Angelos isn't the type to avoid fight to void Ponson's contract

Angelos isn't type to avoid contract fight

September 02, 2005|By Peter Schmuck

IT IS SO difficult to void a guaranteed contract that the New York Yankees chose not to attempt it after leaked grand jury testimony revealed that slugger Jason Giambi had admitted to using steroids.

The Major League Baseball Players Association would have fought back with every weapon in its substantial legal arsenal, and the union's success rate in cases involving an arbitrator is so good that the Yankees must have figured that it just wouldn't be worth the trouble.

Orioles owner Peter Angelos isn't built that way.

The Orioles announced yesterday that they had placed troubled pitcher Sidney Ponson on waivers for the purpose of giving him his unconditional release, invoking a clause in the standard players contract to justify refusing to pay him the remaining $10 million or so on his guaranteed contract.

The Colorado Rockies cited the same personal behavior clause to terminate the contract of pitcher Denny Neagle after the former Arundel High star was charged with soliciting a sex act in Colorado. Five months later, the Rockies settled short of arbitration by agreeing to pay Neagle $16 million of the $19.5 million that remained on his guaranteed contract.

Orioles owner Peter Angelos isn't built that way.

The likelihood that the Orioles will succeed in withholding the remainder of Ponson's salary seems small, though club officials feel they have a strong case after the 28-year-old right-hander was arrested last week on a charge of driving under the influence - his second DUI this year and third such arrest during his Orioles career.

Ponson also spent 11 days in jail after a Christmas beach brawl in Aruba during which he allegedly assaulted a judge. That's three serious incidents in less than nine months, not to mention his failure to stay in any kind of adequate physical condition. If that isn't enough to kick in the clause that supposedly allows a club to terminate a contract if a player should "fail, refuse or neglect to conform his personal conduct to the standards of good citizenship and sportsmanship," well, what is?

Good question.

The San Diego Padres invoked the same clause to terminate the contract of pitcher LaMarr Hoyt after three drug-related arrests in 1987, but the union took the case to court and forced the team to pay Hoyt the rest of his guaranteed salary. There appear to be enough similarities between that case and Ponson's (though his arrests involved alcohol, not drugs) that it could be used as a precedent by the union.

It's an uphill fight, but Angelos probably wouldn't want it any other way. He has spent much of his life waging legal battles that others did not think he had any chance to win, and he's worth more than $1 billion because he refused to take "You have no chance" for an answer.

The Orioles would love to save that $10 million, but Angelos has taken on this fight on principle, and he really believes he's going to win.

"We took this step only after careful and thoughtful consideration," said Orioles counsel H. Russell Smouse, "taking into account the number of times that he has been caught driving under the influence of alcohol and the number of alcohol-related incidents over time."

No doubt, union lawyers will counter that the Orioles knew well that Ponson had issues with alcohol before they signed him to a three-year, $22.5 million contract early in 2004. They may also point out that the Orioles could have placed a weight clause in that contract if they were so concerned about his physical condition. (After all, they did that when they signed Javy Lopez.)

Maybe the Orioles are jousting at windmills, but what have they got to lose? Ponson had become a reverse role model in a clubhouse full of young and impressionable players, and he wasn't exactly leading by example on the mound, either. Does anyone really think he was going to earn his keep next year?

The club had one other option. It could have waited to see if one or both of the outstanding DUI charges prevented Ponson from getting a work visa next year, which would have given the team an excuse to withhold his salary if he was unable to report for work.

That strategy might have had a better chance of succeeding if the only object were to save the club some money, but there is much more at stake for both the team and the players union.

To the union, this is about the sanctity of the guaranteed contract, and there are few issues that the true believers at the MLBPA take more seriously. To Angelos, this is about the enforceability of contract language - and, hopefully, sending a message to his players about what is not acceptable behavior.

Club sources indicated that there was no real talk of a compromise during the week since Ponson embarrassed himself and the club with his latest display of alcohol-related irresponsibility.

Peter Angelos isn't built that way.

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