City, Rawhide pitch opening statements to judge

(Rigo Moran)

Team president Sam Sigal is the only person to testify in court as judge will decide if the City of Visalia or the Visalia Rawhide is responsible for millions in improvements being mandated by MLB

VISALIA – The city of Visalia and the Visalia Rawhide delivered their opening pitches in court last week about who should pay for millions in player safety improvements being mandated by Major League Baseball.

The trial between the city, which owns Valley Strong Ballpark, and the team’s ownership, which leases the stadium from the city, began on Oct. 16 at the Tulare County Courthouse in Visalia. Day 1 of essentially a two-day trial began with Judge David Mathias laying out what evidence will be admitted in the case centered around competing sections of the lease agreement between the landlord and tenant signed on Jan. 1, 2020.

“(This case) is heavily based on interpretation of this contract,” Judge Mathias said in court transcripts of that day in court.

Of particular significance to Judge Mathias was the “Sole and Only Agreement” section of the lease. The section reiterates the lease contract is the only document that “correctly sets forth the obligations of Lessor and Lessee to each other as of the Effective Date” and that “any other matter” not discussed in the lease are “null and void.”

The central question for the judge was whether the clause precludes him from allowing previous versions of the lease to clarify the intent of both parties before the final lease was signed. That situation was complicated by the fact that the representatives who negotiated the lease – Mario Cifuentez and Bob Link for the city, and Tom Seidler for the team – are no longer with those organizations.

The city filed the lawsuit against the Rawhide on Dec. 21, 2022, claiming it was only responsible for up to $200,000 per year toward any facility improvements the team wanted to make under one section of the lease. First Pitch Entertainment, LLC (FPE), the Rawhide’s ownership group, claims the cap is only for fan renovations and discretionary items.

It goes on to contend the city is responsible for all costs to maintain a stadium in compliance with Major League Baseball standards and rules under a different section of the lease.

Representing the city was Leonard Herr and Ron Statler, of Herr Pedersen & Berglund LLP. Herr made the case, on behalf of the city, that previous versions of the contract lease should not be admitted as evidence because they are not contained within the current contract being debated. He also argued the city could not have anticipated the changes in rules regarding professional baseball stadiums because Major League Baseball took over operations of Minor League Baseball after the contract was signed.

“The agreement that was in place to run Minor League Baseball with an entity …. that entity went away,” Herr argued. “The Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) ceased to exist. So the whole context under which … the lease was created, changed.”

Approaching the bench for First Pitch Entertainment, LLC, the Rawhide’s ownership group, was Todd Wynkoop and Ella Moberg of McCormick Barstow LLP. Wynkoop argued the previous versions of the lease and what was negotiated into and out of the final version, provide intent on where the city and the team emphasized changes in the language of the contract.

“The negotiations show you that they added the language about what happens if the PBA expires because everybody was aware of these risks that Mr. Herr pretends didn’t exist and (pretends) nobody knew about it,” Wynkoop said.

The judge agreed to allow previous drafts of the lease as evidence to show the intentions of both parties if the court is unable to rule on just the contract itself.

Sole Witness

Day 2 of the trial on Oct. 18 began with opening statements from both parties. Herr said the city “had an idea of what needed to be improved” at the stadium at the time the lease was signed, but after Major League Baseball handed down a new Player Development Agreement (PDL), it “significantly changed everything that was required under the lease.”

In her opening statement, Moberg argued the city was aware of the changes in professional baseball, including the expiration of the current PBA and the risk of facility standards being changed by MLB at the time it signed the current lease.

“Each party allocated and understood these risks when signing the lease,” Moberg said. “In doing so, the evidence will show that the City agreed to provide a stadium, its own stadium, compliant with MLB facility standards and to undertake the necessary renovations to ensure its stadium compliance facility standards during the term of the lease.”

One piece of evidence was an email between the then city manager Randy Groom and the Sigals prior to the signing of the lease. Wynkoop pointed out that, “The email says we are going to have to sign a 10-year term with the lease … with Major League Baseball. It says there are going to be new compliance standards and we’re going to have to see what those are,” he paraphrased for the judge.

Team president Sam Sigal was the only person to testify in court. Sigal said FPE signed a player development license (PDL) agreement with MLB in February 2021. Prior to signing that document, Sigal testified he had provided a copy of the facilities standards section of the agreement to the city in October 2020. In January 2021, Sigal said an FPE employee emailed the city about the latest updates to the facility standards in the upcoming new rules. The final version of those rules were signed by FPE owner Elliott Sigal in February 2021.

While Sam Sigal was the only witness to testify in person, the court did allow several depositions to be admitted as evidence, including his father, Elliott Sigal, owner of First Pitch Entertainment, and Christopher Brumm, deputy counsel who oversees legal operations of Minor League Baseball for MLB. Brum was in the room when the Sigals went to New York to discuss changes to facility standards prior to signing its new Player Development License (PDL) agreement in February 2021. He was not required to appear in person for the case because he lives more than 150 miles from the courthouse. Wynkoop also made it clear that Brumm’s deposition was purely to clarify technical aspects of Major League Baseball and not to provide any opinions on behalf of MLB.

The two sides will next file briefs on Nov. 15 and then respond to each other’s briefs on Nov. 22. Both sides will present their closing arguments to the judge on Nov. 29 in Department 1 of the Visalia branch of Tulare County Superior Court.

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