Peter Schmuck has a good column today about an arbitration most of either forgot was going to happen or knew nothing about in the first place: The Sidney Ponson Case:
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.”
At issue is the $11 million the O’s still owed Sir Sidney when he was cut from the team. I agree with Schmuck that, based both on Ponson’s history with the O’s and the way these things tend to go in baseball generally, Ponson will probably get the money the Orioles withheld.
Should he? In my view it’s hard to find a guy who has done more to waste his talents and harm his teams than Sidney Ponson has. In an ideal world, teams would have a right to void their deals with guys who utterly refuse to take care of themselves, behave horribly, or refuse to obey club rules. The problem, though, is that while it’s relatively easy to make the call when a guy is a drunk or puts on a hundred pounds or punches out a teammate, it’s inevitable that teams would use any precedent set by the Ponson case to cut and not pay guys for more questionable reasons, and it’s the very broadness of the conduct clause Schmuck quotes that would allow for that undesirable situation.
What, exactly, is “first-class physical condition?” It’s different for a shortstop than it is for a corner outfielder, right? It’s also dependant on how the player performs. My guess is that, if the teams are afforded greater power in connection with the conduct clause, the Phillies wouldn’t exercise the clause in the less-than-svelte Ryan Howard’s contract as long as he hit 47 homers a year, but they’d think hard about it if he hit 22, even if he lost a few pounds. And what of the “high standards of personal conduct?” Quick: can the Yankees cut A-Rod for messing around with that stripper? What if instead of a stripper it was a prostitute? What if a utility infielder in Minnesota was messing with a prostitute, but didn’t have his dalliances splashed on the front page of the New York Post? Is the clause aimed at bad behavior or just bad publicity?
I’m sure if I thought about it I could come up with a dozen more tough calls in connection with the conduct clause, and for this reason, baseball has to be extremely careful if it wishes to give teams a stronger hand in policing player conduct. I’m not sure I have any good ideas on the best way to go about it, but my suspicion is that a boilerplate conduct clause like we have now isn’t the answer.