Doing the Waive

Breaking Down a Rule That Nobody Understands

If the situation with the Mets and Rickey Henderson proved anything, it's this: Nobody understands the waiver rules. Revocable waivers, irrevocable waivers, unconditional waivers, release waivers, outright waivers, special waivers—most fans have no idea what these terms really mean, and all you have to do is open a newspaper or listen to a game broadcast to realize that the media is just as clueless. This became particularly apparent during the coverage of Henderson's waiver status, most of which was comically contradictory: Rickey'll be gone by the end of the day; wait, make that a couple of days; um, OK, he'll be gone by early next week; er, he was never going anywhere, the Mets were just gauging the market for him; oops, there he goes—told ya so.

Given all the misinformation floating around, boning up on the waiver rules seemed like a good idea. The first step was to obtain a copy of the guidelines from Major League Baseball's offices (a story in itself, as an MLB spokesman initially maintained that the waiver manifesto is "an internal document" that he need not share with the media—an absurd position to take regarding information so basic to the sport's operation). It soon became apparent that the waiver rules aren't exactly light reading—they feature page after page crammed with so much legalese that it would take a lengthy seminar to decipher it all. A few highlights:

"A waiver is a permission granted for certain assignments of player contracts or for the unconditional release of a Major League player. With regard to assignment waivers, such permission is granted for a specific period, and only after each Major League Club has been given the opportunity to accept the assignment of that player contract, and none has filed a claim requesting assignment of that contract. . . . In the event no claims are made [within two business days], waivers are secured." Translation: When executing various types of player moves, including certain trades, certain demotions to the minors, and the release of a player, a team must first make the player available to every other team. This is the crux of the waiver process.

"On the day of the [unconditional release] waiver request, the player shall be advised in writing that the Major League Club has requested waivers for the purpose of unconditional release." Translation: No player can be released without some warning that it's about to happen. Many of the writers covering the early stages of the Henderson story clearly missed the boat on this clause, reporting that Henderson was an imminent goner even when he insisted he'd been told nothing about it.

"When the proposed assignment is to another Major League Club, waivers shall be required during the period commencing August 1 and ending on the day following the close of the championship season." Translation: You know that July 31 trading deadline everyone always talks about? This is where it's codified.

And that's just scratching the surface. Confused? Be glad we're not covering how the waiver guidelines mesh with the rules governing minor league options. Ultimately, however, the most dizzying aspects of waivers don't involve the rules themselves but rather the procedures and strategies they allow. Just as baseball's playing rules make no specific mention of the hit-and-run or the suicide squeeze, there's nothing in the waiver guidelines about salary dumps or claiming a player in order to block another team from doing so, but such maneuvers are the essence of waiver gamesmanship. These complexities may explain why so many baseball GMs keep their jobs despite fielding lousy teams year after year: They're the only ones who fully understand this stuff.

The waiver rules, incidentally, are not without certain moments of quaintly anachronistic charm, the best of which is a provision entitling a player who's been put through release waivers to "make a collect call to the Major League Club to determine whether the player's contract has been claimed." It's not clear if Henderson ever invoked this clause, but it's easy to envision this being his last official act as a Met: "Rickey don't see no reason why Rickey should spend one of Rickey's quarters." Waive bye-bye, Rickey.

 
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