MLB crackdown on foreign substances could revive Bubba Harkins' case, his attorney says

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ANAHEIM, CA - APRIL 1, 2021: Fans line up to enter Angel Stadium for the Angels home opener.
Fans line up to enter Angel Stadium for the Angels home opener against the Chicago White Sox on April 1. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The attorney for a former Angels employee who was fired for providing a blend of sticky substances to pitchers to aid their grip of the baseball believes the sport’s renewed emphasis and impending crackdown on the use of foreign substances could boost his client’s case against the team and Major League Baseball.

“Only a jury would know for sure, but it certainly makes clear what the history is, that the use of pine tar and related substances is now pretty openly discussed,” Daniel L. Rasmussen, the attorney representing Brian “Bubba” Harkins, said Monday. “That’s the new wrinkle that I think will help us.”

Harkins, 55, spent nearly four decades with the Angels and was the visiting clubhouse manager when he was fired on March 3, 2020.

He filed a defamation suit against the team and MLB last Aug. 28, claiming he was made a “public scapegoat” in baseball’s efforts to enforce a long-ignored policy forbidding the use of illegal substances by pitchers.

Harkins submitted evidence in court filings that numerous Angels, including Troy Percival and Brendan Donnelly, and star pitchers such as Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber and Adam Wainright, used his concoction of rosin and pine tar, known as “the sticky stuff,” over the last two decades.

Percival, the Angels closer from 1995 to 2004, told The Times that he taught Harkins how to make the mixture in spring training “mostly because it was so dry in Arizona and the balls were so slick out there.” Though Harkins acknowledged supplying the substances, he claims he did not personally apply them to baseballs.

Rasmussen planned to seek at least $4 million in damages if the case went to trial, but an Orange County Superior Court judge in January granted a motion by the Angels and MLB to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that Harkins could not identify who specifically defamed him.

“Essentially what is claimed to be unfair is that Mr. Harkins was punished for it when others were not and that he should not have been fired for it,” Judge Geoffrey Glass wrote in his ruling. “That may be a basis for an employment action, but not for defamation.”

Rasmussen filed the opening brief of an appeal with the Fourth Appellate Court in Santa Ana last week, the start of a lengthy process that the attorney hopes will lead to a three-justice appellate panel overturning Glass’ ruling and sending the case back to a lower court for trial.

Meanwhile, the use of foreign substances by pitchers — especially those looking to boost spin rates, not just improve grip — has erupted into a full-blown controversy this season. The league has spent 2 ½ months collecting game-used balls for examination and analyzing spin rates, and reportedly has informed clubs it will begin to crack down on the use of foreign substances by next week.

Any proof that the use of foreign substances has been a widespread, accepted and unpunished practice for years could strengthen the case of Harkins, the first — and only — MLB employee who has lost his job amid MLB’s crackdown on pitch-doctoring.

“I think it’s definitely brought everything into a fine focus, because a year and half ago, people didn’t really know what the issue was,” Rasmussen said. “There’s no doubt about the fact that MLB can’t escape the publicity that’s going on with the pitchers.”

In his first public comments since he was fired, Harkins — in a story published Monday on Sports Illustrated’s website — said: “If they did an investigation and only found me, it’s a pretty bad investigation.”

Rasmussen said Harkins has been unable to find another job.

“Bubba has his good days and his bad days,” Rasmussen said. “It’s kind of a tough situation.”

Making matters worse, a judge in April ordered Harkins to pay $35,000 of the nearly $160,000 the Angels and MLB accrued in attorneys’ fees, the cost of losing a civil case.

“Bubba doesn’t even have the $35,000 that the judge ordered, so I guess we’ll see if they want to force him to bankruptcy next,” Rasmussen said. “He’s been unemployed for over a year, living on unemployment. The only way out is filing for bankruptcy … or winning an appeal.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.