You're the Los Angeles Dodgers. In March, while the rest of baseball balked at the steep demands of Manny Ramirez during an off-season recession, you inked the perplexing power hitter to a two-year, $45 million guaranteed contract. Maybe those other teams suspected what was coming: just two months after Ramirez re-signed with the Dodgers, he received a 50-day suspension for using a banned performance-enhancing substance.
You're upset. You're embarrassed. And you want your money back. Sure, Manny is producing: he has a .348 average, six home runs, and the top on-base percentage in the National League. Manny's a headache, but he always hits. Your team, with cool Joe Torre in the dugout, might run away with the division title. (See the top 10 scandals of 2008.)
But you don't want to deal with the media circus when Manny returns just ask the San Francisco Giants, who a few years ago had Barry Bonds on the roster, how the constant scrutiny can distract a team. There will be taunting on the road. The fans will be wielding some nasty signs: Ramirez reportedly may claim that he took a banned drug called human chorionic gonadotropin to cure erectile dysfunction (the female fertility drug also happens to elevate testosterone levels, which get drained by, coincidentally, steroid use). "Manny Being Mini," one clever columnist has already written. Maybe you just want to send a message, enough is enough with these guys we can no longer trust, and cut ties with the best player ever busted by MLB drug testing. Whether you believe his excuse or not what's wrong with Viagra? on paper he's a drug cheat. Buyers get their warranties. Any chance you got yours?
Not in the slightest. Manny will run hard in the outfield before the Dodgers ever see a rebate. Yes, the Dodgers don't have to pay Ramirez during his suspension, which will cost him some $8 million in salary. But they were never permitted to add a contract clause giving the team the right to void the deal if, say, Ramirez used performance-enhancing drugs. Section 8.L of Major League Baseball's Joint Drug Agreement, a testing and penalty program collectively bargained between the players and owners, states: "All authority to discipline Players for violations of the Program shall repose with the Commissioner's office. No Club may take any disciplinary or adverse action against a Player (including but not limited to a fine, suspension, or any adverse action pursuant to a Uniform Player's Contract) because of a Player's violation of the Program."
In other words, the penalty for a first-time drug cheat is clearly stated out in the agreement: 50 games. The Dodgers cannot go out and fire Ramirez on top of that. "This is all prearranged by Major League Baseball and the Players' Association," says Roger I. Abrams, a sports law expert at Northeastern University.
All baseball contracts include "morals clauses." For example, under 7(b)(1) of the Uniform Player's Contract, a team can terminate a deal if a player "shall at any time fail, refuse, or neglect to conform his personal conduct to the standards of good citizenship and good sportsmanship." Another section of the contract states that player must "obey the Club's training rules, and pledge himself to the to the American public and to the Club to conform to high standards of personal conduct, fair play, and good sportsmanship." High standards of personal conduct? Fair play? Sportsmanship? Doesn't violating a league's drug policy fly in the face of all those morals? Doesn't this give the Dodgers leeway to rip up the deal?
Again, no. In this case, the morals clauses are basically window dressing. The collectively bargained drug agreement is crystal clear. The commissioner can kick Manny out of baseball for 50 days, but the team must pay his guaranteed money when he returns (or find another club team that will). Individual contracts cannot reduce the protections for players that are negotiated collectively.
By failing to secure the rights for teams to void the contract of drug cheats before the last drug agreement was negotiated, about a year ago, the owners clearly took a weak position. They set themselves up to carry more steroid baggage than they may otherwise want. "From a management perspective, we prefer to have as many options to us as possible," says one American League team executive. These rules are on the books until December of 2011. At that time, maybe MLB's leadership will have more clout. But for now, enjoy Manny Being Manny again come July. Draped in Dodger blue.