Some of the sights and sounds from Saturday's Orioles FanFest at the Baltimore Convention Center.
The absence of Jonathan Schoop at this weekend’s Orioles FanFest was an obvious distraction this year for what was an otherwise well-done offseason event, and now one has to wonder whether that will carry over.
FanFest is for the fans. And fans wanted to know why two of the club’s favorite players didn’t show. The Orioles never officially gave reasons why Manny Machado and Schoop weren’t there -- closer Zach Britton, who hadn’t been cleared to fly following Achilles surgery, and first baseman Chris Davis, whose wife Jill had given birth to twins earlier in the week, had previously received permission to miss the event and were never listed on the autograph schedule.
But manager Buck Showalter was more than willing to offer his perspective. Showalter said that in his eyes, Machado was not there for a legitimate personal issue, but that Schoop’s reason didn’t fit his standard.
FanFest is the one offseason event that all players under team control, whether you’ve just been added to the 40-man roster or are a 10-year veteran, are required to attend. Traditionally, few exceptions are granted.
But Showalter told reporters during his FanFest media session on Saturday that he wasn’t satisfied with Schoop’s reason for missing the event. He said that he spoke with Schoop’s agent, Steve Veltman, who Showalter said told Schoop to hold out of the event.
“I talked to his agent,” Showalter said. “He made me aware of the advice he gave Jon, so we'll live with it and move on."
The most probable reason why Schoop’s agent would tell him to miss FanFest would be because he and the team have yet to agree to terms on a contract for the 2018 season. This is Schoop’s second year of going through the arbitration process, and he is one of two Orioles players who have yet to finalize his contract.
The other player in that situation, right-hander Kevin Gausman, attended Saturday’s event. The Orioles reached agreements with their five other arbitration-eligible players, including Machado, at the salary figure exchange deadline three Fridays ago.
I was told by one Orioles player Saturday that it’s not uncommon for agents to tell an arbitration-eligible player who has yet to agree to terms to miss a team-sponsored offseason fan event. This player said he was advised to do it once earlier in his career, but he decided to still attend, and eventually reached a verbal agreement there.
But not only did Schoop’s absence hurt the fans but it also damages the image of one of the team’s rising stars. Whether Schoop was only listening to the advice given to him by his agent, it clearly would ring hollow to fans who pay their hard-earned money to get through the door and have just minutes to purchase autograph vouchers before they sell out.
“They shouldn’t take out the problem they have with the organization out on the fans,” said Parkville resident Kevin McHugh.
For all intents and purposes, Schoop is a player whom Baltimore should embrace. Even as his star rose last season throughout his breakout year, he still approached the game with the same youthful exuberance that makes him engaging. He’s a pleasure to deal with and is fan-friendly, often seen signing autographs for fans before games. His teammates love him.
But then there’s the money part of the game, something that’s always hard for fans to sympathize with in a sport where the league minimum is $545,000.
When the Orioles and Schoop’s agent were negotiating before the deadline to exchange salary figures, the sides weren’t far apart, a difference of about $200,000 to $300,000, according to one industry source. But they walked away from discussions unable to come to a deal. This can’t help negotiations, making it seem more likely that Schoop will be heading to arbitration, where the Orioles have lost just two cases over the past 23 years.
The Orioles are $1.5 million apart from Schoop, who filed for a $9 million salary while the Orioles filed a figure of $7.5 million.
An argument could be made about why autograph session tickets were sold for Machado or Schoop if the Orioles didn’t know whether they’d attend, but regardless, there’s no way to avoid the fallout when it involves one of your most popular players. Two offseasons ago, Machado’s name was left off the autograph schedule when it was released a week before the event because it was unclear whether he’d attend because of the birth of his brother-in-law’s first child.
The Orioles tried to find a situation that could allow Machado to attend and still be able to be there for his family, and if Machado attended, he could have been an impromptu addition to the autograph schedule. He didn’t and it still led to a week’s worth of fan quarterbacking whether Machado’s reason for missing the event was valid.
Again this year, the Orioles tried to make it work, and Showalter talked to Schoop’s agent multiple times over the week. Once it was clear Machado and Schoop wouldn’t attend, the Orioles were proactive, immediately giving refunds for autograph sessions with Machado or Schoop, and giving the fans the remaining players in those sessions for free.
Not knowing the reasons this year left fans more frustrated, with some fans having to come to their own conclusions.
“I'm upset,” said Joe Rice of Perryville. “I'm more upset hearing about Jonathan Schoop. Manny Machado, I understand, he probably doesn't want to hear all these questions about coming back for more years. I'm more upset about Schoop because, I guess, we all know they're friends on the team so Schoop and Manny are tight. I don't understand why Schoop ain't coming."
This was the second straight year that Schoop missed FanFest. He was a late scratch last season because of a death in his family. But Schoop and Machado each missing two of the last three FanFests can’t sit well with teammates who have adjusted their offseason schedules to make sure they attend.
One thing it does is make you appreciate players like Adam Jones, who has never missed a FanFest event in all his years in Baltimore and genuinely understands the importance of the event.
FanFest is also an event to bring the players together for the weekend. New players are welcomed to the organization. There is a team-bonding element to it. The 11th-hour absences of Machado and Schoop left teammates – many of whom said they didn’t know the reasons why they were missing FanFest either – answering for their absence.
“To each his own,” infielder Tim Beckham said. “They’re grown men and I’m a grown man and they’re going to make their decisions and you know, they might have had something important to do, so who knows? That doesn’t play any role to me.”
More startling than anything was the tone-deaf nature that Schoop’s absence emits. He could have followed the lead of Britton, who did a Twitter question-and-answer session during the event as his way of interacting with fans. But it’s baffling that no one in Schoop’s camp -- while fast to advise him to skip FanFest – didn’t suggest to him to use the power of social media to send his own unfiltered message to the fans about his absence. Schoop’s Instagram account has included several posts of his offseason conditioning work in his native Curacao, and MLB.com did a heartfelt media campaign this month featuring Schoop and other players on how they’re growing the game on the island.
Instead, it leaves the fans to make their own decisions about whether they will accept Schoop skipping FanFest. Days ago, they were on social media pushing to get Schoop – who has two years before free agency – extended so the team doesn’t have to go through the same situation it is with Machado this offseason. But now, they’re asking whether Schoop really wants to be in Baltimore for one weekend in January, let alone the long-term future.