Maybe it's time Sheets has a heart to heart talk with Ryan Dempster. We all know Jim Hendry has a soft spot in his heart for rehabbing free agent pitchers. So maybe Big Ben will be looking at a Cub contract down the road.
To research what is going on regarding insurance for mlb ballplayers and the role of workman's comp, I went to the MLBPA collective bargaining agreement dated 11-07 (and good thru 12-11-11):
Article IX (E): Injury.
If a Player’s Contract is terminated by a Club by reason of the Player’s failure to render his services due to a disability resulting directly from injury sustained in the course and within the scope of his employment under the Contract, and notice is received by the Club in accordance with Regulation 2 of the Uniform Player’s Contract, the Player shall be entitled to receive from the Club the unpaid balance of the full salary for the year in which the injury was sustained, less all workers’com- pensation payments received by the Player as compensation for loss of income for the specific period for which the Club is compensating him in full.
Also medical care guidelines are discussed in Article XIII: Safety and Health. This is longer but includes definitions of the disabled list, second medical opinions that the club is required to pay for including transportation and hotel costs. Ballclubs are required to provide a listing of at least two medical specialists per specialty in several different geographic regions that players can request for a second opinion. Clubs are required to employ two full time trainers and they get to travel with the club unless one is required to stay behind to tend to a disabled player who isn't traveling with the club.
Workman's compensation is usually a part of liability insurance that many/most companies purchase. It's legislated and differs state by state except for federal employees who get federal work comp. I've looked briefly at Wisconsin work comp regulations and they also have a Uninsured Employers Fund (UEF) that protects injured employees when the employer doesn't have coverage.
So workman's comp is a part of the major league player's association
collective bargaining agreement. Still, I think it's not the same
situation for Mr. Ike B. Ironworker, when he injures his elbow at work. I'm sure even in MLB workmans comp cases, the athlete still gets treated on the fast track. I don't recommend you test the system to find out how it differs. I'd be shocked if Mr. I. B. Ironworker is also sitting with Ben Sheets in Dr. Andrews waiting room.