- The Washington Times - Friday, February 27, 2004

Hang gliding?

Nope.

Lawn darts?

No way.

A nice game of croquet?

Not a chance if you’re a major league baseball player.

Clauses in the standard MLB guaranteed contract prohibit players from partaking in these activities and many others, ranging from bungee jumping to gardening.

Also off limits for most players is basketball, as the Aaron Boone saga has revealed. Boone, who entered the offseason as the New York Yankees’ regular third baseman, was released by the team Thursday after suffering a possible season-ending ACL injury while playing in a pick-up game with friends Jan.16.

A clause in Boone’s one-year, $5.75million contract listed playing basketball as a “prohibitive act,” a label written into contracts to discourage players from participating in specified activities.

A common misconception regarding clauses is the use of the word “prohibited,” said Adam Katz, Boone’s agent. Athletes with such clauses are free to do what they wish, but they could be putting their livelihood at risk.

“It’s a little bit misunderstood that they’re actually prohibited,” Katz said. “In this case, ‘prohibited’ means that a player’s contract becomes non-guaranteed if he engages in one of these activities. It’s different from the actual meaning of the word ‘prohibited.’”

Semantics aside, players who care about their contracts might as well consider them prohibited, agent Ron Shapiro said.

“If you’re injured or die due to one of those activities, you don’t get the guarantee,” he said.

After all, professional sports is a business, and prohibitive clauses are an effective way for teams to protect their investments.

“The clauses attempt to balance the interest of the team and what it has invested and the interest of the player and his freedom to do what he wants,” Shapiro said.

Although ubiquitous in major professional sports, contractual clauses are prevalent in baseball because most pacts are guaranteed. Accordingly, a team is obligated to pay a player who has a guaranteed contract even if he is placed on the disabled list or released.

The exception occurs when a player does not adhere to every clause in his contract. If that happens, the contract becomes non-guaranteed and the player may be cut and given 30 days’ termination pay — usually a pittance compared to the entire deal. In Boone’s case, the amount would be $917,553.

Ironically, Boone would be better off if his contract had been non-guaranteed from the outset, Shapiro said.

“If his contract had not been guaranteed, he would be placed on the disabled list, and he would still be paid,” he said.

Long overlooked, the minutiae written into professional athletes’ contracts has become a salient issue in the past year with the injuries of Boone and Chicago Bulls guard Jay Williams, who on June19 suffered a fractured pelvis and three torn ligaments in his left knee in a motorcycle accident; motorcycle riding is proscribed in the standard NBA contract.

Not surprisingly, riding motorcycles is also listed as a prohibitive act in the standard MLB contract, but that hasn’t stopped some players. Before the 2001 season, Houston Astros second baseman Jeff Kent — then with the San Francisco Giants — broke his wrist when, as he said, he fell while washing his truck. Witnesses later claimed Kent fell while performing stunts on his motorcycle.

Although Kent was not cut, Ron Gant was by Atlanta before the 1994 season after he broke his leg during a motorcycle accident. Because Gant voided his $5.5million contract, the Braves had to pay him only one-sixth of his salary.

Teams influencing players’ off-the-field lives is not a product of the salary boom of the 1990s, however. The prohibitive clause preceded free agency in baseball, dating to a skiing accident suffered by Boston Red Sox ace Jim Lonborg following his Cy Young Award-winning 1967 season. Clauses became more comprehensive over the years and were finally perfected in the 1990s, Shapiro said.

Although MLB teams generally agree on what constitutes a prohibitive act, some are more restrictive than others, Shapiro said. Most teams frown upon activities like boxing, sky diving, mountain climbing, skiing, hunting, scuba and skin diving, horse racing and tackle football. The most stringent team — perhaps draconian — is the Yankees, whose list ranges from the leisurely (table tennis and shuffleboard) to the unusual (spelunking).

As for gardening, there is a clause commonly referred to as the “Bobby Ojeda Clause,” which bans the use of electric hedge clippers. In 1988, the New York Mets left-hander missed the playoffs after severing the middle finger on his pitching hand in a pruning accident the day the Mets clinched the National League East championship.

The standard clauses are not ironclad, however.

“On occasion, we’ve been able to get an exception,” said Shapiro, who represented Hall of Famers Cal Ripken, Jim Palmer and Kirby Puckett, whose contract included an exception for ice fishing. “Cal was a notable exception because his entire offseason workout program centered on basketball.”

Of course, not all players and contracts are created equal.

“It’s case-by-case,” Katz said. “Some teams are more receptive to changing the language of their contracts, and some are intractable.”

Said Shapiro: “It depends on the leverage of the player. If teams view the activity as less risky, they may be willing to compromise.”

Two players who used their leverage against the Yankees were former Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina, who signed only after the club permitted him to play basketball in his backyard gym, and first baseman Jason Giambi, who forced the team to back down on its anti-motorcycle policy.

But star power doesn’t always work. Roger Clemens, for example, could not play jai alai under his contract with the Red Sox.

Leverage also can help a player once he gets into a contractual quandary.

Paul Quantrill, a Shapiro client who recently signed with the Yankees, broke his leg while snowmobiling before the 1999 season. Snowmobiling is a prohibitive act in the standard contract, but the Toronto Blue Jays generously restructured Quantrill’s $1.4million deal so that only $500,000 was guaranteed instead of releasing him.

Don’t be fooled, however. Teams are loath to concede demands at the bargaining table, and when they give an inch, it’s just an inch. Recently, clubs have become even more onerous, Katz said.

“I’ve sensed generally in the past two to three years that teams are becoming less likely to change any of their guarantee language,” Katz said. “But if you go about it the right way and make a good case, you can get a team to change.”

Shapiro said he negotiated prohibitive clauses in several contracts this year but found only a moderate amount of success in securing what his clients wanted.

“Something was knocked out in a reasonable number of cases, but not a whole lot was knocked out,” he said.

Regardless of whether Boone overstepped his bounds, most players will think twice about doing anything that would jeopardize their health, Katz said.

“In my experience, many players are quite bright,” he said. “You would expect guys to learn as they go along. You would like to think so anyway.”

But the recent scrutiny on the fine print in contracts won’t serve as a fail-safe deterrent for everyone, Shapiro said.

“Some player will always think he is invulnerable,” he said.

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