Could the New York Mets terminate the lucrative contract of closer Francisco Rodriguez, who was charged with assault by law enforcement officials and also suspended two games by the Mets for an embarrassing and injurious post-game fight with his girlfriend's father?
The answer is yes, although it would be a bold move and one likely to elicit a grievance filing by the Major League Baseball Players' Association.
During the fight, Rodriguez, a right-handed pitcher, tore ligaments in his right thumb. He is expected to have season-ending surgery. Voiding the remainder of the three-year, $37 million contract Rodriguez signed with the Mets before the 2009 season would be of considerable value to the club, as K-Rod is still owed at least $17 million on the deal, which runs through 2011 and has an option for 2012.
The Uniform Player Contract in Baseball contains at least two clauses that would empower the Mets to void Rodriguez's deal. Paragraph 7(b)(1) authorizes a team to terminate a contract if a player "fails, refuses or neglects to conform his personal conduct to the standards of good citizenship and good sportsmanship or to keep himself in first-class physical condition or to obey the club's training rules." Paragraph 7(b)(3) similarly lets teams terminate a contract if a player "fails, refuses or neglect to render his services hereunder or in any manner materially breach this contract."
While those loosely-worded clauses would seem to provide the Mets with clear justification to void Rodriguez's contract, teams rarely void contracts. And in the rare instances when they try, they typically either reach a financial settlement that is favorable to the player or outright lose a grievance proceeding, thereby having to pay the player his contract.
The strength of the Players' Association is the main reason for the lack of voided contracts. Under baseball's collective bargaining agreement, the Players' Association can file a grievance when it disagrees with the league's interpretation of a collectively-bargained condition. One such condition is a clause in the Uniform Player Contract. Grievance proceedings are heard by an impartial arbitrator and are often fact-intensive, costly and lengthy, lasting weeks if not months.
Players have enjoyed success in grievance proceedings when they concern contractual terminations. In 1987, for instance, the San Diego Padres voided the contract of pitcher Lamarr Hoyt for what appeared to be solid grounds: Hoyt had been sentenced to jail time because of multiple drug charges, including intent to distribute cocaine and attempting to smuggle drugs from Mexico into the U.S. As a drug smuggler, it would seem that Hoyt did not "conform his personal conduct to the standards of good citizenship and good sportsmanship." Nonetheless, the Players' Association filed a grievance and an arbitrator, George Nicolau, deemed the punishment excessive and restored Hoyt's contract.
Keep in mind, the Players' Association has a duty to protect the fiduciary interests of all players. It must therefore protect against precedent-setting outcomes, such as the voiding of a guaranteed contract. In the context of Rodriguez, if his guaranteed contract can be voided for getting injured in a fist fight, what else could trigger a voidance? Could the very essence of guaranteed contracts be jeopardized? The fear of the so called "slippery slope" often supplies motivation to the Players' Association to fight a team, even if the public finds a particular player's behavior reprehensible.
Instead of voiding Rodriguez's contract, the Mets could try to reach a financial settlement that ends Rodriguez's affiliation with the team. A settlement, which would necessitate approval from Rodriguez and the Mets, along with support from commissioner Bud Selig and the Players' Association, could work to everyone's advantage. Rodriguez would likely obtain a significant portion of the remainder of his contract and become a free agent. Given that he is one of the best closers in the game and still only 28 years old, he would probably attract significant interest from other clubs. For their part, the Mets would rid themselves of a controversial and injured player who let his team down. The team would also save significant money in the process.
A settlement, however, may prove complicated and acrimonious, and also be skewed in favor of Rodriguez. That is because contract-ending settlements between big league teams and players are usually preceded by a grievance filing and also end up being tilted in favor of the player.
Take the Colorado Rockies' attempt to void the contract of pitcher Denny Neagle in 2004 after he was charged with soliciting a prostitute. The Players' Association quickly filed a grievance and the Rockies chose not to take a chance with an arbitrator. Instead, the team and Neagle agreed to a settlement that largely favored Neagle: the Rockies would pay him $16 million on the remainder of a contract that owed him $19.5 million. Getting rid of a player with a guaranteed contract can be quite expensive.
The Baltimore Orioles know that all too well. It took three years for the team to reach a settlement with pitcher Sidney Ponson after it voided his contract in 2005 for an assortment of irresponsible actions, including driving while intoxicated. While the terms of the settlement were not made public, Ponson received a significant portion of the $11.2 million contractually owed to him.
Many teams decide it's simply not worth the effort to void a player's contract, even when a player is charged with a serious offense, such as domestic violence. In 1997, the Boston Red Sox declined to void the contract of infielder Wil Cordero after he was charged with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. Cordero, who would later plead guilty to criminal charges, beat his wife and threatened to kill her.
Oddly enough, had Rodriguez injured his hand in an organized fistfight, as opposed to an impromptu one, the Mets would have stronger grounds to void his contract. Paragraph 5(b) of the Uniform Player Contract states that a big league player agrees that his "participation in certain other sports may impair or destroy his ability and skill as a baseball player. Accordingly, the Player agrees that he will not engage in professional boxing or wrestling."
Paragraph 5(b), which lists other prohibited sports, including "professional league basketball", was used by the New York Yankees in 2005 to void the contract of Aaron Boone after he tore his anterior cruciate ligament while playing pick-up basketball. Neither Boone -- who received settlement pay from the Yankees and who would sign with the Cleveland Indians -- nor the Players' Association raised an objection, even though Boone was injured while playing pick-up basketball instead of "professional league basketball."
Don't expect Rodriguez's potential departure from the Mets to be as smooth, unless the Mets are willing to pay him many millions of dollars to go away.