O's might find it tough to get rid of Ponson

Attempt to void contract could be costly, frustrating

August 27, 2005|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

When news broke out of San Francisco during the winter that New York Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi told a federal grand jury he took steroids and other performance-enhancing substances, the team held internal discussions about voiding his contract. Since the only available proof came from a newspaper article, and nothing more concrete, officials decided against it and kept Giambi on their payroll.

The Orioles are having the same discussions concerning pitcher Sidney Ponson, but they've got police reports that show three arrests since December, two on charges of driving under the influence. On the surface, it might seem they hold enough evidence to wipe out the remainder of his three-year, $22.5 million contract.

But do they have a legitimate case?

A decision hasn't been made on Ponson, as the Orioles continue to weigh their options after his latest alcohol-related arrest early Thursday morning in Baltimore. People in the industry agree, however, that any attempt to void his contract will be an uphill climb that could exhaust their resources and leave them without a satisfactory resolution.

"That issue ultimately would go even above us [agents], and it would be an issue that the players association would take the initiative to defend the position of the player," said Darek Braunecker, who represents Florida Marlins pitcher A.J. Burnett. "We would, from a legal standpoint, defend it. It's such a delicate and intricate issue when they try to void those contracts, and the players association is so opposed to that happening. They take considerable interest in these situations and ultimately garnering control over what happens with the player.

"From our perspective, that of the representation, you would defend yourself even if it wound up going to litigation. You're going to exhaust all measures possible to assure the contract is never voided."

Ponson didn't attend last night's game, and the Orioles issued a statement saying they were still "assessing the situation." The legal system could take care of the matter for them. A conviction on the latest arrest might lead to jail time and make it difficult for Ponson to obtain a work visa.

Meanwhile, Ponson has informed Orioles interim manager Sam Perlozzo that he wants to get his life under control, which could include a stay at an alcohol rehabilitation facility. "I told him it wasn't going to be easy, and good luck," Perlozzo said. "That's pretty much where it ended."

Agent Scott Shapiro, who offered legal assistance after Ponson was arrested in Aruba on Christmas Day in connection with a fight on a beach, suggested that the Orioles try to get one productive season from the pitcher before his contract expires. For that to happen, people inside and outside the organization believe he needs counseling.

"I think a course of action that would help Sidney is one that would get him the necessary evaluation and treatment," Shapiro said. "I'm sure he'd be very receptive to that."

The Yankees succeeded in voiding outfielder Ruben Rivera's contract in 2002 after he admitted to stealing teammate Derek Jeter's glove in spring training, with the intent of selling it to a memorabilia dealer. Team officials cut him loose after transferring his contract to a non-guaranteed deal, with no objections from the players association.

They didn't go as far with Giambi since his testimony was sealed and they had no proof of any wrongdoing.

"There's the perception that we tried to void his contract, but to this day, there's still no evidence against Jason," a member of the Yankees' organization said. "There's nothing we could act on. There's no way to confirm it, so why bother trying to take action on a newspaper article?"

Unlike Giambi's situation, the Orioles can cite three alcohol-related arrests, the first in 1996 in Frederick while Ponson pitched for their Triple-A affiliate. He also spent 11 days in jail in Aruba after the beach altercation.

"He's done something, it's on the record, they have access to the information," one baseball executive said. "There is a bread trail you can follow there that might lead you to a conclusion. It's certainly a tough road, but it's not an impossible one."

Every player on the 40-man roster signs a standard Unified Players Contract that includes a morals clause, paragraph 3(a), that reads: "The Player agrees to perform his services hereunder diligently and faithfully, to keep himself in first-class physical condition and to obey the Club's training rules, and pledges himself to the American public and to the Club to conform to high standards of personal conduct, fair play and good sportsmanship."

No known precedent exists for voiding a large contract based on this morals clause, so the Orioles would be pioneers if they were successful.

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