Judge says Bubba Harkins’ lawsuit against Angels, MLB can proceed

Judge says Bubba Harkins' lawsuit against Angels, MLB can proceed

A last-ditch effort by the Angels and Major League Baseball to get former visiting clubhouse manager Brian Harkins’ defamation complaint dismissed was rejected by an Orange County Superior Court judge on Friday, clearing the way for the case to go to jury trial on July 31.

“We’re getting out of the dugout and going up to bat — finally, after three years,” said Daniel L. Rasmussen, the attorney who filed the suit on Harkins’ behalf in 2020. “We will be grateful to get the opportunity to present our case to a jury.”

Attorneys for the Angels and MLB filed a motion for summary judgment on May 31, claiming Harkins conceded in a deposition that he provided “sticky stuff” to visiting pitchers to aid in their grip of the baseball in violation of MLB rules and that he was unable to identify who leaked the details of his 2020 firing to the media.

Rasmussen argued in an opposition motion that Harkins merely provided the blend of rosin and pine tar — which former Angels closer Troy Percival taught Harkins to make in the mid-1990s — to visiting pitchers such as Gerrit Cole and Max Scherzer and numerous Angels pitchers and that he didn’t apply it to baseballs. Thus, he did not break any rules.

In 10 minutes of oral arguments before Judge Melissa R. McCormick on Thursday, Adam Lauridsen, the attorney representing the Angels and MLB, argued that the substance itself is illegal because it was “being provided to a pitcher with knowledge that the pitcher is going to apply it to his hand or the ball to get an improved grip.”

Rasmussen countered by saying pine tar and rosin are regularly used by hitters, “so it’s not illegal,” he said. “What’s illegal is the act of a pitcher using a foreign substance on a baseball. … To ask the court to throw out this case after all the litigation and on the eve of trial based solely on these word games is inappropriate.”

McCormick, who issued a tentative ruling in Harkins’ favor on Thursday, took the matter under submission and issued her final written ruling on Friday.

Harkins, nicknamed “Bubba,” spent nearly four decades with the Angels before being fired by then-general manager Billy Eppler in March 2020 after the Angels learned he was providing a blend of sticky substances to visiting pitchers.

Harkins filed suit in August 2020, claiming he was made a “public scapegoat” in baseball’s efforts to crack down on the use of foreign substances. The complaint listed “defamation” and “false light” as causes of action against the Angels and MLB.

Harkins claimed he was fired without warning, labeled a “traitor, cheater and a fraud” in the wake of news reports of his dismissal and is now unemployable.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Geoffrey Glass granted a motion by the Angels and MLB to dismiss the complaint in January 2021, pointing to the fact that sources confirming the reasons for Harkins’ firing in news reports were anonymous, making them “inadmissible hearsay.” To prove defamation, a plaintiff must prove who exactly defamed them.

But the Orange County 4th District Court of Appeals reversed that decision on Feb. 2, 2022, the three-justice panel writing in its opinion that “there is sufficient circumstantial evidence connecting the statements to defendants [the Angels and MLB] to allow his case to proceed.”

Harkins was fired three days after MLB issued a memo to teams saying it would be enforcing a long-ignored policy of forbidding the use of illegal substances to enhance a pitcher’s grip.

Rasmussen argued in a previous hearing that Harkins was “scapegoated” because he did not receive the illegal-substances memo — issued by then-MLB senior vice president and now Texas Rangers GM Chris Young — until the day he was fired.