There is an interesting defamation lawsuit filed this week by Major League Baseball Umpire Joe West. According to USA Today, West is suing former catcher Paul Lo Duca after Lo Duca suggested that West took loans of a hot car in exchange for a more generous strike zone. This could be a new meaning to the term “strike suit.”
On “The Favorites Podcast” on April 18., Lo Duca claimed that former Mets pitcher Billy Wagner let West use his 1957 Chevy in exchange for favorable calls at the plate.
“He literally throws 10 pitches and strikes out three guys; Joe rings up all three guys; eight out of the nine pitches were at least 3 to 4 inches inside, not even close. Guys were throwing bats and everything, Joe walks off the field. We get back into the clubhouse, and I’m like, ‘What the f–k just happened just right now?’ And Wagner just winks at me, I’m like, ‘What’s the secret?’ He’s like, ‘Eh, Joe loves antique cars, so every time he comes in town, I lend him my ‘57 Chevy so he can drive it around, so then he opens up the strike zone for me.’”
He recalled Wagner telling him: “Joe loves antique cars so every time he comes into town I lend him my ’57 Chevy so he can drive it around so then he opens up the strike zone for me.”
It is the kind of story one hears in a locker room and takes with a healthy dose of skepticism. However, West has claimed reputational damage. Indeed, there is no worse allegation for an umpire.
He specifically denies that he ever borrowed the car. Moreover, his complaint states “In reality, during 2006 and 2007, the two years that Lo Duca played for the New York Mets with Billy Wagner, Joe West was the home plate umpire for a game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Mets only once, Billy Wagner did not pitch at all, and the game ended on a home run, not on called strikes.” If true, that could be a major problem. Even if Wagner was lying, it can still be defamation for repeating the lie.
Mets pitcher Billy Wagner can certainly expect to be called to deposition. If he told the story in seriousness, it would also be defamation. Of course, everyone involved are public figures. The standard for defamation for public figures and officials in the United States is the product of a decision decades ago in New York Times v. Sullivan. Ironically, this is precisely the environment in which the opinion was written and he is precisely the type of plaintiff that the opinion was meant to deter. The Supreme Court ruled that tort law could not be used to overcome First Amendment protections for free speech or the free press. The Court sought to create “breathing space” for the media by articulating that standard that now applies to both public officials and public figures. In order to prevail, West must show either actual knowledge of its falsity or a reckless disregard of the truth.
If Wagner claims it was a joke, there would still be the question of Lo Duca repeating the story for its truth.
I will only note that I have long argued for home plate umpires to be replaced by a computerized strike zone system. In addition to greater consistency, robotic umpire cannot be defamed and have no interest in muscle cars.