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The hypocritical oath

Off-field problems, on-field struggles bad combo for Giambi, Neagle

Posted: Wednesday December 8, 2004 1:24PM; Updated: Wednesday December 8, 2004 1:24PM
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The Morals Clause
Baseball's so-called "morals" clause -- technically, paragraph 7. (b) (1) of the Uniform Player's Contract -- states that a team can terminate a player's contract if the player shall "fail, refuse or neglect to conform his personal conduct to the standards of good citizenship and good sportsmanship or to keep himself in first-class physical condition ..."

Another clause, under the section "Loyalty" -- that's paragraph 3. (a) of the contract -- also may apply. It states that a player "agrees ... to keep himself in first-class physical condition and ... pledges himself to the American public and to the Club to conform to high standards of personal conduct, fair play and good sportsmanship."

The Yankees spent a lot of money for Jason Giambi three years ago with the expectations that the hard-swinging first baseman would come in and do his MVP routine -- play in a lot of games, hit a lot of homers and drive in a bunch of runs.

For a while, everyone was happy. Giambi appeared in 311 games in his first two seasons with the Yanks. He smacked 41 home runs in both '02 and '03. The Yankees made the postseason both years, making it to the World Series in 2003.

But last season, a sick and injured Giambi played in 80 games, hit .208 with a mere 12 home runs. The Yanks lost in the American League Championship Series to the Red Sox. Giambi didn't play at all in the postseason.

So now, the Yanks reportedly want to can him. Cut him loose. Send him packing. And they don't want to pay him the $82 million he's owed, either.

It's the reported steroids testimony thing, they say.

The Rockies spent big dough for lefty hurler Denny Neagle before the '01 season. Big, as in $51 million over five years. But Neagle has been a huge disappointment. He's been injured (he hasn't pitched since July 2003) and ineffective, with a 19-23 record and a 5.57 ERA in 65 starts with the Rockies. So now, the Rockies want to fire him. He's owed $19 million over the next couple of years.

It's that DUI and the hooker solicitation thing.

No one, of course, is fooling anyone here. The Yankees and the Rockies may look like they're taking the high road in these cases. These days, they might even get a toehold up there. Steroids are the scourge of baseball. And getting caught with a hooker is never good news. Clearly, these guys are not ideal employees.

Still, it's just as clear that the Yankees and Rockies are not out to simply rid their clubs of undesirables. These clubs are trying to save money -- a lot of it -- by dusting off the old "morals" clause in the players' contracts. It's a tack a lot of teams, in a lot of different sports, have tried over the years. It hardly works.

"Teams don't like to invoke those clauses," said Gary Roberts, director of Tulane University's Sports Law program. "The only effort at that in my modern memory was shot down on a fairly technical procedural basis."

That failed effort was the Golden State Warriors' attempt to void Latrell Sprewell's contract after he attacked coach P.J. Carlesimo in 1997. The NBA suspended Sprewell one year after the incident, and the Warriors tried to throw out the rest of his contract, worth almost $25 million. But an arbitrator overturned the voiding of the contract -- the league, the arbitrator ruled, already had punished Sprewell -- and reduced the league's suspension to 68 games. Sprewell was later traded to the Knicks. He's now playing for the Minnesota Timberwolves, making almost $15 million a year.

The Sprewell case was different than those Giambi and Neagle might face -- for one, Sprewell was playing well when he throttled Carlesimo -- but it shows how difficult it might be to void a contract by invoking a morals clause.

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Earlier this year, the Orioles were said to be interested in voiding pitcher Sidney Ponson's contract because he put on too much weight. The Yankees called the lawyers when pitcher Kevin Brown punched a wall in September and broke his hand. Neither team followed through.

It's sad that Giambi and Neagle -- and many, many others throughout baseball -- may not be good citizens. They may not conduct themselves as their employers would like. They may not keep themselves in tip-top shape.

But their contracts are guaranteed, agreed to by both sides, and using a clause in those contracts against them can get very, very messy.

"Teams are hesitant to compare [one player's] behavior with that of every other player on the team," Roberts said. "That would just be a fiasco in terms of the team, all that dirty laundry aired."

For the Yankees and Giambi, that would be especially difficult. Another well-paid Yankees slugger, Gary Sheffield, admitted to using steroids unknowingly to Sports Illustrated recently, but has gone unthreatened by the team. And, over in San Francisco, the Giants haven't said "boo" about the contract of Barry Bonds, who says he unknowingly took steroids.

No one's fooling anyone on the real reason that Giambi is under fire but Bonds and Sheffield are not, and it has nothing to do with Giambi's testimony admitted drug use. Giambi was hurt and injured last season and was miserable when he played. Bonds won the NL MVP. Sheffield finished second in the AL MVP voting.

Teams can try to take the high ground, but it's pretty clear: If a player's playing well and earning his money, nobody talks about morals clauses.

John Donovan is a senior writer for SI.com.

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