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Union proves mighty foe

Parties unlikely to mount challenge

Unless the Red Sox were staging a mighty slick bluff, their effort to trade Manny Ramirez for Alex Rodriguez last night had all but received last rites. And no one -- not the Sox, Rangers, Rodriguez, or Major League Baseball -- appeared poised to wage a legal challenge against the Players Association for thwarting a deal that everyone involved but the union welcomed.

 

Commissioner Bud Selig could have forced the union's hand by approving the deal and clearing the way for a court case. But he evidently had little appetite for the fight or the public relations firestorm it could ignite. Not only have baseball owners historically fared poorly in legal battles with the union, but the prospect of Selig appearing as if he were aiding the Sox in trying to land Rodriguez almost certainly would have prompted Yankee boss George Steinbrenner to cry foul and further escalate the ill will surrounding the game's greatest rivalry.

Selig opted instead to withdraw his special permission for the Sox and Rodriguez to negotiate. He left it to MLB president Bob DuPuy to cite the Players Association's action as "unfortunate" and to MLB's top labor lawyer, Rob Manfred, to investigate possible legal action.

"I have been directed to look very hard at that issue," Manfred said.

But MLB, even in the unlikely event it proceeded, could face a key procedural problem since Rodriguez never signed a document revising his contract. Without a consummated deal, it would be difficult to show that he -- or any other person or entity -- was deprived of a right.

However, the fundamental issue of Rodriguez's attempt to join the Sox struck Manfred's former professor at Harvard Law School, Paul Weiler, as the basis for a potentially promising case.

"I definitely empathize with the union's general view that they do not want to have individuals negotiating cuts in their salaries," said Weiler, who specializes in labor law and sports law and has written two books about baseball and the law. "But I don't see why the union can tell a player he can't make decisions to improve his life unless he makes at least the same pay or more."

Rodriguez agreed, in separate proposals, to cut either $12 million or $28 million off the $179 balance of his contract in return for a substantial signing bonus as well as enhanced marketing opportunities that all parties but the Players Association believed would satisfy a provision in the basic agreement between players and owners. The provision states that no changes can be made to a contract unless they "actually or potentially provide additional benefits to the player."

The Players Association, inspiring the wrath of the Sox, concluded Rodriguez's proposed revisions of his record 10-year, $252 million pact with the Rangers reduced its overall value and, if the changes were permitted, would set a dangerous precedent that could prompt other players to accept less than they initially bargained for in their guaranteed contracts.

If the Sox want Rodriguez, the union insisted, they should take his contract intact.

"What the Red Sox can do is say, `We love Alex Rodriguez just the way he is, unconditionally,' as opposed to what they're trying to suggest, that `we love him but somehow the union doesn't,' " said Gene Orza, the associate general counsel of the Players Association who handled the matter. "They love him at the price they want to pay for him, which is substantially below the price he commands right now."

At face value, it could be difficult to argue that Rodriguez would gain additional financial benefits by trimming millions of dollars from his contract in exchange for the signing bonus and marketing opportunities of undetermined -- though potentially immense -- worth. But Weiler was eager to make the argument.

"Alex Rodriguez would come here and definitely be the star figure, especially if the Red Sox won the World Series 100 years after they won the very first World Series," he said. "He would become such a national celebrity that he would be able to sell his endorsement rights for a huge amount of money that would dwarf whatever he is giving up to come to the Red Sox."

The Sox, however, insisted they wanted nothing more to do with the matter. Team president Larry Lucchino declared the proposed trade "dead" and assailed the union for killing it.

"The Players Association's intransigence and the arbitrary nature of its action are responsible for the deal's demise today," Lucchino said.

Rodriguez also had no interest in taking on the Players Association. As one of the game's premier players, he generally has been faithful to the union's cause. Orza has long been supportive of Rodriguez and keeps a picture of the American League MVP on his office wall.

"A-Rod's right to have individual negotiations does not come from his status as an American citizen or as a human being," Orza said. "It comes from all the other players. When you belong to a union, you don't have the right to have individual negotiations. It is given to the union, basically, which has exclusive jurisdiction over your work conditions. The theory of unions is, of course, while you give up the right to individual negotiations, you more than make up for it by joining forces with other employees collectively."

In this case, Rodriguez got nowhere.

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