Believe it or not, Ponson could be model to follow


It has been more than three years since the Orioles finally got fed up with the off-the-field antics of pitcher Sidney Ponson and released him - without pay - for conduct detrimental to the team. So much time has passed, in fact, that the news of his arbitration hearing today has been met with a collective yawn from the many Orioles fans who would just as soon forget that unhappy chapter in the team's unhappy recent history.

Really, why should you care whether a rich, young guy gets an additional $11 million or a rich, old guy gets to keep the same amount? It's not going to raise or lower the price of your season-ticket plan, if you still have one, and it probably isn't going to have any significant effect on the Orioles' payroll, because most teams wouldn't blink at throwing $11 million into the street these days.

The people who care, however, care a lot. Ponson has made some money in his career and probably is doing fine, but an additional $11 million would certainly make for a long and happy life in Aruba or South Florida. Orioles owner Peter Angelos wouldn't miss the money if he had to cut that check, but I've got to believe he cares a great deal about the principle involved, and I know he cares even more about winning this kind of dispute.

And though Angelos and Ponson are considered the principals in this case, they actually are merely players in a much bigger production. The parties who care the most about the outcome are the people from Major League Baseball's central office and the lawyers from the Major League Baseball Players Association who will fill the hearing room with $1,000 suits and fancy briefcases and actually argue the case before the three-person panel headed by baseball arbitrator Shyam Das.

For them, there is even more at stake. They will be fighting over the sanctity of the guaranteed contract, one of the cornerstones of the economic system that was put in place at the dawn of the free-agent era.

The hearing is scheduled to begin today in Baltimore and is expected to last three days. The decision will come later, perhaps much later considering how long it took just to get to the hearing phase, and the ramifications could be significant.

Let's review the facts: Ponson was a highly talented young pitcher who came up through the Orioles' system and seemed ticketed for stardom. He also was a wild child who loved to party and wore his devil-may-care attitude proudly on his sleeve. The more successful he got, it seemed, the more fun he tried to have after hours and during the offseason, which led to a series of incidents that would eventually persuade the Orioles to terminate his contract.

The most famous instance of his misbehavior was a Christmas Day incident in Aruba that involved an alleged assault on a local judge and led to Ponson's being jailed for 11 days while awaiting disposition of the case. He also had a series of drunken driving incidents, the last of which precipitated the end of his Orioles career while he still had more than one year remaining on his guaranteed contract.

The Orioles based their refusal to pay the remainder of the deal on this clause in the standard contract: "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."

Now, to the unpracticed legal eye, it would seem fairly obvious that Ponson did not conform to a high standard of personal conduct, but it's a little more complicated than that. The union likely will make the case that the Orioles were well aware of Ponson's free-wheeling personality and penchant for bad-boy behavior long before they signed him to the contract at issue and that the club acted arbitrarily when it invoked the conduct clause to cut off his salary.

If the arbitrators side with the union, it would all but render the conduct clause meaningless and, perhaps, prompt ownership to seek more specific contract language in the next labor negotiations. If the panel votes in favor of the Orioles, it might embolden other teams to pull out of contracts when players either misbehave or fall badly out of shape.

It really could have some effect on the balance of power between the union and management. The MLBPA remains the most powerful of the American team sports unions, and all you need to do is look at the Goodell Doctrine to see how much more power the NFL has to discipline players than baseball management. That won't change with this one case, but Major League Baseball has gained some ground in this relationship in recent years - thanks, in part, to the steroid backlash that forced the union to compromise on other behavior-related matters.

Want my prediction? Ponson will get his money because the conduct clause is too vague and has been invoked too inconsistently to void the contract in this particular case.

Not that I care one way or the other.

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon most Fridays and Saturdays.

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