Pitcher Lawsuit Against Astros Misses the Plate Over Venue, Claims
On February 10, 2020, former major league pitcher Mike Bolsinger filed a lawsuit against the Houston Astros, alleging that the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme in 2017 was responsible for “interfering with and harming his career.” Is Bolsinger’s lawsuit completely insane? Yes, yes it is, and not just because I’m a lifelong Astros fan. Let us count the ways:
After a lengthy investigation, Major League Baseball found that during the 2017 baseball season, the Houston Astros engaged in a sign-stealing scheme in their home stadium that enabled them to relay information about upcoming pitches to batters in the batter’s box. After intercepting the catcher’s sign from a center field camera in Minute Maid Park, players and coaches would relay information about the upcoming pitch to the dugout, and another player or coach would bang on a trash can to signal to the batter if the next pitch would be a breaking ball. MLB punished the Astros for this scheme by announcing one-year suspensions for the team’s general manager and manager, both of whom were subsequently fired by the team.
Mike Bolsinger was a pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2017, and he pitched one-third of an inning against the Astros on August 4, 2017, in Minute Maid Park. In that outing, Bolsinger faced eight batters and retired only one, allowing four hits, three walks, and four earned runs. He was sent down to the minor leagues after the game and has not pitched in the majors since then. An Astros fan who meticulously documented all of the trash can bangs by the Astros in 2017 found that the Astros made a banging noise on 12 of Bolsinger’s 29 pitches that day.
Bolsinger sued the Astros in Los Angeles County in California, and there we find the first big problem with the case. Bolsinger’s attorneys, perhaps wanting to take advantage of the plaintiff-friendly atmosphere in California, argued that venue is proper there because the Astros have “member-investors who reside in Los Angeles, California,” and also because Los Angeles is where the Astros “fraudulently” won the 2017 World Series. However, there are several major and rather obvious problems with this line of reasoning.
Bolsinger is a resident of Texas and so, obviously, are the Astros, and the game in question took place in Texas, suggesting that Texas might be the proper venue for the case. Not only that, but the Astros won the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Bolsinger pitched for the Toronto Blue Jays, and in fact was not even in the majors when the Astros won the World Series. So there is a huge threshold question of whether the Superior Court in L.A. County even has the personal jurisdiction to hear this case.
Not only that, but because the August 4, 2017 game took place in Texas, it suggests very strongly that Texas law should apply to the lawsuit, and that means there may not be subject matter jurisdiction for the California court either. It’s certainly plausible that Astros do have “member-investors” who live in California, and the Astros certainly do business in California, but it remains a huge question whether the Astros have sufficient contacts with California that they could expect to be sued there over a game that occurred in Houston.
Then there is the issue of Bolsinger’s actual claims. He has sued the Astros for unfair business practices, negligence, intentional interference with contractual relations, intentional interference with prospective economic relations, and negligent interference with prospective economic relations. All of these causes present Bolsinger with the same problem: he would have to prove that the Astros’ sign-stealing system directly caused him economic harm (i.e., that one-third of an inning was the reason he never pitched in the majors again), and that the Astros either breached some duty of care to Bolsinger or enacted their sign-stealing scheme with purposeful or negligent intent to harm Bolsinger’s pro career.
Mike Bolsinger was 1-4 with a 6.83 ERA in 2016 and 0-3 with a 6.31 ERA in 2017. In his 4-year major league career, Bolsinger posted a 4.92 ERA and allowed more than 1.5 baserunners per inning. The Astros’ attorneys simply have to show that even if the Astros were cheating on August 4, 2017, that fateful one-third of an inning was not the reason Bolsinger’s career ended that day.
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Drew Shirley is a Houston attorney with experience in tort and business litigation and business and real estate transactions. Shirley graduated cum laude from Duke University, then received two advanced degrees – a master’s in journalism and a law degree – from the University of Texas at Austin. He joined the Randle Law Office in 2015.