8.28.2008

Jury Slam Dunks Ainge

Final Score: Blue Jays 1, Celtics 0.

But if there had been any doubt concerning what this trial was all about, why a baseball team from Toronto had tied up a federal court in New York City in order to combat a basketball team from Boston, the answer came minutes following the verdict announced by jury foreperson Winifred Grant.

The answer was provided by Blue Jays' president Peter Bavasi. First, he unwrapped a cigar. "What," he inquired, "does Red usually do just before . . . ?" He lit a cigar. "This is like the last minute to go, 20 points ahead. What a pleasure!"

There you have it. Peter Bavasi was savoring what he perceived to be a triumph over Red Auerbach. The Celtics, whom he had likened on the witness stand to a "blonde floozy" trying to steal away the affections of Danny Ainge from the "faithful wife," (i.e., the Blue Jays), had been driven off.

The verdict had been unanimous, and swift. Less than two hours after the start of deliberations, the six-member jury ruled in favor of the Blue Jays, upholding the claim of the baseball team that there was an enforceable contract with Ainge to play baseball and that the Celtics had induced him to break that contract.

Now what? Ainge, who swears he has played his last game of baseball for Toronto or any other team, is home in Provo, Utah, where, among other things, he is getting acquainted with a new son, Austin Daniel Ainge, born early Tuesday morning. The Blue Jays return to Toronto without the man they claim was to be their third baseman for years to come. The Celtics, who can hardly be termed "losers" since they had taken Ainge as a gravy pick after securing Charles Bradley and Tracy Jackson in the draft, can concentrate on defending the NBA championship.

"I've still got a chance in arbitration," said Ainge, who filed a grievance with the Major League Baseball Players Assn. on the issue of the restrictive covenant in his baseball contract. He did not have representation at the time that contract was signed - Sept. 15, 1980 - and the clause prohibiting him from playing basketball, "professionally or recreationally," was inserted as an addendum between his final negotiating session with Blue Jay vice president Pat Gillick and the time he came back to sign the contract.

As for an appeal, Celtics' attorney Earle Cooley had this to say: "I'll talk it over with (Celtics' owner) Harry Mangurian. Whether we appeal or not will be a function of the practicality of the situation. Since I'm convinced Danny Ainge is not going to play baseball, and since I know that no force on earth can make him play baseball, we'll just have to wait and see if the Blue Jays are going to sit by for the next two years with a non-baseball player and do nothing about it. Then he retires and keeps his $300,000."

Bavasi continues to insist that when the flowers bloom and the robins begin chirping Ainge will heed the siren call of baseball. "As far as I'm concerned," Bavasi said, "Danny Ainge is still a member of the Toronto Blue Jays. I feel as close to him as I did before all this happened. It will take some time for him to understand what the outcome of this trial really means."

The outcome of the case came as no surprise. Judge Lee Gagliardi had narrowed the issues down to the point where all that was left was the matter of an alleged oral recision of the Ainge contract by both Bavasi and Gillick on June 10 and 11 of this year. The jury had to decide whether or not the contract was void at the time Bavasi told Ainge on June 10, when the athlete came to his office and announced he wished to play for the Celtics, "Don't worry about the commitment you have . . . you have to do what you have to do in order to be happy," and whether it was similarly voided the following day when Gillick said, "There is no contract that can keep you from doing what you have to do."

Juror Linda Banks explained that she interpreted the Bavasi and Gillick comments as merely sympathetic statements. "Danny Ainge wanted to get out of the contract, and so he made the statements into something they weren't," she reasoned.

In order to prove oral recision, or cancellation - something not done often in any court - it must be proved that the parties had reached a "meeting of the minds," as Gagliardi put it, "as to every significant term and condition of this agreement." The Celtics had the burden of proof in this case, and there was little chance the jury could conclude that Bavasi, Gillick and Ainge had ever come to a "meeting of the minds."

A settlement would appear to be the only prudent course of action in this case, but it may be a while before Bavasi stops savoring his triumph and comes back to earth. "I'm not going to talk to Red Auerbach on this, or any other subject," he thundered. Asked how long he would make Ainge sit out, he replied, "We won't hold him captive, but there are other NBA teams." In other words, he might sit on Ainge until the Celtics' NBA rights expire on June 9, 1982.

"I'm disappointed," Ainge said. "My only chance now is to go to arbitration and try to prove that the addendum to the contract was invalid."

It sure doesn't sound like a would-be third baseman talking, does it?

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