Toronto Blue Jays slugger Ryan “Rowdy” Tellez and first base coach Mark Budzinski are accused of leaving a pair of Toronto landlords on the hook for thousands of dollars in unpaid rents after signing leases for downtown Toronto condos.
Both men say since the COVID-19 pandemic has suspended the Major League Baseball season and because they’re currently living in the U.S., they shouldn’t have to pay their rent in Toronto.
Tellez, who was paid an $850,000 US signing bonus when he was drafted by the Blue Jays in 2013, and has made hundreds of thousands more playing pro baseball, hasn’t paid his $4,100 monthly rent payment since March, said his landlord Linda Pinizzotto.
“I feel I’m being disrespected. I rented out my place to him in good faith,” she said.
Pinizzotto showed CBC News the lease which indicates Tellez in January signed the contract for the furnished two bedroom condo in a building on Blue Jays Way — steps from the Rogers Centre where the team normally plays.
The lease kicked in on March 24, 2020. But Pinizzotto said after paying first and last month’s rent, Tellez hasn’t made any other payments.
“I could easily have put it on the long-term rental market. I didn’t do that. I gave it to him for six months in good faith because he’s with the Jays and the trust level that goes with that.”
Losses add up
As it stands, Tellez isn’t using the Toronto condo. The Canada-U.S. border has been closed for non-essential travel since March.
Tellez, through his Florida lawyer, told Pinizzotto the lease isn’t legally binding anymore.
“A basic assumption under which the lease was entered into was that there would be a baseball season and that Mr. Tellez would play for the Toronto Blue Jays,” wrote Michelle Austin Pamies, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer.
A provision in the contract appears to show that if Tellez was traded or sent down to the minor leagues in another city, either his new team would make the rent payments, or if a suitable replacement tenant could be found, Pinizzotto could lease the condo out to someone else.
Pinizzotto said Tellez has neither been traded, nor sent down to the minors.
She said her losses continue to pile up.
“He’s obligated to pay his rent; I still have to pay the mortgage and the taxes and the maintenance fees and so on. And on top of that I have the wifi, the cable and the hydro.”
‘Your client left in the cloak of darkness’
Pinizzotto has hired Toronto lawyer John Bianchi to recoup the lost rent.
“The use of COVID as an excuse for nonpayment or nonperformance may be permitted for ‘Joe Public’ who works in the trenches, but not for your client, who makes $555,000.00 or more a year, lives a privileged life and works for a multimillion dollar sports organization,” Bianchi wrote to Tellez’s counsel in an April email.
“Your client left in the cloak of darkness without notifying my client.”
Pinizzotto said she’s been unable to contact Tellez directly to discuss the situation.
The first baseman, through his lawyer, did not respond to questions from CBC News.
While Pinizzotto acknowledges Tellez is the person who signed the lease, she wrote a lengthy, 10-page letter to Blue Jays President Mark Shapiro in April, hoping the team might address the situation.
“Take control of your out of country players and coaches to ensure they respect the playing field outside of the Rogers Centre, especially with local landlords and other citizens of our fine city,” she wrote.
She said an official with the team called her back, but the unpaid rents remain unresolved.
The Blue Jays organization did not respond to questions from CBC News.
Pinizzotto said she’s now going to sell the condo, in part due to the rent arrears.
As a 40-year veteran in the real estate industry, including founding the Condominium Owners Association, Pinizzotto said it won’t be easy finding a buyer during the pandemic, especially when the market is flooded with other condos for sale.
Complicating matters, she said any potential buyer will legally be obliged to honour Tellez’s existing lease until it runs out at the end of September, even if the lease is in arrears.
“Who’s going to buy a condo where there’s a non paying tenant attached to the property?” asks Pinizzotto.
First base coach Mark Budzinski
Pinizzotto’s husband agreed to rent his condo on Wellington St. West to the Blue Jays’ first base coach Mark Budzinski in January.
The former pro baseball player signed a six month lease for the furnished one bedroom condo, plus den at a cost of $3,100 a month.
Budzinski’s lease for the suite which overlooks the Rogers Centre was set to kick in March 24.
“I decided to do this purely on the assumption ‘hey, he’s a Blue Jay.’ I was excited,” said landlord Derrick Thomas.
Thomas said the coach paid first and last month’s rent in March, and made his April rent payment as well.
“I thought it was going great. First and last months were paid without an issue. And even in April, he contacted me with regards to paying.”
But a few days later, Thomas said he got a letter from his tenant’s paralegal asking for all his rent money back.
Thomas calculates the refund would amount to $9,300 plus the loss of the monthly rent for the remainder of the lease.
“That really rubs me the wrong way,” said Thomas.
Budzinski is now taking Thomas to Ontario’s Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB).
It handles disputes between landlords and their tenants.
Budzinski is asking an adjudicator to cancel his lease as well as ordering the rent refund.
“As you know there has been an extreme change in circumstances due to COVID-19 and my client indeed is unable to legally enter Canada and to my understanding has not even had the opportunity to pick up his keys,” Toronto paralegal Jeffrey Shabes wrote to Thomas in an April 30 email reviewed by CBC News.
In his application to the LTB, Shabes said Budzinski’s lease contract has been “frustrated.”
It’s a legal term suggesting the condo can’t be accessed or used due to the pandemic and a shuttered Canadian border.
The Jays’ first base coach, through Shabes, declined to be interviewed about the situation.
“An application was filed at the Landlord and Tenant Board on behalf of my client and has been scheduled for later this month. My client will of course respect any decision made by the Board,” wrote Shabes in a statement to CBC News.
Leases legally binding contracts in Ontario: lawyer
Blair Drummie, a Toronto real estate lawyer, said as it stands both Tellez and Budzinski should be honouring their leases.
“They’ve signed a legally binding contract and unless there’s something that says a pandemic allows us out the contract, they’re likely out of luck,” he said.
Drummie said Budzinski may have a tall hill to climb to claim COVID-19 has legally frustrated the rental contract. Usually the rented property in question would have to be unliveable to cancel a lease, he said.
“If there was a hurricane, a tidal wave or the house burned down, then for sure the contract is frustrated.”
An adjudicator or judge will have to determine if COVID-19 is reason enough to cancel a lease.
“The legally responsible thing for them to do is sublease to someone else and continue to pay rent until a new tenant is found,” Drummie said of the two Jays employees.
“They have a legal responsibility to the landlord to pay rent.”
MLB season on pause
The MLB season was paused March 12 when the league suspended spring training and delayed the start of the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Both the league and the players association are still trying to work out when and if a season should resume and how much of their salaries players would be paid during a shortened season.
Meanwhile, players like Tellez, who aren’t guaranteed a spot on their major league team’s roster, are being paid anywhere from $500 to $1,000 a day instead of their full major league salaries.
Tellez is listed as having a 2020 salary of $550,000 US.
It’s unclear how much Budzinski earns. He’s a realtor in Virginia during the off season.
The team has asked many staff to take a 10 per cent pay cut while the baseball season remains in limbo.