In an action that could carry implications for major league baseball players who are involved in drug-use cases and who are owed deferred income on long-term contracts, the Pittsburgh Pirates filed a lawsuit against former Pirate Dave Parker Monday.
The Pirates, under new ownership and attempting to right themselves in troubled financial waters, filed a suit that they hope will rid themselves of a big expense, the deferred payments on Parker’s contract.
If a player admits to drug abuse while under contract, has he breached that contract?
Parker, who now plays for the Cincinnati Reds, became baseball’s first million-dollar-a-year player when he signed a $7.5-million Pittsburgh contract in 1979 that guarantees him an initial payment of $944,445 on Jan. 10, 1988, and equal monthly payments of $19,675.83 from January, 1989, through June, 2007.
But the Pirates charge that since Parker admitted in federal court last year to having used cocaine from 1979 to 1982, he was in violation of the terms of the contract. The civil suit charges that Parker concealed his cocaine use before signing the contract and asks that the Pirates’ obligation to pay $5.3 million in deferred payments to Parker be halted.
Parker, with immunity from prosecution, testified during the trial in Pittsburgh of former Philadelphia Phillies’ clubhouse caterer Curtis Strong last September that he often used cocaine with other players because it was “the in thing to do.”
He testified that he shared cocaine with, or arranged to have the drug supplied to, major leaguers John Milner, Al Holland, Lee Lacy, Dale Berra, Rod Scurry, Enos Cabell, J.R. Richard, Dusty Baker, Derrel Thomas and Steve Howe.
There is no mention in the lawsuit of any attempt to recover the estimated $2,125,000 already paid Parker. Nor did new Pirate President Malcolm (Mac) Prine say Monday whether the team would file similar suits against other former Pirates, including New York Yankees Berra and Scurry, who have acknowledged using cocaine. Their contracts are not believed to have included deferred payment clauses.
Parker was among 21 players reportedly disciplined last February by Commissioner Peter Ueberroth for previous drug involvement. To avoid a one-year suspension he agreed to donate 10% of his salary, about $100,000, to a drug rehabilitation facility this year and to participate in random drug testing. He must also perform 100 hours of voluntary community service work this year and next.
In the Pirates’ suit, the first of its kind in major league baseball, club President Prine contends that Parker concealed his drug use before signing the five-year contract.
The Pirates’ suit was seen by at least one player agent Monday as part of a continuing trend by baseball owners to reduce expenses.
Said Tony Attanasio, agent for Dodgers Pedro Guerrero, Mariano Duncan and Greg Brock: “The step the Pirates took is consistent with what we’re seeing with general (baseball) management today--with 24-player rosters, of no offers for free agents and releases of players with substantial contracts like Len Barker.
“And I can assure you the Pirates didn’t take this action unilaterally. They took it with the (owners’) Player Relations Committee.
“There’ve been cases where teams have tried to get out of contracts before, but not where a club takes public testimony of a player in a case where he was given public immunity. I’ve never heard of that.”
Another lawyer-agent, Steve Greenberg, who represents the Dodgers’ Bill Madlock, said the Pittsburgh suit comes as no surprise.
“I expected to see a suit like this, and I won’t be surprised to see others,” he said. “Nor would I be surprised to see the matter wind up in arbitration. If it goes to court, my guess is the Pirates face an uphill battle to convince a jury that they don’t owe Parker future payments for past services, since they never terminated his contract.
“In terms of his testimony in the previous federal case, it can be used in another civil action.”
In the nine-page suit, the Pirates charge:
--"The deterioration of Parker’s skills as a player and his failure to stay in good physical condition during the term of the contract were directly related to and caused by his . . . use of cocaine.”
--Parker “failed to keep himself in good physical condition, with his weight ballooning at times to in excess of 270 pounds, as a result of which he became injury-prone.”
--Parker certified in his 15-page, 1979 contract with Pittsburgh that he had “no physical or mental defects known to him . . . which would prevent or impair performance of his services.”
--Parker agreed to “keep himself in first-class physical condition and to obey the club’s training rules and pledges to the American public and to the club to conform to high standards of personal conduct, fair play and sportsmanship.”
The Pirates make numerous references in the suit to Parker’s declining statistics after he had signed the 1979 contract. Parker’s career batting average through his first four major league seasons was .324. It was .289 with the Pirates after he signed the ’79 contract. His home run and runs-batted-in averages slipped to 15 and 68, respectively, compared to 22 and 99 before 1979.
Pittsburgh won the World Series in 1979, the first year of the contract, but by 1981 the Pirates had fallen into last place in the National League’s Eastern Division.
“He stole fewer bases, his fielding ability significantly deteriorated and he generally failed to perform up to the level achieved by him prior to 1979,” according to the suit.
With Cincinnati, Parker’s statistics have improved dramatically. He hit .312 with 34 home runs and drove in 125 runs last season, when he was runner-up in Most Valuable Player voting.
Bill Bergesch, president of the Reds, said Monday that Parker “has been a fine citizen, both on and off the field,” since returning to his hometown to play in 1983. He said the Reds “can’t help what Pittsburgh does.”
Later Monday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quoted Parker as saying: “Oh man. This is just another hurdle, another hurdle I’ve got to leap. Why don’t they just leave me alone?”
Pittsburgh attorney Chuck Berry, a member of the law firm that represents Parker, said: “Obviously, our position is the money is still due.
“He has already played during the years in question and for each one of those years he played, a certain amount of dollars were credited to a deferred compensation fund. Yes, he played; yes, he earned that,” Berry said.
Barry Rona, executive director of the club owners’ Player Relations Committee, said that the Pirates had filed the suit on their own. “The PRC is not a party to the action,” he said. “Whether there will be more such suits, I really don’t know.
“We’ve had situations before where clubs have done one of two things with drug cases. The most common is discipline. The other is to allege breach of contract.”