Bonds trial update: Agent Novitzky takes center stage

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The government’s first witness against Barry Bonds was called yesterday: agent Jeff Novitzky, the man who made the BALCO case. And the Brian McNamee case. And the Kirk Radomski case. And who has spearheaded  just about every other investigation into athletes and performance enhancing drugs, from Bonds to Lance Armstrong (case still building).

It was Novitzky who spent a year literally sifting through the trash outside the BALCO labs, looking for evidence of steroid distribution after he received a tip that bad stuff was going down there.  He’s a highly controversial figure who has been accused by some of having a vendetta against Barry Bonds, though that has always seemed like a stretch to me. More likely, it seems, is that he is a careerist who at times has gone too far in order to bring home cases that are less valuable to the protection of the public welfare than they are salacious and attention-grabbing.  His greatest trespass in my mind was his illegal-seizure of baseball’s 2004 drug testing results and subsequent creation of that list of 104 names, some of which have been leaked. He was smacked down by the courts for that.

His testimony yesterday is similar to the testimony he has given in multiple other BALCO cases, all of which have resulted in convictions. He explained how he got on BALCO’s trail, how he came to learn of its clients, including Bonds, and how when the government subpoenaed Bonds and other athletes, there was never an intention to go after them, just BALCO.

Novitzky was cross-examined sharply by Bonds’ lawyers — with many of the questions seemingly designed to discredit other witnesses against Bonds as opposed to attacking Novitzky head-on — but reports from the courtroom suggest that he maintained his cool and made a point to look at the jury when he spoke, not at the lawyer questioning him, which is a small but quite effective touch when a witness is trying to explain technical or scientific evidence. Law enforcement officers tend to do this well.

How effective his testimony was is open for debate. Gwen Knapp, who is in the courtroom live-tweeting the trial for the San Francisco Chronicle suggested that the facts weren’t being strung together very well and that the government, via Novitzky’s testimony, wasn’t explaining its case particularly effectively. The New York Times, in contrast, painted a picture of an engaged jury, following the exchanges between Novitzky and his inquisitors raptly.

Novitzky will continue to be cross-examined today. Then he will return to his work of bringing down cheating athletes. The value of his testimony and that work will both be open questions for some time.

MLBPA thinks all 30 teams will take a “file-and-trial” approach to arbitration

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There’s something interesting deep in Ken Rosenthal’s latest notes column. It’s about arbitration, with Rosenthal reporting that the players union believes that all 30 teams will take a “file-and-trial” approach to arbitration this winter.

If you’re unfamiliar with this, it breaks down thusly:

  • In mid-January, teams and players who are eligible for arbitration will exchange proposed salary figures. The player says what he thinks he’s worth based on comparable players of his quality and service time and the team will propose a lower counter-figure;
  • Generally, the parties then use these proposals as negotiable figures and eventually reach a compromise deal, usually near the midpoint between the two figures, avoiding arbitration;
  • If a deal cannot be reached, they go to an arbitration hearing and arbitrators pick one of the numbers. They CANNOT give a compromise award. It’s either the higher player’s number or the lower team number.

In the past, a handful of teams — most typically the Blue Jays, Braves, Marlins, Rays, and White Sox — employed a “file- and-trial” approach, meaning that they treated the figure exchange date as a hard deadline after which they refused to negotiate and stood content to go to a hearing. As more teams have adopted this approach, there have been more arbitration hearings. As Rosenthal notes, last year there were more hearings than in any offseason for the past 25 years. Now, the union thinks, every team will do this. If they do, obviously, there will be even more hearings.

There is certainly an advantage to file-and-trial for a team. It makes the player and the agent work harder and earlier in order to be prepared to negotiate with the club before the file deadline. It also makes them work a lot harder to come up with a defensible filing number given that, rather than merely being an opening salvo in an extended negotiation, it’s something that they will certainly have to defend in open court. It’s also simple hardball. Teams have greater resources than the players and the agents and it’s less painful for them to pay for lawyers and hearing prep and to conduct the actual hearing. There’s risk to the team, of course — they might lose and pay more than a settlement would’ve cost — but teams are obviously concluding that the risk is worth it.

The only question I have is, if the union is right and all 30 teams will now proceed this way, how was that decided? Everyone suddenly, after several decades of arbitration, simply decided to take the same approach? Or was there, I dunno, a meeting in which the strategy was coordinated? Inquiring minds want to know!