You can scream at him, curse at him, and call him names, but if you attempt to discredit veteran umpire Joe West’s credibility, well, be ready to pay a lot bigger price than simply being thrown out of a game.
West, Major League Baseball’s senior umpire who’s scheduled in May to pass Hall of Famer Bill Klem for the most games umpired in history, was awarded $500,000 plus interest Monday by the New York Supreme Court in his defamation lawsuit against former player Paul Lo Duca.
West sued Paul Lo Duca for defamation in 2019 after Lo Duca said on a podcast that his former New York Mets teammate, reliever Billy Wagner, bribed West into giving him a bigger strike zone by letting him use his 1957 vintage Chevrolet car.
“We’re playing like a really tight game against the Phillies and Billy Wagner comes in from the bullpen,’’ Lo Duca said April 18, 2019, on The Action Network. “I used to go to the mound every time and like, ‘What’s going on?’ and he’s like, ‘Hey, Joe’s behind the plate. Set up a couple more inches inside. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Joe hates me.’ He’s like, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no. Joe loves me.’
“I go, ‘He hasn’t given us the corner all day.’ He’s like, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ He literally throws 10 pitches and strikes out three guys. Joe rings up all three guys. Eight out of the nine pitches were at least three to four inches inside, not even close. Guys were throwing bats and everything. Joe walks off the field …
“I get back into the clubhouse and I’m like, ‘What the (expletive) just happened just right now?’ And Wagner just winks at me. I’m like, ‘What’s the secret?’ He’s like, ‘Eh, Joe loves antique cars so every time he comes into town I lend him my ’57 Chevy so he can drive it around so then he opens up the strike zone for me.'”
West was incensed, saying the story was completely fabricated, and filed suit. West was only the home-plate umpire once when Wagner and Lo Duca played together in 2006-2007, and Wagner never pitched in the game.
West declared in his lawsuit that Lo Duca’s comments damaged his integrity and character, and threatened to severely damage his chances of being voted to the Hall of Fame.
Those elected into the Hall of Fame, as outlined in the decision, earn at least $250,000 a year simply in speaking engagements and card shows.
“The plaintiff expressed a legitimate concern that, if Hall of Fame voters credited Lo Duca’s false assertion regarding his integrity and character,’’ according to the court’s decision, “he might not be elected for induction into the Hall of Fame for the same reasons as otherwise excellent players ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson, Pete Rose, and Barry Bonds had or have not been elected. He also expressed concern that it would be difficult to completely repair his reputation, particularly because a special committee of baseball executives and former players chosen by the directors of the Hall of Fame is responsible for selecting umpires for induction into the Hall of Fame.
“No member of this committee had told the plaintiff that Lo Duca’s statement would or would not have an effect on his chances for election. According to the plaintiff, at least one former player and an agent of a former player did express their belief to the plaintiff that the false statement would hurt his chances for election, but those witnesses did not testify at the inquest.’’
West not only vehemently denied giving Wagner an enlarged strike zone, but said in court that he never gave preferential treatment to any team or player. Yet, despite West’s strong denials, the Lo Duca story was picked up by a large number of publications.
“Given the widespread dissemination of the defamatory statement at issue here, the nature of the statement, and the legitimate anxiety that the plaintiff suffered in connection with the possibility that he will not be elected to the Hall of Fame because of the statement,’’ the judgement read, “the court concludes that the plaintiff is entitled to an award of $250,000 for past mental anguish and emotional distress.’’
West also is awarded another $250,000 to “compensate for expenses he will need to incur in retaining a public relations firm to formulate and operationalize a sufficient reputation remediation plan.’’
West was unavailable for comment, but Kevin Murphy, one of West’s attorneys, said West was pleased by the outcome and that Lo Duca was being held “accountable for his actions.’’
“As the most senior Major League umpire,’’ Murphy said in a statement, “Mr. West looks forward to focusing on the 2021 baseball season and breaking the record for the most games ever umpired by anyone in the history of Major League Baseball.”
Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter @Bnightengale.