Minute Maid Park
Minute Maid Park” by clockwerks is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

After winning the 2017 World Series, its first in franchise history, the Houston Astros were the envy of the baseball world.  After serving as the league’s doormat with the worst record in baseball in 2011, 2012, and 2013, the Astros rose from the ashes, and in 2017 had perfected one of the most lethal offenses the sport had ever seen, mercilessly embarrassing opposing pitchers at an alarming rate.  One of those pitchers is Mike Bolsinger, a right-handed journeyman who pitched for the Toronto Blue Jays in a 16-7 shellacking against the Astros on their home field, Minute Maid Park, on August 4, 2017.  Bolsinger entered the fourth inning of that game in relief to record the final out of the frame.  He did, but not before he surrendered four runs off four hits and a home run.  At the time, it appeared Bolsinger simply lacked the talent to effectively face Major League hitters and he was demoted to the minor leagues never to play in the Majors again.  Of course, appearances can be deceiving.

Fast forward to January 13, 2020 when Major League Baseball released a ground-shaking report confirming the Astros engaged in an elaborate and longstanding sign-stealing scheme throughout the 2017 regular season, 2017 postseason, and a portion of the 2018 regular season.  The Astros were found to have used a camera positioned in center field to record the signs from an opposing catcher.  Team personnel would then watch the feed in a hallway between the clubhouse and dugout and would relay the signs to the Astros batters by banging a trash can.  This operation was deployed in the majority of Houston’s home games in 2017 with the most bangs heard during the game in which Bolsinger pitched, according to the complaint.

Bolsinger has now sued the Astros in Los Angeles Superior Court for unfair competition, negligence, and tortious interference with contractual and prospective economic relations.  Bolsinger claims his disastrous outing in Houston on August 4, 2017 doomed his baseball career and seeks consequential damages he alleges he incurred as a result of being bounced from the league.  Bolsinger also seeks disgorgement of the Astros’ $31 million in bonuses from the 2017 postseason and requests that these funds be paid to Los Angeles-based charities.  This week, Bolsinger added Astros’ owner, Jim Crane, to the suit as well as Derek Vigoa, the Astros’ current senior manager of team operations who reportedly developed the sign-stealing scheme when Vigoa was an intern with the team in 2016.

There are a few strikes against Bolsinger’s case.  As a procedural matter, Bolsinger chose to sue the Astros in Los Angeles, perhaps to obtain a more favorable jury, and claims venue is proper because member-investors of the team (a limited liability company) reside in Los Angeles.  However, the game in question occurred in Houston and both Bolsinger and the Astros’ organization reside in Texas.  Additionally, Bolsinger may be required to arbitrate his claims as a member of the Major League Baseball Players Association pursuant to the association’s collective bargaining agreement, though Bolsinger may argue his case involves intentional fraud and deceit that transcend an ordinary contractual dispute.  Plus, at least to date, Bolsinger is not suing MLB.

Turning to the substantive merit of Bolsinger’s claims, the fact that the Astros engaged in fraudulent behavior and unfair competition during the 2017 season, as well as in the game in which Bolsinger pitched, is well-documented and not reasonably subject to dispute.  However, whether the Astros caused Bolsinger’s demotion and inability to return to the Majors is up for debate.  Pitching for the Diamondbacks, Dodgers, and Blue Jays, Bolsinger had a career 4.92 ERA and an overall win-loss record of 8-19.  Only two of these games were against the Astros.  Additionally, Houston touched up Bolsinger on his home turf in Toronto earlier in the 2017 season for four runs off six hits and two home runs, so sign-stealing scandal or not, the Astros could argue they had Bolsinger’s number anyway.

How this case proceeds may determine whether other pitchers who suffered adverse career moves after struggling against the Astros in 2017 and 2018 will seek to settle their score in court.  The Astros’ are expected to file a response to Bolsinger’s complaint next month.