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Wednesday, July 27, 2005
RFK Stadium's False Dimensions: Are The Washington Nationals Liable for Misrepresentation?

My brother Bill brought to my attention an interesting piece by Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post regarding Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, home of the Washington Nationals, and home of the false field dimensions. (Svrluga, "Errors in the Outfield," Wash. Post, 7/22/05). After listening to Nationals' third-baseman Vinny Castilla complain that the left-center field power alley was significantly farther from home plate than the listed distance of 380 feet, Svrluga decided to measure the distance. He found that the actual distance was 394 feet. Before publishing his result, he let the Nationals measure it for themselves, and the team confirmed that the listed distance was indeed off by 14 feet; the team also found that the right-center power alley was off by 15 feet (listed as 380 feet but actually 395 feet).

Given the spaciousness of RFK stadium--which just re-opened after a 24-year hiatus upon the Expos moving to D.C.-- it is not surprising that of all 30 major league ballparks, the fewest number of home runs have been hit there this season. It is also not surprising that the National's best hitter, Jose Guillen, has hit 18 of his 19 home runs on the road. Similarly disparate, Brad Wilkerson has 4 homeruns and 26 RBIs on the road but only 2 homeruns and 9 RBIs at home.

Of course, inaccurate dimensions have been identified at other ballparks. For instance, in 1995, it was determined that the left-field foul of Fenway Park was located 310 feet from home plate, rather than the listed distance of 315 feet--as it had been assumed since 1936.

Aside from embarrassment, might there be a legal risk for teams that mistakenly list their ballpark dimensions? More specifically, might a player who signed with a team under a certain set of employment assumptions later have recourse if those assumptions prove untrue? The most plausible claim may be "misrepresentation," which is an unambiguous, false statement of fact that is material and induces a party to consent to a contract. If a court identifies that one party has been misrepresented, the aggrieved party can have the contract voided. Aggrieved parties may also be entitled to reliance damages.

Have the Nationals' hitters been misrepresented? Well, first consider that when teams pursue free agents, ballpark dimensions are likely relevant characteristics, especially when free agents distinguish between offers of similar compensation. This is particularly true for players thinking about their next contract: if you are a hitter and sign to play in a pitchers' ballpark, your statistics may suffer and your next contract may not be as lucrative.

Second, consider that although major league contracts are guaranteed, players still have myriad incentives to perform well. There are objective incentives, such as contract incentives and endorsement opportunities, as well as subjective ones, such as positive feedback from fans and media (or, its converse: avoidance of negative feedback from fans and media), as well as a desire to craft a memorable career and establish some kind of legacy. Indeed, we have seen numerous players sign fantastically-lucrative contracts only to become miserable after not performing well (e.g., Mike Hampton after signing an 8-year, $121 million contract with the Rockies) or not performing as well as expected (e.g., Mo Vaughn after signing a 6-year, $80 million deal with the Anaheim Angels). Therefore, even if a player isn't concerned about his next contract, he still doesn't want to be misled into a signing to play for a team where he will not perform well.

But is the difference of 15 feet really going to affect where a hitter chooses to play? The answer might be "yes": consider remarks by Tigers outfielder Bobby Higginson, who, in 2002, candidly predicted to the Philadelphia Inquirer that Comerica Park's pitcher-friendly dimensions would deter free agent hitters from signing with the Tigers:
Higginson still sees the place as an unattractive destination for free agent hitters. "It's going to be tough to get players to come here, especially hitters," he said. "The ballpark is entirely too big, and they don't want to admit it. You might get some pitchers to come here, if you're winning. But you won't get hitters. It's not even a question. No one has ever come here and said it's not too big. It's a joke. It's Coors Field with no carry.
Given Higgenson's remarks, the correlation between player performance and future contracts, and the recognition of a player's desire to perform well even after signing a guaranteed contract, we can probably conclude that 15 feet would be a relevant characteristic for many players.

But is 15 feet legally relevant? That is, when Nationals' third baseman Vinny Castilla--the National League's leader in RBIs in last season--signed with the team as a free agent, did the team misrepresent its employment offer to him? Or how about short stop Christian Guzman, who agreed to a 4-year, $16 million contract with the Nationals? Both players have struggled badly this season while playing in the unexpectedly spacious RFK Stadium, and both have been targets of fan and media scorn (although, to be fair, both have also struggled on the road).

The key would be whether 14 feet in left-center field and 15 feet in right-center field is "material" to the contract formation. In contract law, a misrepresentation is only "material" when one party so completely relied on a false statement in negotiation that the aggrieved party is excused from further performance of the contract. Materiality is thus a high threshold, and it would likely be difficult for any Nationals' player to meet. This is particularly true since, as Chris Needham of Capital Punishment notes, RFK Stadium dimensions were not finalized when many of the Nationals' free agent signings occurred.

Moreover, think about all the past players who might have been "materially misrepresented" about their ballparks and who did not seek legal recourse. For instance, consider all the pitchers the Red Sox signed between 1936 and 1995 who thought the left field wall was 315 feet away, rather than the real distance of 310 feet. On the other hand, there is probably difference between those pitchers and the hitters that the Nationals recently inked, since those hitters signed to play in a newly-configured ballpark that hadn't been used for major league baseball since 1971. As a result, Castilla, Guzman et. al didn't have access to important homerun trend data and other ballpark metrics that may assist players in distinguishing similar offers. In short, they were more reliant on the Nationals than the pitchers were of the Red Sox.

But consider the potential scope of these types of claims. For instance, how about when a team changes its ballpark's dimensions, and brings in the fences? In 1995, the Kansas City Royals brought in Kaufman Stadium's fences by 10 feet and lowered the outfield walls by 9 feet--so was pitcher Mark Gubicza "misrepresented" about his employment conditions when he re-signed with the Royals as a free agent in 1994? I suspect it is highly doubtful that a court would consider that a material misrepresentation (and, of course, the statute of limitations would bar such a claim today).

In sum, there appears to be only a small chance of a Nationals' player successfully suing his employer for misrepresentation. Moreover, and to his credit, Nationals' President Tony Tavares has told the Washington Post that players hurt by RKF's dimensions would be compensated in their next contract negotiation:
"And if we're doing a contract with Jose [Guillen], and I'm still here, I'll say, 'Jose, those count as home runs,' " Tavares said. "He can add them to his totals, and we'll negotiate from there. I know this isn't a hitter's ballpark."
But will other teams do the same? And what happens if Tavares isn't still there?


here's a question: why doesn't baseball have set dimensions for the maximum distance to the outfield fence outlined in the rules? I've already tried to make the argument that this provides a hint of romanticism to the game, but my fellow combatant wasn't convinced.

Anonymous Yost -- 4/03/2007 12:59 PM  

Is there anything that isn't fair game for the lawyers these days? As if Gitmo weren't enough of a windfall for them lately.

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