NEW YORK — Melky Cabrera ended the debate over whether a suspended drug cheat should be able to win a batting title. The San Francisco outfielder asked Major League Baseball officials to disqualify him and on Friday they agreed.
With less than two weeks left in the regular season and Cabrera on track to win the National League batting championship, MLB and the players' association reached a deal on a one-season-only change in the rule governing the individual batting, slugging and on-base percentage champions.
Serving a 50-game suspension, Cabrera entered Friday with a league-leading .346 average, seven points ahead of Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutchen. Cabrera, the All-Star game MVP, was suspended Aug. 15 for a positive test for testosterone and is missing the final 45 games of the regular season.
"He was just manning up and saying he was wrong," said McCutchen, who is four points ahead of San Francisco's Buster Posey. "It was man of him to do that. I guess he thought that was the right thing to do, and I commend him for doing that."
Cabrera had 501 plate appearances, one short of the required minimum, but would have won the title under section 10.22(a) of the Official Baseball Rules if an extra hitless at-bat were added to his average and he still finished ahead. With Friday's agreement, that provision won't apply this year to a player who "served a drug suspension for violating the Joint Drug Program."
The process for the change was set in motion Wednesday evening when Cabrera's agent, Seth Levinson, sent an email to union head Michael Weiner with an attached letter from Cabrera in English and Spanish.
"I ask the Players Association to take the necessary steps, in conjunction with the Office of the Commissioner, to remove my name from for the National League batting title," Cabrera wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press.
"To be plain, I personally have no wish to win an award that would widely be seen as tainted, and I believe that it would be far better for the remaining contenders to compete for that distinction," Cabrera wrote. "So too, the removal of my name from consideration will permit me to focus on my goal of working hard upon my return to baseball so that I may be able to win that distinction in a season played in full compliance with league rules. To be plain, I plan to work hard to vindicate myself in that very manner."
Lawyers from MLB and the union finished drafting the change on Friday.
"Major League Baseball will comply with Mr. Cabrera's request," Commissioner Bud Selig said. "I respect his gesture as a sign of his regret and his desire to move forward, and I believe that, under these circumstances, the outcome is appropriate, particularly for Mr. Cabrera's peers who are contending for the batting crown."
On Wednesday morning, Selig had said "we generally don't interfere" in the batting title issue.
Cabrera then took the initiative.
"It goes without saying that the last couple of months have been painful for Melky and he has certainly paid a significant price for the mistake that he made," Levinson wrote in the email, also obtained by the AP. "He wants to show the baseball world that he is remorseful and worthy of a 2nd chance. He understands that it will take both time and action to restore his good name and to prove that his love and respect for the game is unequivocal."
Qualifications for the batting championship are contained in the scoring section of the Official Baseball Rules, and Article 18 of baseball's labor contract says that if management and the union don't reach an agreement on proposed scoring rule changes that "significantly affect terms and conditions of employment," then the changes can't be put into effect until after the next complete season – which in this case would delay a modification until 2014.
But MLB and the union can change the rule at any time if they agree.
"I am grateful that the Players Association and MLB were able to honor my request by suspending the rule for this season," Cabrera said in a statement. "I know that changing the rules midseason can present problems, and I thank the Players Association and MLB for finding a way to get this done."
Baseball rules state a player needs to average a minimum 3.1 plate appearances for each of his team's games to become a batting, slugging or on-base percentage champion. But the last sentence of 10.22(a) says: "Notwithstanding the foregoing requirement of minimum appearances at the plate, any player with fewer than the required number of plate appearances whose average would be the highest, if he were charged with the required number of plate appearances shall be awarded the batting, slugging or on-base percentage championship, as the case may be."
The provision came into play for the first time in 1996, when San Diego's Tony Gwynn won his third straight NL batting title, and his seventh overall. Gwynn hit .353 in 498 plate appearances and won when four hitless at-bats were added and his average still topped that of Colorado's Ellis Burks, Gwynn's closest pursuer at .344.
As the agreement is worded, the only way Cabrera would qualify for the batting title is if the Giants had a rainout and played only 161 games, in which case 499 plate appearances would be sufficient. Such a situation is unlikely this late in the season.
Weiner praised Cabrera, saying "We commend Melky's decision under these circumstances."
Even before the decision was announced, Giants reliever Jeremy Affeldt said he was against a Cabrera title.
"I don't think you should be entitled to certain awards when you've been caught in those situations," he said. "I don't care who it is. I don't care if it's my best friend, if it's Melky or someone I don't even know. ... I would say the same thing to my son, `Son, if you get caught doing these things you shouldn't be available for any of that, just on principle.'"
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle called Cabrera's decision "a voice of reason."
"It would have been hard to understand," he said of a Cabrera batting title. "That being said, there's a lot of things that happen in life that are hard to understand. So we don't have to worry about that anymore."
Posey was thinking more about the Giants' place in the standings – atop the NL West – than his position in the batting race.
"Personal achievements and accomplishments are always nice," he said. "Being fortunate enough to win a World Series in 2010 and knowing how much fun that was and this year with the guys on the team and the whole city. Ultimately that's where I get the most satisfaction."
Giants manager Bruce Bochy doesn't think the batting title would be tarnished if Posey finishes ahead of McCutchen's average but below Cabrera's.
"If he wins," Bochy said, "he earned it."
AP Sports Writers Josh Dubow and Janie McCauley in San Francisco, and Kristie Rieken in Houston contributed to this report.