8.08.2008

Celtics and Blue Jays Lawyer Up

Bring on the lawyers.

The Danny Ainge sweepstakes, supposedly in the cool stage since the Celtics drafted him in June, burst forth as white heat yesterday as both the baseball Toronto Blue Jays and the NBA champions filed cross-suits.

US District court Judge Mary Lowe, ruling from New York, granted Toronto a temporary restraining order barring the Celtics from any further attempts to sign Ainge.

The counter-suit, filed by the Celtics in US District Court in Boston in anticipation of the New York ruling, asks for relief from the restraining order through a preliminary injunction that would allow discussions between the Celtics and Ainge to continue. Atty. Earle Cooley of Hale and Dorr is representing the Celtics in a hearing scheduled Sept. 9 before Judge Rya Zobel.

Clif Lax, attorney for the Blue Jays, said the restraining order will remain in effect through Sept. 8, following which the injunction hearing will be held by Judge Zobel.

Originally, the Blue Jays had sought an injunction against both the Celtics and the NBA. However, Lax said, "At this point, only the club has to be restrained. We will need to restrain the NBA only if they are in a position to approve an agreement."

Importantly, the complaint filed by the Celtics made public for the first time that they have been negotiating with the Toronto infielder since July and that the ex-Brigham Young All-America wants to quit baseball to play for the Celtics during the upcoming season. Even the Blue Jays' suit admits Ainge wants to switch.

"Obviously, what the Celtics are doing is simply exercising a defense mechanism," said Toronto president Peter Bavasi. "Red Auerbach is being cute. He figures the best defense is a good offense.

"We brought suit against the NBA and the Celtics, then they filed this. The reason should be obvious. Otherwise, it's in the hands of our lawyers and I can make no other comment at this time."

As for Auerbach, the Celtics' president would only say: "It's in the hands of the lawyers."

Ainge, who is hitting .187 with 11 RBIs and no homers, was lifted for a pinch hitter in the ninth inning of yesterday's loss to Texas and had this to say following the game in Toronto: "They told me they were going to file for a restraining order. I understand what it is they want, but I don't know what it really means. I'm not going to worry about it, that's why I have an attorney. I'm just going to keep trying to win baseball games."

Atty. Jan Volk, vice president of the Celtics, claimed that the contract with Toronto that bound Ainge from playing basketball was automatically modified and no longer binding after alleged assurances by Bavasi and vice president Pat Gillick had been given to Ainge in June that he could proceed to negotiate with the Celtics.

Bavasi and Gillick denied yesterday that such conversations had taken place. The Celtics' legal complaint against the Blue Jays, citing the alleged assurances by Bavasi and Gillick, does not specify when such conversations occured.

The Celtics' suit added that Toronto coach Bobby Doerr also assured Ainge he would be set free if he desired. It is questionable how much legal weight such comments by Doerr would have, since he is not an officer of the ball club.

In yesterday's suit, the Blue Jays contend that a three-year contract Ainge signed last Sept. 15 bans him from playing basketball, even if he chose to retire from baseball during that time. The contract included a $50,000 bonus last year, $75,000 this season and $100,000 in 1982. Ainge's total contract calls for $500,000 in salary and bonuses for three seasons.

During the last month it had been reported that Ainge had a buy-out clause in that contract, allowing him to become free if the Celtics paid back the future bonus provisions. But Volk said yesterday he knew of no such clause.

Ainge is now in his third season with Toronto. He batted .237 in 87 games in 1979 while playing second base and committing 11 errors. Last year, in 38 games with the Blue Jays, he batted .243 while experimenting as an outfielder. This year he has been the regular third baseman for the club.

Ainge played only part of the two prior baseball seasons with the Blue Jays because he was still an udergraduate at BYU. He is considered a fine fielder, but the early judgment that he would become a fine hitter when he gained more experience is now fading.

When he was drafted by the Celtics June 9, Ainge's initial public reaction was to restate his commitment to baseball while noting that his first choice in the NBA had been the Celtics. Yet the Blue Jays' suit states that on June 12, three days after the Celtics drafted him, Ainge went to an unnamed Toronto official and said he wanted to play for the Celtics, but was turned down by the Blue Jays.

If Ainge does not sign with the Celtics this year, he will go back into the draft and could be drafted later by another NBA team. It could be now or never for him as a Celtic.

The drafting of Ainge was a bolder attempt at one-upmanship by Auerbach than was the drafting of Larry Bird in 1978. Bird was drafted as a junior eligible, which allowed him to play his senior year at Indiana State but bound him to the Celtics if the club could sign him following his last college game but preceding the next NBA draft that June. But unlike the Ainge case, there was no question that Bird would play in the NBA the first season after his graduation.

Auerbach drafted Ainge on the second round. Reportedly, Ainge would have been one of the top three playeres drafted except for the likelihood that he would make baseball his first choice and that he had a three-year contract virtually barring him from basketball.

Auerbach had taken a low profile on acquiring Ainge since the draft, leaving the inference that the young athlete would not be pressured during the baseball season, which will end Oct. 4 - 26 days before the start of the NBA season.

It was not specified in either of yesterday's suits who initiated negotiations between the Celtics and Ainge. The Celtics do charge, however, that after the Blue Jays initially authorized Ainge to discuss a switch to basketball, to change his mind would be to prohibit him from earning a salary comparable with his basketball ability.

In this first year of no compensation on free agents, as some salaries have skyrocketed, Ainge probably could demand an income far beyond his range now in effect in Toronto. Still, Auerbach has warned he would not disrupt the pay scale of the players under contract, of which Lary Bird's $600,000 salary last season was believed to be highest.

Ainge is considered a blue-chip talent, an all-around 6-foot-4 guard and a pure shooter who would considerably enhance the Celtics' chances of repeating their NBA championship. And he was perhaps the most celebrated college player last season, and certainly made the most memorable play, a fullcourt drive to beat Notre Dame at the buzzer in an NCAA playoff game.

These elements could increase Ainge's value to the Celtics in a unique way during the coming season, because the club will introduce a pay-cable channel throughout New England in conjunction with the Hartford Whalers. They hope to persuade a share of up to 600,000 eligible households to pay some $10 monthly to watch about 30 home games live on TV.

Regarding the suit filed yesterday by Toronto and the counter-suit by the Celtics, Volk philosophized, "They flashed their sabre, so we had to pull ours out."

4 comments:

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