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Baseball law expert cites 'perverse irony'

When the Cardinals traded Curt Flood to the Phillies in 1969, the talented outfielder balked, arguing he should have some control over his destiny after 13 seasons as St. Louis property. He sued, claiming baseball's reserve clause permitted teams to hold or sell him like "a slave 100 years ago."

 

Flood's case gave great impetus to the Players Association, which was formed in 1966 and fought for the rights of players to determine where they wanted to play and on what terms. Even though Flood ultimately lost his case in the US Supreme Court, an arbitrator struck down the reserve clause in 1975 and created a new era of worker rights in the national pastime.

Nearly 29 years later, the game potentially faces another legal challenge, this one involving the Red Sox and Alex Rodriguez, baseball's highest-paid player. Another arbitrator soon may be asked to rule on how much power a player such as Rodriguez has to restructure his contract in order to play for a team that wants him -- and that he wants to play for -- after his own team, the Texas Rangers, has given him permission to leave.

"The perverse irony" of the looming showdown is that the Players Association would oppose Rodriguez, according to Paul Finkelman, the Chapman Distinguished Professor of Law at University of Tulsa College of Law.

The union yesterday blocked the restructuring agreement between Rodriguez and the Sox, citing a clause in the collective bargaining agreement that requires such a contract revision to provide an actual or potential benefit to the player.

"What we have here is the most odd thing of all," said Finkelman, a former fellow at Harvard Law School who teaches two courses in baseball law at Tulsa. "The whole origin of the union comes from a player's desire to play in the city where he wants to play as long as a team in that city wants him to play there. Now the union is coming along and saying [Rodriguez] is not getting enough to play where he wants to play. That seems to me to be outrageous on the part of the union."

The union, wary of Rodriguez opening the floodgates to other players renegotiating their contracts (at potentially reduced value) to play elsewhere, claimed the Sox and Rodriguez sought changes in the $179 balance of his contract over the next seven years that would take money out of Rodriguez's pocket to the team's advantage.

"It was clear it crossed the line . . . and by a huge margin," Orza said after meeting with Rodriguez, his agent, Scott Boras, and Sox general manager Theo Epstein.

In the union's view, the Sox sought a reduction in A-Rod's salary without a commensurate give-back. Orza said he made a counterproposal the Sox rejected, thereby killing the deal until a satisfactory proposal is presented to the Players Association.

The commissioner's office fired back, saying the union not only may have misinterpreted the collective bargaining agreement but may have overstepped its authority in blocking the deal. Major League Baseball could approve the restructuring agreement, prompting the union to file a grievance and send the case to an arbitrator.

"The basic agreement contains a rule that requires any special covenant to be an actual or potential benefit to the player," said Rob Manfred, executive vice president of labor relations & human resources for Major League Baseball. "In a situation like the current situation, where there was a restructuring where the player was getting something and the club was getting something, Gene Orza is not the final arbitrator on whether the restructuring provides an actual or potential benefit to the player. The commissioner currently is considering his legal options in consultation with the two teams."

Finkelman indicated the issue of "actual or potential benefit" could face a considerable challenge in arbitration. Rodriguez, for instance, could reap a number of intangible benefits by fulfilling his desire to play for the Sox rather than the Rangers.

"It strikes me that there may be a huge benefit in playing for the Red Sox when it means that you're playing every year for a real pennant contender," Finkelman said. "It's especially huge if the alternative is to rot in Arlington, Texas, for the rest of your life."

The Players Association appeared adamantly opposed, however, to allowing Rodriguez to accept anything that appeared less valuable than the initial 10-year, $252 million he negotiated.

"We cannot allow clubs to downwardly negotiate contracts," he said.

But Finkelman found the union's stance hard to fathom.

"My point is, if your player wants to move, in this case to Boston, it's bizarre that the union would say, `No, you can't,' " he said.

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