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Given his last memorable foray on a basketball court, was there ever any doubt that Toronto Blue Jay Third Baseman Danny Ainge would perform some last-minute sleight-of-hand and deftly emerge from a U.S. District Court in New York last week as a Boston Celtic point guard?
Well, nobody's perfect. Let the record show that the jury hearing the case between the Blue Jays and the Celtics for Ainge's services, wasn't the least bit impressed by Boston's argument. Last spring his endline-to-endline, last-second sprint and layup eliminated Notre Dame from the NCAA tournament, but last week's 180-degree turn, full-court dash failed to carry the day. And now Ainge finds himself not a BYU star, not a Toronto phenom—nor, alas, a Celtic rookie—but just Danny Ainge, homebody.
While the Blue Jays were finishing their season in Seattle and the Celtics were opening their training camp in Brookline, Mass., last week Ainge's physical exertions were restricted to swatting imaginary racquet and golf balls in the halls outside Judge Lee P. Gagliardi's courtroom. And because of last Friday's decision, for now there will be little more than that. The four-man, two-woman panel decided that the Toronto contract Ainge signed in September, 1980 hadn't been orally rescinded by Blue Jay President Peter Bavasi or Vice-President Pat Gillick, as Ainge claimed, and that the Celtics, who made Ainge their third pick (the 31st player overall) at the NBA draft on June 9, were guilty of contract interference for negotiating with Ainge.
How long Ainge continues to play imaginary games instead of real ones depends upon how long it takes Boston to whittle down Toronto's settlement figure—the Blue Jays had asked for $1 million—that would release Ainge from his three-year, $525,000 contract. Even with the Jays' improved bargaining position, the buy-out should be closer to half a million.
The Blue Jays officially cling to the slim hope that Ainge, who voluntarily retired from baseball on Sept. 24, will change his mind and report to the club next spring. But Ainge has already scotched that notion. "As far as I'm concerned, I'm not a part of the Toronto Blue Jays," he says. "I'm going home to Utah to get in shape for basketball. I'm retired from baseball."
To be sure, the finality with which these words were spoken echoed Ainge's previous commitment to baseball right up to June 10, when he told Bavasi he wanted to switch back to basketball.
What happened? "When I signed the contract I was sure I wanted to play baseball, but it was too early," Ainge says now. "I should have waited until after my senior year. I never imagined I would have the kind of year that I did [24.4 points per game]. My thinking was that I was stuck in a bad situation for three years and I should try and make the most out of it. I know I told a lot of people I was going to play baseball, but there's a difference between saying, 'I have a contract to play baseball,' and 'I have a contract to play baseball but I really don't want to,' which is how I felt."
As long ago as last March, Ainge had hinted that he would play basketball again. During the NCAA finals in Philadelphia, he told SI's Jack McCallum: "I've failed at things before. I think I've failed at baseball the last three years. I've set goals for myself, and I haven't come close to them. If I keep failing for a certain period of time, I'll definitely try something else. Basketball? Probably." If Boston president and general manager Red Auerbach needed additional incentive to pursue Ainge, that kind of talk could have provided it.
The Blue Jays then sent letters to all 23 NBA teams before the draft in an attempt to dissuade them from wasting a draft pick on an athlete who obviously wanted to play baseball.
Auerbach, of course, wouldn't take no for an answer. He has a recent reputation for drafting expertise which rivals that of the Dallas Cowboys' Gil Brandt, and he saw in Ainge a perfect Celtic: a quick, tenacious guard who could run all day and shoot all night. Even though the Celtics won the NBA title last year, starting guards Nate Archibald and Chris Ford were perceived as being the team's weak link, and they aren't kids anymore, either.