Union protests Ponson's release

MLBPA files grievance seeking $11.2M from O's for terminating contract

September 09, 2005|By Roch Kubatko and Dan Connolly | Roch Kubatko and Dan Connolly,SUN STAFF

The Major League Baseball Players Association formally filed a grievance against the Orioles and baseball yesterday on behalf of waived pitcher Sidney Ponson, levying charges of collusion and improperly obtaining information from the club's medical staff.

The Orioles placed Ponson on unconditional release waivers earlier this month for the purpose of terminating his contract, citing three arrests since December, the most recent coming Aug. 25 on charges of driving under the influence and driving while intoxicated. Ponson cleared waivers Tuesday.

Now, the union is officially trying to force the Orioles to pay the roughly $11.2 million remaining on Ponson's three-year guaranteed contract that was signed Jan. 14, 2004.

"We'll now schedule a hearing at some point and time," union spokesman Greg Bouris said. "The case then will be heard [by an arbiter], unless it is settled beforehand."

One industry source, requesting anonymity because of the case's legal status, said the hearing wouldn't happen until November at the earliest. There are at least 20 outstanding grievances from this year alone - most dealing with injury assignments - and another 30 or more that haven't been heard from previous years.

However, the industry source said the union will make Ponson's case a priority because of the money and publicity involved - so it should move more quickly than usual. Ponson, now a free agent, likely will have signed with another club by the time the case is resolved.

The players association claims the team's actions constituted a disciplinary measure without just cause and are not supported by the current version of the basic agreement that took effect in September 2002. At root of the disagreement is the Orioles' decision to convert Ponson's three-year, $22.5 million deal from a guaranteed contract to a non-guaranteed one.

The Orioles did so by invoking a clause that is included in the majority of all baseball contracts. In part, it reads: "In the event that the club determines that the player is no longer in first-class physical condition due to the use of any type of illegal drug, the misuse of prescription or over-the-counter drugs or alcohol dependency, the club may, in its discretion, convert its guaranteed contract into a non-guaranteed contract."

Frank Coonelly, Major League Baseball's general counsel for labor, said the conversion portion of the guaranteed clause is a suggestion, not a declaration by the commissioner's office. It has been included in most players' contracts for more than 10 years and has never been challenged, Coonelly said. He does not believe the Orioles have overstepped their boundaries.

"There is a pattern of conduct here that provides ample justification for termination," Coonelly said.

But the union grievance terms the conversion portion "unlawful" and alleges it "was a product of concerted action by the clubs." It's an accusation of collusion that, if agreed upon by an arbiter, could bring monetary damages to Ponson - perhaps as much as three times his lost baseball income, one industry source said.

According to the grievance, the union also alleges that the Orioles relied on "confidential information improperly obtained from club medical personnel" to build their case. Because they were privy to all of his physical reports, it is believed the information in question pertains to Ponson's alcohol use, one industry source said.

When reached by The Sun yesterday, H. Russell Smouse, the Orioles' general counsel, vehemently denied allegations that the club breached Ponson's right to confidentiality.

"There is absolutely no truth to that contention, none," he said.

Smouse said he had no knowledge of the union's collusion allegations or the suggestion that Ponson could be due triple his remaining salary.

"If it is indeed being made, it is an absurd contention without any legal or factual basis," Smouse said. "Any such contention is shockingly irresponsible and is patent nonsense."

Earlier in the day, Smouse released a statement reiterating the team's position that Ponson's "misconduct rendered him unable to perform his services in a competitive manner."

In the statement, Smouse termed the grievance "absolutely without merit." He said Ponson "was not in physical condition to be a productive member of the club. ... Sidney Ponson's pattern of contempt for what can reasonably be expected of a Major League Baseball player is most disappointing."

Team owner Peter G. Angelos is vacationing in Europe and could not be reached for comment. Bouris, representing the union, declined to comment further.

Ponson's agent, Barry Praver, wouldn't discuss specifics of the case or his client's whereabouts.

"The grievance speaks for itself," Praver said.

Ponson, 28, was 7-11 with a 6.21 ERA before his season was cut short by thumb and calf injuries. He has not made a public statement since his arrest.

The team has been increasingly unhappy with Ponson, who has spent all but 10 games of his eight-season career with the Orioles. They tried to deal him to the San Diego Padres in July, but Padres infielder Phil Nevin invoked his no-trade clause.

They also considered voiding his contract twice before: once last season because of excessive weight, and again in March after a January drunken-driving charge was discovered. They resisted those urges until August's arrest.

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