ON PAPER, NICK FRANCONA LOOKED LIKE THE ULTIMATE BASEBALL COMPANY MAN. BUT WORKING IN THE GAME—AND CLASHING WITH SUPERIORS LIKE GABE KAPLER—LEFT HIM DRIVEN TO CHALLENGE INSTITUTIONS TO WHICH HIS FAMILY OWES SO MUCH
IN LATE February 2015, Gabe Kapler, then the Dodgers' director of player development, called one of his lieutenants, assistant director of player development Nick Francona. He shared some alarming news. Kapler told Francona that "Something had gone on" at the Hampton Inn & Suites in Glendale, Ariz., the team hotel just a few miles from the Dodgers' spring training complex.
As Francona remembers the conversation, Kapler's account was vague but troubling: "He didn't have a ton of information at that point. It sounded like there was some type of disturbance at the hotel involving a few players who had been drinking with some girls in their room and playing loud music."
Kapler was basing his report on an email he had received from the grandmother of a 17-year-old girl who claimed that the previous evening, the granddaughter had been asked to party in a hotel room with two older women and two Dodgers minor leaguers. The girl, a runaway, said she had consumed half a bottle of vodka, vomited on a bed and then been beaten up by the two women—all while someone in the group recorded video that was later posted on Snapchat. "It was clear that there was more to it," says Francona. "[Gabe] said we would figure it out at the complex in the coming days."
Instead of referring the allegations of physical assault of a 17-year-old at the hotel to police, Kapler took an unusual step: Unaware of the details and scope of the incident, he attempted to organize a dinner meeting. He would invite the Dodgers players and the alleged victim and then attempt to mediate the situation himself.
A week after the alleged incident, following her arrest on a separate shoplifting charge, the girl made a more serious claim to police: that she had also been sexually assaulted by one of the Dodgers players in that hotel room that night. According to the criminal police report, obtained by Sports Illustrated through a public records request, as the girl, under the age of consent in Arizona, lay down on a bed intoxicated, a player began "touching her breast with his hand under her bra. She also described [the player] placing his hand down the front of her pants and using his fingers to rub her clitoris."
According to the document, the girl's case manager at the Arizona Department of Child Safety "desire[d] prosecution" against the Dodgers player for sexual abuse. No charges, however, were ever filed, in part because the alleged victim did not wish to cooperate. (Since no charges were filed, SI is choosing not to name the player.)
Outside of Dodgers insiders and Glendale law enforcement circles, the incident remained largely secret for two years. But in retrospect it was the first act in a long-running (and ongoing) Shakespearean baseball drama, pitting an unlikely whistle-blower—Francona—against the institution that functions as his family business, and against a self-styled baseball iconoclast who in his own way has pushed against the game's rigid structures. It also fits what would become a pattern for the Dodgers' player development hierarchy: a determination to keep in house charges of player misconduct against women, decisions that were curious and at times in violation of Major League Baseball policy.
Just eight months after the February 2015 incident, Kapler and the Dodgers faced another potential crisis at the same Glendale hotel. It again involved a player in the Dodgers system, and again involved an allegation of sexual assault. This time, a Dodgers minor leaguer was accused of an act of sexual violence against a woman on the housekeeping staff.
Electronic records obtained by SI reveal that within two minutes of receiving an email from the hotel manager describing the incident, Juan Rodriguez, manager of the Dodgers' Arizona operations, forwarded it to five Dodgers colleagues, including Kapler, the highest ranking employee on the thread. Rodriguez noted in his email, "[The player] does have somewhat of an aggressive attitude at times but this is the first situation where it escalated."
The following day, Kapler responded to the group: "I just connected with [the hotel manager]. His report made me feel embarrassed for our organization. I assured him that we'd address the situation swiftly and that this would not be an issue going forward ... Although this was an isolated incident, it was egregious enough to warrant a conversation with all our men."
In a separate group text thread (Kapler was not included), Roman Barinas, the Dodgers' manager of international scouting, chimed in: "[The player] crossed a line and is extremely lucky he isn't in jail."
The player was later released—a decision motivated, the Dodgers now say, by the alleged misbehavior. That transaction did not sit well with one Dodgers scout, who disagreed with the move and was upset he had not been consulted. The scout messaged Francona on WhatsApp, asking why the organization had cut ties with the player.
"Didn't he try to rape a maid?" Francona wrote, in more than a slight exaggeration of the actual accusation.
The scout remained unswayed, all the more so when the player was signed to a minor league contract by another organization. Referencing the Dodgers' Dominican Summer League team, he responded: "He could have pitched in the DSL. We definitely have at least 2/3 rapists on that team."
The following spring, Dodgers staffers discussed a third alleged incident occurring at the Glendale Hampton Inn. Surveillance video revealed that multiple players, including a top prospect, were confronting female guests and, as one source familiar with the video characterized it to SI, "stalking ... and behaving strangely." Guests had complained to hotel staff, who alerted Dodgers personnel, who confronted the players and apologized to the hotel.
In none of these incidents did the Dodgers inform Major League Baseball. In August 2015, six months after the alleged assault on the runaway, MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association reached what they proudly touted as a "landmark" joint domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse policy. Teams were required to inform Major League Baseball of potential abuse by anyone in their organizations, down to the lowest minor league levels. The policy stated flatly: "Any club with information of such misconduct must report it to the Labor Relations Department."
The Dodgers' failure to report the second incident, in October 2015, to MLB headquarters, was a prima facie policy violation. David Schindler, outside counsel for the Dodgers, notes now that the policy, which had come out two months earlier, was just being rolled out at the time and that "the Dodgers' response was entirely appropriate. They immediately took action and the victim in the case who had been solicited or harassed specifically asked that no further action be taken."
In the case of the alleged stalking, the Dodgers now claim the incident fell outside the jurisdiction of the policy and that the organization had the right to handle the matter themselves. (An MLB source confirmed that, per their interpretation of the policy, the Dodgers were entitled to handle this internally.)
It wasn't until April of 2017 that MLB was made aware of the three incidents—not through the Dodgers, not through law enforcement, not through media reports. These incidents came to light only because Nick Francona, scion of one of baseball's royal families, was feeling wronged by the Dodgers, the sport, and not least, by Kapler. By then he had departed on either a righteous crusade or, as multiple sources independently characterized it, a war against baseball.
BORN IN Montreal in 1985, while his father was playing for the Expos, Nick was, for all intents and purposes, raised in clubhouses; his father spent 10 years as a big league infielder and has been a manager for the last 18 years; Nick's grandfather was an All-Star outfielder from 1956 to '70. When he was in high school in New Jersey—around the time Terry was managing the Red Sox to their first world championship in nearly a century, in 2004—he was a lefty pitcher, hitting 88 mph on the gun and envisioning a career that followed the same path as his father's and grandfather's. He went to the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton business school and played baseball. But as a sophomore he injured his throwing shoulder, killing his big league ambitions. "Throwing 78 wasn't going to cut it," he says, "so I needed to come up with a new life plan."
Upon graduating in 2008, he chose an unlikely one: He joined the Marine Corps. He says he never felt right living a cosseted college life—"drinking beer and going to class"—while his peers were fighting wars overseas. His father didn't get it. His mother, Jacque, also surprised by the decision, hoped it would somehow involve using his Ivy League business degree. "Mom," he told her gently, "when you think about joining the Marines, it's not so you can do their paperwork."
Francona distinguished himself in training. In 2011 he was deployed to Helmand Province in Afghanistan, commanding a scout-sniper platoon and seeing heavy combat. "The military term is kinetic," he says. "It was a hot area. We were mixing it up pretty good. You realize there's no rhyme or reason to why some guy gets hurt and another doesn't, some guy lives and another doesn't."
When Francona was discharged with the rank of captain, he went to work at Booz Allen in the Washington, D.C., area, an international consulting firm with deep military ties. He enjoyed the work but had an unshakable urge to return to baseball. He didn't want to work for his father's team; that he knew. But thanks to his name and his connections Nick was able to get meetings with executives.
He quickly realized that neither his family pedigree nor his academic pedigree nor his military pedigree was worth much. A few months earlier he'd been in charge of 30 men during intense fighting; now he was being offered a job videotaping minor league games. "I was really surprised by that," he says "This is an environment I grew up in, I was really comfortable around baseball. I didn't think I fit the stereotype of a tatted-up Marine with the haircut. Still, even when people are respectful and think it's a good thing that somebody serves, it's almost like they're a weird element. Why would somebody do that kind of thing?"
Francona, though, decided to take a position with the Angels as coordinator of major league player information. A year or so later, in late 2014, he got a call from Josh Byrnes, who had worked with Terry Francona at the Red Sox. Byrnes had just begun working as the Dodgers' senior vice president of baseball operations, and he offered Nick Francona a job as assistant director of player development.
Much as Francona admired Byrnes, he quickly grew disenchanted with the Dodgers—in particular with his immediate supervisor, Gabe Kapler. Nick thought it was strange that for their first meeting, Kapler suggested they work out together. So it was that they discussed their vision for the Dodgers over sets of curls and squats at a Malibu gym.
If the Ivy-educated, Marine-trained Francona did not cut a conventional figure in the baseball world, Kapler had cultivated his own brand of baseball iconoclasm. Two years after retiring as a player in 2012, he launched a start-up that connected fans with players. In '13, Kapler began a blog, Kaplifestyle, in which he riffed on subjects from his self-branded belief system and referenced quotes from Nabokov, Gandhi and the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Famously devoted to self-improvement, Kapler has long chafed at conventional wisdom. One of his core leadership principles as a baseball executive entailed instituting no rules but rather expectations.
The February 2015 incident broadened the ideological chasm between Kapler and Francona. For failing to meet expectations, the players involved in the hotel room incident were not conventionally punished; rather, according to internal Dodgers emails and texts, Kapler required them to undergo training for "being a good teammate." Specifically, the players were assigned to write essays about Dodgers history, take nature walks, practice yoga and meditation, clean the team's weight room and watch motivational videos.
Kapler says now that he and the Dodgers were unaware the players had been accused of sexual assault and that he still has never seen the police report based on the alleged victim's account. Still, Francona says, he felt Kapler's handling of the situation was, at best, clumsy, his leadership lacking.
Nick gave thought to asking advice from his father but ultimately decided against it. For one thing, Terry Francona worked for a different organization, so sharing the Dodgers' internal issues might have been perceived as an act of disloyalty. Plus, Nick entered baseball hell-bent on dispelling charges of nepotism. "I really tried to do the best I could to make a name for myself and have it be merit-based," says Nick, "not ride his coattails, knowing that I'd be fighting an uphill battle for that perception anyway."
Two years removed from the military, Francona also held great reverence for organizational hierarchy and was uneasy about going over Kapler's head. But he was also uneasy about this situation. "The chain of command exists [in the military] and is sacred as a matter of law," he says. "But—and there's a lot of training on this—there's a difference between lawful orders and unlawful orders and the chain of command doesn't exist to propagate cover-ups. More influential for me: Leaders have a responsibility to do the right thing."
The case of the runaway is illustrative of just how easily allegations of sexual assault can vanish. When contacted by police, the Dodgers hired a lawyer for the player, as they are required by California employment law. Yet, after no criminal charges were forthcoming, the team did not request the police report, and, multiple sources tell SI, the incident was seldom discussed again.
The Dodgers contend that if Francona was so concerned about the way the incident was handled, he did nothing at the time to indicate it. "[Nick Francona] was on the ground with Gabe Kapler," says Schindler. "He had the exact same set of facts. Nick Francona never raised the issue to anybody. He did not call police. He did not call legal. He called no one within the Dodgers' organization."
Texts and emails indicate that Francona made his displeasure known to his coworkers. He called into question Kapler's leadership. But there's no indication he took the matter to his ultimate boss, Dodgers general manager Andrew Friedman. Pressed on this point, Francona says, "Going to Andrew was not an option; Gabe was the sole path to Andrew," Francona says. "You don't want to say, 'Not my problem.' But even in retrospect, I don't know what more I could have done. I tried to do the right thing internally."
BY THE spring of 2016, Francona's relationship with the Dodgers organization had deteriorated deeply. Though his contract was not up, in December '15 the team offered him a raise and an extension. According to the team, he declined, unhappy with the compensation. According to Francona, he declined because he had concerns about the ethics of the organization.
Around the same time, Francona sought a TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) assessment at the Home Base Program, a partnership between the Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital that provides clinical care and support services to veterans for the "invisible wounds of war." Jacque Francona volunteered for Home Base when Terry Francona managed the Red Sox and she now works there full-time.
Before he was evaluated, Kapler suggested he take a leave of absence from the Dodgers. Kapler wrote in an email: "I don't question the upside and value you bring to the organization. I see it every single day. What you have to decide is whether you can afford physically, mentally and emotionally to keep working here under the circumstances that currently exist."
Deeply offended that Kapler would make this suggestion, especially before the evaluation, Francona declined to take the leave. "I explicitly told him that I did not want to take a leave of absence and thought it was entirely inappropriate and premature to recommend that course of action," he wrote later in a letter to MLB. "Gabe made the recommendation for a leave of absence before I was even evaluated at Home Base and without any professional qualifications or familiarity with the issues."
According to Francona, Kapler had complained to Byrnes that Francona had been "too hardened" and "ruined" by his military experience. (Byrnes did not respond to an email seeking comment. Kapler denies saying this.) Francona and Kapler both agree that their relationship was irreparably damaged by this point. Effectively fired, Francona's last day with the Dodgers was April 5, 2016, less than six months after he was offered a contract extension.
And with that, Nick Francona followed his conscience, even if that meant taking on the sport that his family cherished. In the spring of 2016 he made his first reports about his experience with the Dodgers to the MLB commissioner's office and accused Kapler, chiefly, of firing him because of an insensitivity toward military veterans.
A year later, as the investigation was playing out, Francona turned over documents and informed MLB about the three sexual assault allegations. Francona also began sharing records he had kept of communications with coworkers with journalists. He used his personal Twitter account to mock and criticize Kapler. Retweeting a January 2018 Fox News tweet about a teacher in California getting caught on tape bashing the military, Francona tweeted, "In related news, the teacher who was caught on video calling Marines 'the freakin' lowest of the low' is eagerly awaiting his invitation from @gabekapler to throw out the first pitch at a @Phillies game."
The Dodgers defended themselves by painting Francona as a classic disgruntled former employee. While his complaint was still pending, Francona sought jobs in baseball—and found new targets for his disillusionment with the baseball-industrial complex. In November 2017 he began working for the Mets in player development under then-GM Sandy Alderson, a longtime baseball executive and himself a Marine.
In May 2017, MLB quietly cleared Kapler in its internal investigation. Last week, MLB gave SI the following statement on the matter: "At Mr. Francona's request, MLB's Department of Investigations (DOI) conducted a thorough investigation of his allegations. DOI interviewed more than a dozen witnesses and reviewed approximately 45,000 documents, including information that Mr. Francona provided. DOI found no information to corroborate Mr. Francona's allegation that his departure from the Dodgers, or any other purported mistreatment, was related to his status as a military veteran or his decision to seek an assessment through a veterans' assistance program."
As for whether the Dodgers violated policy in failing to report the three sexually related allegations that Francona had brought to their attention, MLB issued another statement last week: "[T]he Dodgers and Gabe Kapler did their best to act appropriately given the facts known to them at the time. As is often the case, the allegations related to the incidents have changed over time. Moreover, some of the purported facts about these three incidents come from an individual without first hand knowledge of the underlying incidents and with questionable motivations."
By the time MLB resolved his Dodgers' complaint, Francona had taken up another cause. He had long been uncomfortable about the ways MLB used military imagery and rituals in their marketing—from saluting soldiers at games to outfitting teams in camouflage jerseys—yet offered few programs for veterans. Francona asked MLB—repeatedly he says—pointed questions. How much revenue from those $40 camouflage caps did MLB keep? What evidence was there that the proceeds from Memorial Day game apparel were directed toward charities connected with military families? Answers were slow in coming.
And so Francona—again smudging the line between taking principled action and undermining himself—took matters into his own hands. In January 2018, though unapproved by the Mets, he spoke to the New York Daily News about what he perceived to be baseball's antimilitary bias. Francona also continued expressing his dissatisfaction with MLB over Twitter.
"I hear from vets all the time that are frustrated that they are excluded from MLB's hiring and diversity pipeline programs," he tweeted in March 2018. "MLB is failing with veterans. The numbers are clear. It's time for less lip service and more action, starting with MLB officials being accountable."
Still, last season the Mets asked Francona to supplement his player development job by organizing the team's Memorial Day program. Francona's plan was predicated on matching Mets players with the families of fallen veterans using personal connections like home towns and alma maters. (In one case, Mets player Adrián González was matched with the family of a high school teammate of his who was killed in Iraq.) The team also hosted Gold Star families at Citi Field.
"I would like to see [commissioner] Rob Manfred tell a Gold Star family that MLB's program for Memorial Day is a respectful way to honor the memory of their loved one," Francona tweeted two weeks before Memorial Day. "Just tell them the truth—you don't care enough to learn their names and just sell apparel off of their sacrifice."
The evening of last Memorial Day, Francona received an email from Alderson asking to meet with him the following day. Francona recalls Alderson telling him, one Marine to another, that this was a difficult conversation. Nick had done a fine job and distinguished himself with his work on Memorial Day. But his public comments condemning MLB were not consistent with working in baseball. He could choose to resign. Otherwise, the team would have to fire him.
Now a senior adviser with the A's, Alderson says that Francona's account is "more or less consistent." Alderson adds, "The thrust was not that he was critical of Major League Baseball. The thrust was that he was using his social media accounts in violation of New York Mets policy.... We had looked the other way as long as we could, but I warned Nick that at some point there would be consequences."
After Nick Francona cleaned out his office at Citi Field, he called his father and informed him. Terry Francona suggested that Nick resign quietly. Perhaps not surprisingly, Nick shook him off and called his own pitch.
IT'S BEEN four years now since the alleged assault in the Glendale hotel room that, in some respects, triggered this entire saga. The alleged victim is now 21 years old. Public records reveal that since turning 18, she has been arrested at least three times in Arizona—for possession of meth, a class four felony; for unlawful use of means of transportation, a class five felony; and for theft, a class six felony. She has also become a mother.
Reached by SI for comment, she broadly confirmed the account captured in the criminal police report, including the dinner invitation Kapler initiated. She then requested payment to continue the conversation, which SI declined, citing long-standing policy. Reached through messages left on her Facebook account, she declined further comment.
One of the players involved in the alleged incident was released by the Dodgers; the other player was promoted through the Dodgers system and is currently on a major league roster. In October 2017, Kapler was named manager of the Phillies, a position that, coincidentally, had once been held by Terry Francona. Some news reports at the time made mention of Kapler's being cleared of an MLB investigation surrounding anti-military bias charges leveled by Nick Francona. Kapler returns for his second season under a cloud with the start of spring training just days away.
Ever the iconoclast, Kapler has not exactly retreated to cautious, lawyerly statements. Over the weekend he released a 1,333-word statement on his website. "I take violence against women, especially sexual violence, incredibly seriously," he wrote. "In this particular case, the notion that a sexual assault had taken place was never brought up during the time that I was involved in responding. There is a big difference between responding to a player who displayed an unacceptable lack of judgment and one that assaulted a woman. I am well aware of that difference, and I assure you that I would have acted differently if at the time I was involved I had reason to believe that a sexual assault had occurred."
In Cleveland, Terry Francona has had considerable success managing the Indians, including taking the team to the 2016 World Series. However, "Nick's experience," as Terry puts it, has strained both his relationship with his son and his relationship with his sport. "I have a son that I love," says Terry, releasing a deep sigh. "And this is the only job I have had. So I've tried to remain, not neutral, but away from it."
Nick Francona, now 33, lives in New York and is considering applying to law school. This he knows for sure: He's effectively been expelled from the family business. If, in fact, he's the third generation of Francona men to make an impact on baseball, it's in an altogether different way from that of his father and grandfather. "Look, I love baseball and I realize my father has a prominent position in baseball," he says. "But that can't pollute the truth."
Says Alderson, "I thought he had a real future in baseball. But Nick couldn't reconcile his past experiences with the Dodgers with a notion of moving on and having a real impact on veterans' issue in Major League baseball."
And this might be the overarching irony—and perhaps small tragedy—in Nick Francona's story. All parties can agree on this: He accomplished demonstrable good in his short time inside the game. According to sources, MLB changed military and veterans' hiring policies based on some of Francona's suggestions and criticisms. It associated with new military groups and disassociated with others based, in part, on Francona's suggestions. "The unfortunate element," says one source, "is that Nick could have had a real career in baseball and been a force for good on veterans issues, if he had been willing to be less aggressive and emotional."
Francona sees it differently. "Getting fired, especially twice, isn't fun and really makes things hard," he says. "But there are some things that are worth being fired for."
"NICK'S EXPERIENCE HAS STRESSED BOTH TERRY'S RELATIONSHIP WITH HIS SON AND HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH HIS SPORT. "I HAVE A SON THAT I LOVE," SAYS TERRY. "AND THIS IS THE ONLY JOB I HAVE HAD. SO I'VE TRIED TO REMAIN, NOT NEUTRAL, BUT AWAY FROM IT.""