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January 27, 2004
What Are the Yankees' Options?
ESPN.com reported yesterday that Yankees' third baseman Aaron Boone injured his left knee playing a pick-up game of basketball and could miss the entire season. While the void left in the Yankees' infield is now fairly obvious, the issue on how to deal with Boone's contract becomes the primary focus for a Yankees front office that has dealt with more controversy this off-season than in any of the past 10 years.
Boone, who recently agreed to a one-year, $5.75 million contract, has freely admitted that the injury he sustained occurred during an activity not related to the playing of, or training for, Major League Baseball. Brian Cashman has already gone on record saying that basketball is a prohibited activity under Boone's contract. In a fairy tale world of grand rewards for moral behavior, Boone would get credit for admitting his error without having fabricated some Jeff Kent-style story in which he tore up his knee after slipping off the top of Roger Clemens' Hummer while polishing the foghorn. Unfortunately, New York is the place where contract language trumps contrition every time out; truth is no defense when you've signed on the dotted line.
When Boone signed his contract (which, incidentally might not have even been properly executed yet--once a player agrees to a deal, teams are sometimes slow to get everything processed--but for the sake of this article let's assume a properly executed copy is sitting in Cashman's filing cabinet), it contained language that would have prevented him from performing certain activities during and after the season. That language is the team's "out" of a guaranteed deal. It is very comprehensive legalese which allows the team to convert a guaranteed contract into one which is non-guaranteed. All guaranteed contracts contain a section that discusses the guarantee to pay and termination rights for the team. In fact, this aspect of a player's contract is usually what is fought over the most between agents and general managers after the "agreement in principle" is first struck.
Usually the guarantee is short, simple and says something along these lines:
Following this paragraph, one might expect to find approximately three to five pages of gobbledygook that, "relieve[s]...the foregoing guarantee." In other words, the next set of paragraphs contains specific rules, prohibitions and events which, if they occur, trigger an option for the team to convert the guaranteed contract into a non-guaranteed contract. Examples of these events, rules and prohibitions are: getting injured while playing any sport other than baseball; the commission of a felony; riding a motorcycle; bad LASIK surgery; bowling; frying a turkey on any day other than Thanksgiving; and lots of other stuff that annoying lawyers like me can think up. The sheer exhaustiveness of these lists can lead to odd situations when one player is granted an exception and another isn't. In the 1980s, George Brett was contractually forbidden to do anything more vigorous than sit in a rocking chair, while his teammate Bo Jackson was permitted to play pro football.
With respect to the situation that the Yankees are in, there are already guideposts on how to cope. The precedent occurred when Ron Gant pulled a Fonzie in February, 1994. Fresh off a career year in which he hit 36 home runs and knocked in 117, Gant shattered his leg in a mini-bike accident. It was about one week after he signed a one-year deal worth $5.5 million.
What's eerie about the Gant-Boone connection is the fact that the salaries agreed to are only $250,000 apart; Boone's injury occurred close to 10 years to the day of Gant's accident (Gant was injured on Feb. 3, 1994, Boone on Jan. 16, 2004); and Gant ended up in Cincinnati while Boone came from Cincinnati. Finally, both players had just come off of World Series appearances.
In 1994, the Braves had a difficult, but identical, decision to make. They could either: (i) convert Gant's contract to a non-guaranteed contract based on Gant's complete inability to play and then release him and pay 30 days' termination pay of roughly $900,000; (ii) keep Gant on the roster and lose $5.5 million on a dead player who stupidly broke his leg in the most hazardous of activities after signing a contract that specifically states you can't do the activity; or (iii) cut Gant loose, not pay him a dime, and claim he was in breach of his contract and should not be allowed to collect a red cent.
The owners' Players Relations Committee strongly advised Stan Kasten, former president of the Braves, to stick it to Gant and not pay him a dime. Kasten, a gentleman, and a man with the common sense to realize that his legal fees fighting the players' union would probably exceed the $900,000 that Gant would be owed if he were released under scenario (i) above, decided to forego any disputes and paid Gant his termination pay to take his bat elsewhere. The MLB Players Association declined to file a grievance against the Braves even though they had the option to do so.
So what should the Yankees do? A lot of this depends on Boone's condition. If he is to miss any significant playing time--which looks likely--it would behoove the team to release Boone now and save close to $4.8 million. Besides, the Yankees can always go back and re-sign him to an incentive-laden deal if they're really as much in love with him as he is with them.
While the team has solid ground to stand on if they chose to release Boone without pay and claim breach of contract, it stands to reason that they won't because of the same reasons that stopped Kasten from doing it 10 years ago. Additionally, when it comes to wasting money on dead player salaries, there is no owner in baseball who can match the sheer insane generosity of George Steinbrenner. Steve Kemp was a "Yankee" for far longer than Albert Belle was an "Oriole."
Prediction: Boone gets released but immediately signs an incentive-laden Jon Lieber-style deal in which the Yankees pay him to stand by in case they still haven't found a long-term solution at the position by 2005.
Andrew Baharlias was Staff Counsel to the New York Yankees from 1997 to 2002. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.