Danny Ainge Tells His Side of the Baseball Story, 1982

[Danny Ainge, the new Utah Jazz GM, has caught flak this offseason for trading center Rudy Gobert to the Minnesota Timberwolves and hitting an NBA Mother Lode—five Minnesota veterans, four first-round draft choices, and one first-round swap of draft position. Ainge’s Eureka reportedly has broken the NBA trade market for now and stalled, among others, the highly anticipated Kevin Durant mega-deal.

“What [Ainge] got for Gobert, everybody in the league is b*tching about, like, can you believe it?” tweeted NBA media insider Brian Windhorst recently. 

Unmentioned in the latest round of b*tching is Danny Ainge has never been a long-time participant in front-office intrigue going back to his playing days. In 1981, collegian Ainge entered the NBA accused of illegally breaking a pre-existing pro baseball contract and blatantly bucking the pro sports system. That’s a little harsh. There were some mitigating circumstances. But suffice it to say, as the Boston’s Globe’s Bob Ryan wrote at the time, “It was approximately 2 p.m., EDT, when Red Auerbach backed the Enola Gay out of the hangar” and drafted Danny Ainge on June 9 1981. Auerbach, who knew full well that Ainge’s  contract with baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays prohibited him from playing pro basketball, drafted the Brigham Young University (BYU) All-American anyway in the second round. Let the lawyers sort it out.

Ainge, whose then anemic batting average had him singing the baseball blues, promptly declared, “Had any other team but Boston drafted me, there would be zero chance of me playing basketball.” He asked Toronto for his release, and the lawyers sorted it all out in federal court, while many a sports columnist prosecuted Ainge in the court of public opinion. 

Lee Benson, the venerable sports columnist for the Ainge-friendly Deseret News in Salt Lake, was an exception. He published this brief story about the Ainge affair in the February 1982 issue of Basketball Digest. By then (the Digest always ran months behind the news cycle), Auerbach had pried Ainge away from Toronto and his failing MLB career. About the rookie Ainge, Boston Globe columnist Will McDonough later would joke, “Remember when he showed up here to play for the Celtics, looking like a kid who had spent the winter locked in a closet with no one slipping him food under the door?” Now this hungry NBA rookie has matured in a hungry middle-aged NBA executive who continues to break the system in new ways.]

In a blue warmup suit he sat, surrounded by a sea of empty seats, and there on the court in front of him were his old BYU teammates working out. Familiar faces. Greg Kite, Steve Trumbo, Fred Roberts.

But teammates no longer. After he split all those Player-of-the-Year honors last March with a 7-foot-4 kid out of Virginia [Ralph Sampson], Danny Ainge ran out of college eligibility. And now, in the wake of retirement from major league baseball and the reluctance of the Toronto Blue Jays to release him from a contractual obligation not to play pro basketball, Danny Ainge was, heaven forbid, a man without a team.

The situation was reminiscent of George Patton in the middle of World War II. After he got carried away and slapped a soldier in Sicily, Patton was put on probation by the army. As he walked out of army headquarters in Europe, he said (or at least George C. Scott said it in the movie for him): “Here it is, the best war in the history of the world, and I have to be left out.”

So it was with Ainge, an athlete of enormous dimension, who has become a victim of that dimension. It never was easy for him to decide whether to play pro basketball or baseball, not even after he made the decision.

It is public record that Ainge asked Toronto to release him from his three-year contract after only three months of the 1981 baseball season and that Toronto ultimately refused. The situation led to a court battle in New York, where a six-member jury upheld Toronto’s contention that Ainge is their property and the Boston Celtics of the National Basketball Association cannot use him on their roster this season.

In the wake of his attempt to leave baseball, Ainge has not been treated as a saint by the media. Editorials have been critical, suggesting that a contract is a contract, and it isn’t exactly a high-rent sort of move for a person to renege on his obligations, even if he is hitting lower than most pitchers.

As always, there is another side to the story. In this case, Danny Ainge’s side. As he paused during his workout at BYU, where he will be for the time being, a part-time basketball coach, he hoisted himself up on the witness stand one more time. And he allowed the media into the courtroom.

The following is an abridged transcript:

“To be totally honest, after the kind of year I had in college basketball, I wished I hadn’t signed my baseball contract. But I didn’t tell this to anybody but my wife. I felt I had made a contract and was obligated to stick by it. When anybody from basketball called, I told them as much. I told the pros if they drafted me, they’d be wasting their time. Two teams, Philadelphia and Boston, said they might draft me anyway.

“About two weeks before the draft, I went in to Toronto management. I was discouraged because of my batting average, and I told them I just wanted to know my position with them. Would they be interested in selling my contract? They said they wanted to keep me, but if I was unhappy at any time, to come and see them.

“After the draft [and a selection by Boston in the second round], I went into management again. I told them I wasn’t happy and wanted to talk about moving to basketball. Peter Bavasi [president of the Jays] said there’s never a contract that can keep you from what you want to do. Both Mr. Bavasi and Pat Gillick [Toronto’s general manager] said I could forget my contract if I wasn’t happy in baseball. I told them I’d pay back my bonus money, and they said fine. They said they’d have to go before the board to tell them what had happened.

“They asked me if I was willing to play out the year. I told them I’d like to leave now. They said OK, they’d arrange it with the media. I went home, told my wife to pack and called Mr. Auerbach [general manager of the Celtics]. I told him I wanted to tell him before he heard it through the media. I could now become a Boston Celtic.

“The next day [June 12], Mr. Bavasi and Mr. Gillick met with the board, and the next thing I knew, the situation had changed. They said all legal remedies would be used if I tried to breach my contract.

“I said, ‘Hey, how come you’re changing your mind?’ I think I know why. It was the Board of Directors and lawyers who made the decision.

“At the same time, the baseball strike was announced. I left Toronto and sought legal counsel from Bob Quinney, a friend of the family and an attorney in Eugene [Ore.]. After we talked it over, he felt the same as I did, that this was a money thing. Toronto wanted to get some money out of Boston if they had to release me. I didn’t feel like I’d be breaching my contract by announcing my decision to play pro basketball. I’d be giving Toronto the opportunity to barter with Boston. I still, to this day, feel the whole issue is money.

“My gut feeling has always been to honor my contract. But should I do it if it’s only a matter of  money? The people at Toronto have always been great to me. Mr. Bavasi and Mr. Gillick were super to me at the trial. Even then, they said they don’t want to hold me back from playing pro basketball. They told me again they hope I’ll do what I want to do.

“If I really believed Toronto wanted me, I wouldn’t do what I’m doing.

“I think I was a little bit brainwashed when I made my contract with Toronto [October 1980]. I think they slipped a fast one by me. I did not know I was signing something that meant if I quit baseball, I couldn’t play basketball. But I was afraid to get an attorney at the time because I was worried about violating NCAA rules. I made the same mistake then that that I did in June. I counted on an oral agreement.

“The trial had nothing to do with anything, except whether there had been an oral recession of the contract [by Bavasi and Gillick]. I was disappointed because I thought there were key things left out of their testimony.

“I’ve taken a bad rap from the media, I know, because I said all last winter that I’d play baseball. And then I turned around and said I wouldn’t. It’s just something I’ve had to put up with. But in my own mind, I never tried to breach a contract. I didn’t demand anything. I asked them first how they’d feel if I did what I wanted to do.

“It bothers me, sure, this whole thing bothers me. I don’t like the business part of it all, how big business plays such a role in sports and the egos of Bavasi and Auerbach have gotten involved. But I’m getting rid of all the problems. I’ve got an attorney and an agent. Toronto told me after the trial not to worry, that something would be worked out, and Boston said not to worry, too. I’m going to get in good shape, run a lot, swim a lot, and play a lot.

“And wait for the phone to ring.”

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