Joe Buzas knows baseball, having lived a life that's bridged the eras from a time when it was all game to a time in which it sometimes seems all business.
He was the opening day shortstop for the New York Yankees in 1945 and 50 years later hopes to be the opening-day elder when the Salt Lake Buzz play the first home game of their second season at Franklin Quest Field this spring.But there might be a hitch.
Buzas, when he came to town last year as owner of the former Pacific Coast League Portland Beavers, a.k.a. the Buzz now, usurped the territory of the Salt Lake Trappers, starting a fight that's already dinged him close to $2 million - a third of it for in- and out-of-state legal fees - and might end up costing a lot more.
The Trappers, who won an arbitration ruling that Buzas has refused to fully comply with, have filed a petition with the National Association of Professional Baseball League Inc. asking that Salt Lake's fecund minor-league market be returned to them.
Buzas, born about the time baseball was catching on in America, says he's done nothing wrong and doesn't understand why his old-school style is being questioned.
"All my life I did it by a handshake and my word," says Buzas, who for decades has been deeply involved in the business end of minor-league baseball.
But accusations outlined in an October arbitration ruling by George Nicolau, a career arbitrator and baseball expert, say Buzas is guilty of "tampering" with the Salt Lake market, an action that is not criminal but that does have civil recriminations.
Though engaging in a conversation on the potentially confusing subject with Buzas' attorney is like taking part in a "Who's on First?" routine, the case is relatively straightforward.
According to baseball protocol, it was OK for the higher-league Buzz to move in on the lowly Trappers last year. But Buzas is accused of cutting a deal with Salt Lake City for its baseball field before properly informing the Trappers and the Pioneer League, a class-AA team and a rookie organization that held claim to local baseball rights before the Buzz arrived.
The upshot, say the plaintiffs, is that the Trappers and their league were kicked off their turf on short notice with almost no place to go, a situation that proved financially crippling.
And it was Buzas' fault, argued Trapper attorney Gregory Phillips, whose presentation was favored by Nicolau when the arbitrator ordered Buzas to pay the Trappers $1.2 million for their lost territory, $400,000 for what he said was the loss of the Salt Lake franchise - though it was moved in skeletal form to Ogden - and $152,152 in lost team profits for 1993.
Similarly, the Pioneer League was awarded $200,000 for turf claimed now by the Pacific Coast League, and $117,216 in lost 1993 profits.
But Buzas has refused to pay all by the damages for the lost territory, still owing $552,152 to the Trappers and $117,216 to the Pioneer League and has filed a federal lawsuit challenging those awards.
That move is what goaded the Trappers into taking their case to the baseball association, which has the power to give territory and take it away.
"We want the money," said Phillips, who says the whole thing is the product of Buzas' stubborn incorrigibility. "He thinks he's above the rules of baseball."
Robert S. Campbell Jr., a Salt Lake attorney hired by Buzas, said it's less a personal issue than the product of a misunderstanding that started when the former Denver Zephyrs were exploring a move to Salt Lake City more than a year ago.
"What Joe Buzas understood, what he had heard and read throughout baseball was that the Salt Lake Trappers had given their consent to talks between Salt Lake City and the Zephyrs and therefore that Salt Lake City was in a position where they could talk with any Triple-A team."
And, anyway, said Campbell, the award was just too much because anything beyond compensation for the territory is redundant.
Buzas said the spat is simpler even than that, however, noting that he's spent more on lawyers than it would take to pay the plaintiffs to go away.
"Why am I fighting it? Out of spite," he growls. 'I did not tamper.
"And I hate to lose anything.