We previously discussed the defamation lawsuit brought by Major League Baseball Umpire Joe West against 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. West has now won a major verdict in New York and $500,000 in damages. Due to a default judgment on liability, it was the ultimate “back door slider.” However, damages was no “cookie” given an interesting debate over the harm caused to West in seeking entry into the Hall of Fame.
While West is often subject to criticism for his calls (including a few by your humble host), the court notes that he has a well-founded hope to be entered into the hall of fame given his long record:
“As of the end of the 2020 season, the plaintiff had umpired in 5,345 Major League Baseball games, surpassed only by the legendary umpire Bill Klem, who had umpired in 5,375 games, and was the first umpire to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. At the time of the inquest, the plaintiff was on track to break Klem’s record during the 2021 season. The plaintiff evinced a strong desire to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, an honor previously bestowed upon only 10 umpires.”
Throwing calls for a car loan is obviously damaging to any effort to add West to the Hall of Fame (though it might get him honored in the Chevrolet Hall of Fame). West specifically noted that he did not want to join “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, Pete Rose, and Barry Bonds as baseball pariahs.
The controversy began with a podcast. 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.”
West 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.”
Previously, I noted that “If true, that could be a major problem. Even if Wagner was lying, it can still be defamation for repeating the lie.” The court noted that Wagner submitted an affidavit “in which he essentially denied that the conversation described by Lo Duca had ever occurred.” (The court elected not to consider the affidavit at the damages stage after rejecting testimony by affidavit). It appears that Lo Duca failed to contest liability and a default judgment was entered against him on July 8, 2020.
The opinion includes analysis of the impact of the story on West’s potential earnings and includes this interesting account of what umpires can earn on the speaking circuit:
“[West] credibly testified that most speakers at such events earn in the range of $2,500 to $7,000 per appearance, but that Hall of Famers would likely earn between $15,000 and $20,000 per appearance. He also intended to participate in baseball card shows on the average of 15 to 20 occasion per year that would generate $15,000 to $25,000 per appearance for a Hall of Famer.”
One of the more interesting aspects of the opinion was that half of the award encompassed “expenses he will need to incur in retaining a public relations firm to formulate and operationalize a sufficient reputation remediation plan.” The court actually rejects the key claim that the damages should include loss of opportunity or position in seeking entry to the Hall of Fame:
“While the court might be inclined to credit the plaintiff’s and Carroll’s testimony as to the differential between the plaintiff’s post-retirement earning capacity as a Hall of Famer and that as a non-Hall of Famer, there is simply no proof that the plaintiff will not be elected to the Hall of Fame or that his election will be delayed because of the defamation. The only evidence that he presented in this regard were the inadmissible hearsay declarations of a sports agent and a former player, who merely expressed their opinion that the plaintiff should be concerned about election. It is purely speculative as to whether the plaintiff will or will not be elected to the Hall of Fame and, if so, when. Baseball fans notoriously speculate all the time about which players will and will not be elected, or should or should not be elected, to the Hall of Fame. A foritori, it is not proper for a court to base its award of damages on similar speculation as to whether the plaintiff will be elected to the Hall of Fame at the earliest possible date subsequent to his retirement as an umpire.”
So with the default you could call this a “meatball” pitch that results in a “single-eye single.” But it is still worth $500,000 simoleons.