The Mets’ John Olerud Took Paternity Leave in 1998 To No Criticism. Where Were Francesa and Boomer Then?

When the controversy over Daniel Murphy’s paternity leave erupted last week (see my articles here and here, and appearance on CBS This Morning here), I thought of another Met who took paternity leave 16 years ago to little fanfare. How things have and haven’t progressed since 1998.

John Olerud took an informal paternity leave during the 1998 season.
John Olerud took an informal paternity leave during the 1998 season. (image by Webdesign, use under Creative Commons)

1998: The Year of Dawson’s Creek, Monica Lewinski, Dixie Chicks, Saving Private Ryan, ER, and Harry Potter!

As part of an article I wrote for the Journal of Diversity Management a loooooooong time ago, I discussed work-family issues in sports and highlighted the 1998 paternity leave of John Olerud. Here is an except from that article, and some new commentary below:

John Olerud was the first baseman for the New York Mets from 1996-2000. While he was not a superstar, he was widely respected as a solid player and good teammate. His career highlights include winning two World Series championships with the Toronto Blue Jays, winning three Gold Glove Awards (given to the best defensive player at each position), and winning the batting title in 1993. Olerud was an important part of the 1998 New York Mets team which contended for the last National League playoff spot until the final game of that season.

While the Mets were embroiled in their race against the Chicago Cubs and the San Francisco Giants, Olerud‟s wife went into labor with the couple’s first child. Mets management allowed Olerud and his impressive .343 batting average to leave the team to participate in the birth and to spend as much time away from the team as he felt he needed. In all, Olerud missed three games for the Mets during this most critical time of the season.

“The practice across baseball is that you miss three games… It’s one of those understood things,” said Mets General Manager, Steve Phillips. Mets manager, Bobby Valentine, did not (publicly, at least) put any pressure on Olerud to curtail his paternity leave. He was quoted in the New York Times as supportive of Olerud, “When it‟s proper, he will be here. John makes good decisions.” He also added, “It is the single greatest event in anyone’s life. There is nothing more miraculous or special than the birth of a child.”

Both Bobby Valentine and Mets’ assistant coach Cookie Rojas observed that times have changed, and, in their opinion, have changed for the better. Rojas stated that he had missed the births of three of his four children while playing baseball, and Valentine recalled all of the bureaucracy he had to go through when his child was born fifteen years ago, when Valentine was an assistant coach for the Mets.

A stroll down memory lane. The top 30 songs of 1998

Although the Mets are clearly a better team with Olerud in the middle of their batting order, the team fared well during Olerud’s absence. From the time he left the team until he returned, the Mets stayed even with the Chicago Cubs for the last playoff spot. In addition, Olerud‟s performance did not suffer as a result of his absence. In fact, he subsequently raised his batting average to .354 and ended the season with the second-highest batting average in the National League.

It wasn‟t until the final week of the season, well after Olerud returned, that the Mets played poorly and lost out on the final playoff spot to the Cubs. It appears to be informal league policy that baseball players can miss up to three games as a sort of makeshift paternity leave at the birth of a child.

This is comparable to Pleck’s (1993) description of how fathers informally manage the boundaries between work and family, and how organizations provide certain avenues for these informal accommodations. The Mets allowed Olerud the discretion to spend time with his wife and newborn child during the most crucial part of the season, when one slip could cost the team millions of dollars in playoff revenues. Even though the team failed to reach the playoffs, the informal paternity leave policy did not appear to hurt either Olerud’s or his team’s performance.

Finally, although there is nothing in the Major League Baseball collective bargaining agreement to guarantee this right, it has become standard practice that players are allowed a few days off upon the birth of a child. Most notable is the recent (June 2006) case of Cesar Izturis, then a backup infielder for the LA Dodgers. He was originally cleared to leave the team for 48 hours to be at the birth of his child. However, he was given an extra three days away from the team as his wife had a difficult delivery and needed more time to recover.

What has changed since 1998:

  • In 2011, MLB implemented a 72-hour paternity leave policy, and over 100 players have made formal use of this program. By formalizing paternity leave, the league has sent an important signal about the importance of fatherhood. Players are no longer dependent on informal arrangements. This is progress.
  • Sports talk radio was never a land of enlightenment, but the culture of 24/7 news and sports coverage has sure amplified the voices of the lowest common denominator.
  • Grunge is totally out.

What hasn’t:

  • Pearl Jam is still rocking!
  • Most MLB players’ paternity leave still does not attract much media attention. For example, the coverage of Olerud’s leave was the subject of two short articles on page 2 and page 5 of the NY Times Sports section, and while Murphy’s leave was dissected, this was an anomaly.
  • The public overwhelmingly supports athletes when they accommodate work for family. Over 90% of NY Sports fans and 95% of the general public approved of Murphy’s leave, for example.
  • The rest of us working dads aren’t as lucky. The vast majority still do not have access to significant paternity leaves, and mostly cobble together accumulated time off when their children are born.

… and this, more than anything, really needs to change.

What do you think about the changes in work and family awareness since 1998? Let’s discuss in the comments section.

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