Baseball season doesn't commence for months.
But starting today in an Erie County Common Pleas courtroom, lawyers will be throwing their best legal fastballs.
Vermilion High graduate and current Oklahoma State University pitcher Andy Oliver is suing the NCAA for damages and to have his eligibility restored. Oliver's lawyer also will challenge the NCAA rules that outlaw agents. The trial starts today.
Oklahoma State was ordered Dec. 12 by Judge Tygh Tone to be included as a defendant in the case. But Oklahoma State filed a motion to be dismissed from the case, and it was granted Friday, according to court documents.
The case has drawn interest from sportswriters across the country, Tone said, and even the New York Times has written about it. So intense was media interest in the case that Tone issued a gag order that was not lifted until the middle of December.
Oliver, a 21-year-old left-hander, was 7-2 with a 2.20 earned run average for Oklahoma State in 2008. He is blessed with ability that causes Major League scouts to dream of Cy Young awards and World Series rings, while agents dream of big paydays.
But his attorney, Richard Johnson, claims that could all be in jeopardy.
Oliver was suspended by the NCAA and Oklahoma State in May, just hours before he was to pitch for the Cowboys in an NCAA tournament game.
Oliver was suspended because in June 2006, after being drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the 17th round, advisers he hired listened in on contract negotiations, which is against NCAA rules.
Under NCAA rules a player can hire an adviser. The adviser can help them through a contract negotiation, but cannot have direct contact with a team.
Johnson, who is based out of Cleveland, argues that Oliver's advisers at the time -- lawyers Tim and Robert M. Baratta -- were ethically bound to negotiate on behalf of their client. For the Barattas not to negotiate on Oliver's behalf would have opened them up to malpractice, Johnson said.
"The Barattas are lawyers. They were hired specifically because they were lawyer advisers. They bragged about that. Andy is in trouble with the NCAA for two things. One, that his lawyers talked to the Minnesota Twins over the phone, and his lawyer was present in his home when the Minnesota Twins made an offer," Johnson said.
Oliver ultimately turned down the Twins' contract offer for $390,000 and decided to go to Oklahoma State.
But the Barattas should have listened to that offer made by the Twins, Johnson argues.
"A lawyer in Ohio would be required ... to negotiate a contract for an 18-year-old young man. If a lawyer didn't do that, he would be guilty of what is called abandoning the client. No 18-year-old would be competent to negotiate a contract with the Minnesota Twins. Period," Johnson said.
Johnson used that argument earlier this year in Erie County Common Pleas Court and was granted a temporary restraining order by Tone, allowing Oliver to return to the Oklahoma State baseball team for 28 days.
Since then Oklahoma State filed for Oliver's reinstatement with the NCAA, and the NCAA ruled that Oliver can return to the baseball team in 2009, but must sit out 70 percent of the season.
How it all happened
The irony is that the lawyers Oliver hired to keep him eligible with the NCAA ultimately cost him is eligibility. That is because the Barattas turned Oliver in to the NCAA.
In March 2008, Oliver decided to drop the Barattas as his advisers and signed on with baseball agent Scott Boras and the Boras Corp. Boras is the Babe Ruth of baseball agents. He represents some of the biggest names in Major League baseball.
The Barattas, after being fired, sent Oliver an invoice for $113,750. Oliver, who signed with the Barattas in early 2006, was under the impression he did not have to pay the Barattas for services unless they represented him in a contract negotiation, and then he would pay them a 3-percent fee, as well as 25 percent of any endorsement deals.
Frustrated when Oliver did not pay, the Barattas fired off a letter to NCAA on May 19 informing the NCAA they believed Oliver had violated NCAA rules by asking the Barattas for baseball gloves and other equipment and to "help him out." The letter also claimed Oliver informed the Barattas that Boras Corp. had offered Oliver equipment and coaching "to induce him to switch his representation."
The NCAA and Oklahoma State conducted their own investigations and discovered the Barattas were present during the 2006 negotiations with the Twins. During the investigation, the NCAA learned that Boras never offered Oliver anything of value to switch representation.
Both the NCAA and Oklahoma State decided to suspend Oliver hours before he was to pitch for the Cowboys against Wichita State in the regional tournament.
During a phone interview Johnson shed light on the adviser/agent question regarding NCAA baseball players.
According to Johnson, highly touted college baseball players regularly retain advisers. These advisers are all typically agents as well, Johnson said. The player signs on with the adviser, and when he turns pro, the adviser becomes an agent and negotiates the contract for the player.
"All the agents out there operate as sports advisers for players who are in college or high school. Every sports adviser is an agent when you flip the coin. The kids are inventory for these sports advisers, and what they hope is when the kids go pro, they'll stay with their adviser who then becomes their agent. All this is a bunch of glad handing," Johnson said. "The kids are mesmerized by the idea that someone is interested in them."
Advisers for highly touted high school or college baseball prospects are "status symbols" for the players, Johnson said. "It's kind of showing off. Someone thinks you are good."
Oliver signed on with the Barattas, Johnson said, because they touted themselves as lawyers who knew the ins and outs of NCAA rules and would not jeopardize Oliver's eligibility.
Oliver eventually sued the Barattas in federal court. The case was dismissed after the two sides reached an out-of-court settlement, Johnson said.
Oliver is the loser in all this, Johnson said. Oliver never accepted any money from an agent and never broke any laws. However, his college baseball career is in jeopardy.
"Most of these kids that get caught have done something wrong. By wrong, I mean they are driving Corvettes around campus, they've got jewelry dripping off them ... there is all this misconduct that nobody really has patience for, and everyone's saying you deserve to have your ass handed to you," Johnson said.
But that was not the case with Oliver, Johnson said.
"He attempted to comply with their rules by hiring a lawyer who guaranteed he would comply with the rules," Johnson said.
If Oliver is not reinstated to the Oklahoma State baseball team for the upcoming season, Johnson claims, it could hurt his draft status. Oliver is being touted as a first-round pick in the upcoming June 2009 Major League Draft. However, Johnson has an expert who will testify in the trial that if Oliver does not play he will drop in the draft, which could impact how much money he'll be offered when it comes time to sign a contract, as well as his chances of making it to the Major Leagues.
"We have a $10 million damage report on that ... that's his loss of wages if his eligibility is not restored," Johnson said.
Andy Oliver file
* 2006 graduate of Vermilion High
* Went 6-2 for Oklahoma State in 2008 with a 2.20 earned run average
* Son of Dave and Marilyn Oliver ... enjoys playing golf ... favorite athlete is Roger Clemens
Courtesy: Oklahoma State University