The Ponson Case

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.

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  1. tadthebad said...

    In my company’s handbook it states something to the effect of “…rules and policies are no substitute for sound judgement and understanding.  There may, at times, be exceptions which must be handled on an individual basis…”

    Doesn’t this apply to just about anything?  It’s something I use as a personal guide, and probably had much to do with my attraction to the company in the first place.

  2. The Common Man said...

    Your company though, I presume anyway, isn’t paying you millions of dollars to do your job.  And when millions of dollars are at stake a party will (and probably should) exploit any vaguery that could allow them to get/keep the money.  I expect if millions of dollars were at stake, you too would care about the specifics of what the contract allows and won’t allow.

  3. Grant said...

    I must say, this is the first good column Peter Schmuck has written in a long time. Mostly he just writes jokes about himself. Hacky sportswriter stuff like buffets and hawaiian shirts and stuff.

  4. Chris Simonds said...

    What strikes me is the avoidance of specifics. How about 2 DUIs and you’re out. Three assault and batteries. Four moving violations. (And a partridge in a pear tree.) The clubs should spell out just where high spirits or “experimentation” ends and turns into bs. (Would make for some interesting contract negotiations, no?)

  5. Richard Gadsden said...

    First, they need to separate the conduct clause from the conditioning clause – they’re not the same thing and the jurisprudence is going to be different.

    Conduct outside of work that brings the employer into disrepute is always a difficult one in employment law.  Obviously someone convicted of a felony can be sacked for that alone, but anything short of a felony conviction is always going to be a gray area.

  6. Harry said...

    I don’t understand how Ponson’s agent could agree to a clause so broad.  Obviously it’s in the interests of the Orioles, because as Craig points out, it could be used in a multitude of scenarios.  I guess Ponson was just as sloppy in selecting agents and signing contracts as he was in the rest of his life.

  7. Andrew in Rochester said...

    It’s a damn shame, too, because there’s no way Ponson doesn’t get his money – but the only basis for this decision is going to be precedent.  It won’t be about whether or not Ponson breached his contract, it’ll be about how do we keep the owners from exploiting this over the really big contracts.  And there’s nobody on the planet who deserves to lose this case more than Sir Sidney Ponson, Judge-Puncher.

  8. obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    I think that assault is a pretty good spot to draw the line.  Of course, that hasn’t happened previously, but per the note above, each case is handled individually and there are sometimes exceptions (like when the player is really good) but like the Michael Vick case, there are some that you know are spot on.  I suppose it is vague, but it’s like the ruling on pornography, where you know it when you see it.

    I’m tired of the ones who are rich and spoiled who think the world is their private playground.  I thought this was appropriate action and hope it sticks, but like the cynic above, I expect the arbitrator to rule in favor of the player, particularly because of the vagueness of the rule itself, and especially because the arbitrators in baseball don’t really seem to use much logic in their rulings.  I think a randomly selected group of 12 fans would make better judgments than I’ve seen in arbitration over the years.

  9. MooseinOhio said...

    I think the ‘physical condition’ clause will be harder for the Orioles to argue with CC, David Well, and El Guapo as defense exhibits that weight and pitching are not always correlated.

    In my non-lawyer opinion they stand a much better case focusing their argument on the character issues that have resulted in arrests and legal action.

  10. Brandon Isleib said...

    Would Howard be less-than-svelte or more-than-svelte?

    I’m just delighted that I have to wonder about degrees of sveltitude today.  That’s the power of ShysterBall.

  11. dlf said...

    I haven’t read the article, but the contract provision has to be read within the context of the “just cause” standard in the collective bargaining agreement.  Aribtrator Das has a number of decisions where he writes that just cause is a very narrow and exacting standard where the employer has a heavy burden of proof.  (A modified Carroll Daugherty ‘Seven Tests of Just Cause’ approach for the labor law folks who care.)  Das also has a tendency to sit on cases for a long time – as he has in this case – in an effort to push the parties towards settlement.

  12. Joe said...

    I view this type of broad “conduct” clause as a hedge in the other direction as it doe not allow a player to, for example, get 5 DUIs, or punch a judge, or (the good lord willing) shower strippers with $81,000 in cash, and do so with complete contractual and workplace impunity.  In other words, the clause is not there to be used to justify dismissal, but rather to prevent a player from misbehaving and then be able to say, without any argument, that his behavior did not violate his contract.  It at least puts the issue in play for the really bad guys, even if its not strictly enforceable to the letter.

  13. Tim said...

    Just from what I know in one term of law school, that clause in Sid’s contract is a little ambiguous. Therefore, a court is likely to construe the terms in sir sids favor. Good luck orioles.

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