Fired Angels clubhouse attendant Bubba Harkins asks appeals court to revive his lawsuit

ANAHEIM, CA - MARCH 31: Fans enter Angel Stadium of Anaheim on Opening Day.
Fans enter Angel Stadium, where former employee Brian "Bubba" Harkins admitted he sold a sticky substance to pitchers to help with their grip on the baseball. (Jeff Gross / Getty Images)

The attorney for Brian “Bubba” Harkins, the long-time visiting clubhouse manager fired by the Angels in March 2020, asked Orange County’s 4th District Court of Appeals on Tuesday to reverse a Superior Court decision to dismiss Harkins’ defamation complaint against the club and Major League Baseball.

Daniel L. Rasmussen, who represents Harkins, and Adam Lauridsen, the attorney representing the Angels and MLB, exchanged oral arguments for 45 minutes before a three-justice panel, which has 90 days to render a decision.

“There’s no guarantee based on oral arguments which way they’re going to go, but I’m happy,” Rasmussen said after the hearing. “We clearly made our points. They’re going to decide what they’re going to decide, but we’ve done our best for Bubba.”

Harkins, 55, was dismissed for providing a blend of sticky substances to visiting pitchers to aid their grip of the ball. He filed suit on Aug. 28, 2020, claiming he was made a “public scapegoat” in baseball’s efforts to crack down on the use of foreign substances.

The complaint listed “defamation” and “false light” as causes of action against the Angels and MLB. Harkins, who spent nearly four decades with the team, claimed he was fired without warning, labeled a “traitor, cheater and a fraud” in the wake of news reports of his dismissal and is now unemployable.

Last January, Superior Court Judge Geoffrey Glass granted a motion by the Angels and MLB to dismiss the complaint, pointing out that the sources who confirmed the reasons for Harkins’ firing in initial news reports were anonymous, and that in defamation cases, a plaintiff must prove who exactly made the defamatory statements.

“Published statements do not support the allegation that MLB or the Angels authorized those statements,” Glass wrote in his ruling. “In order to hold an organization liable for defamation, the person saying the defamatory things must be authorized to speak on behalf of the organization.”

Lauridsen reiterated that point during Tuesday’s hearing.

“This is not a wrongful termination case — it’s an anti-defamation case and a false light case,” the attorney for the Angels and MLB said. “Because appellant had not shown a false and unprivileged statement that is attributable to and authorized by respondents, the trial court made the right decision.”

Harkins was fired by former Angels general manager Billy Eppler three days after MLB issued a memo to teams saying it would be enforcing a long-ignored policy forbidding the use of illegal substances to enhance a pitcher’s grip.

Hitters rarely complain about the use of such substances because a better grip usually means better control — and less chance of being hit in the head by a 97-mph fastball.

Though Harkins acknowledged he supplied his concoction of rosin and pine tar, known as “the sticky stuff,” to players — for the Angels and other teams for many years — he claims he did not personally apply the stuff to baseballs.

“But you can’t aid and abet rule violations if you’re employed by a club or MLB,” Lauridsen argued Tuesday. “And what Mr. Harkins was undisputedly doing was supplying a foreign substance to pitchers with the intent that they would apply it to deface the ball to gain greater control and a competitive advantage.”

Rasmussen argued during Tuesday’s hearing that Glass erred by “ignoring evidence that Bubba was scapegoated,” citing the fact that Harkins did not receive the illegal-substances memo — issued by then-MLB senior vice president and now Texas Rangers GM Chris Young — until the day he was fired.

“The memo was very clear — we haven’t enforced this in the past, we’re now going to enforce it in the future,” Rasmussen said. “So give a copy of this memo to your people and tell them they could be suspended. [The Angels] hand the memo to Bubba, but they don’t just suspend him, they fire him.

“What inference can be drawn from firing him? That we want to make an example of him. We need to tell everyone we’re serious about this, so sorry Bubba, your 38-year career is over. He had no knowledge of the memo. … I just ask that Bubba be given his chance to present this to a jury.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.