Major League Baseball is in the middle of a “golden era,” commissioner Bud Selig said during this year’s All-Star Break, and he wasn’t wrong. Baseball is nearly two decades free of labor strife, its teams are financially healthy, its revenue is growing, and the good news keeps rolling in: the first two days of Division Series playoffs have seen a 16 percent television ratings increase, aided by the return of long-gone teams, compelling stories and players, and the feeling that any team can compete even if it doesn’t spend money like it has its own printer.
Baseball’s future seems bright, and it may turn out to be if Selig’s fight with New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez doesn’t bring it all crashing down first.
That fight started with Selig’s efforts to get rid of Rodriguez altogether before settling on an unprecedented 211-game suspension for the latter’s association with Biogenesis, the Miami anti-aging clinic that allegedly supplied Rodriguez with performance enhancing drugs. It took another ugly turn when Rodriguez sued Major League Baseball Thursday, arguing that MLB violated the collective bargaining agreement in suspending him above and beyond the punishments outlined in the Joint Drug Agreement while also improperly collecting evidence against him by purchasing records, paying witnesses, and filing a “sham” lawsuit against Biogenesis. It all amounts to a “witch hunt” meant to drive Rodriguez out of the game, the Yankee third baseman’s complaint stated.
Rodriguez accused MLB of “tortious interference,” essentially saying it knowingly, willingly, and improperly interfered with his existing contractual and business relationships. Though tortious interference cases are hard to predict, Rodriguez will likely have to prove that MLB’s investigation was both proper and motivated by a desire to get him out of the game, according to Columbia University law professor Avery W. Katz. And if his damning allegations against MLB are true, Katz said, “that would make out a (legitimate) claim.”
It is possible, though, that Rodriguez won’t get that far. Major League Baseball “vehemently den(ied)” the allegations Friday, adding that Rodriguez shouldn’t have the right to take his fight to the legal system because he is covered by a collective bargaining agreement that outlines a grievance process. And it may be right, sports law attorney Paul D. Anderson said. Whether state courts can rule on cases involving collective bargaining agreements and federal labor law is a “tricky issue,” Anderson said, as the Supreme Court has interpreted similar cases “quite broadly to basically say that any time a court has to interpret the terms of a CBA, state law cases are preempted. And it seems like it will be nearly impossible for a court to resolve A-Rod’s claims without having to interpret the CBA.” That’s baseball’s argument, which Rodriguez will counter by saying MLB’s actions were so egregious that he deserves to pursue the suit as a common citizen.
In reality, the outcome of the case is irrelevant for now, because it’s only another salvo in a war that shouldn’t be happening, and the damage Selig’s actions could do to baseball don’t depend on it. Selig’s chosen suspension pretty clearly goes above and beyond the terms of the collectively-bargained Joint Drug Agreement (though he does have some latitude in cases of “non-analytic positives” like Rodriguez’s), sparking a war between the league and the Major League Players Association that could have far-reaching affects on the future of the game. The current fighting is as much about the value of collective bargaining as it is about Alex Rodriguez, and there’s a chance it could threaten baseball’s unprecedented era of labor peace. If it does that, a move meant to bolster Selig’s legacy could mar the game instead, all because the commissioner had seemingly no foresight or regard for those potential implications when he first leveled the suspension.
Selig should have seen this fight coming, because it is a fight he invited. He picked on a player who looked like an easy target but also had nothing to lose, and he did so in a way — by sidestepping the collectively-bargained drug agreement — that left the union no choice but to intercede as well, not because anyone wants to defend Rodriguez but because Selig’s actions made it not just about A-Rod but about collective bargaining itself. If baseball’s commissioner can set aside the drug agreement and the CBA to make an example out of Rodriguez, why couldn’t he disregard collectively bargained agreements in the future? What, the union could argue, would be the value of bargaining at all?
That’s an important question, because collective bargaining and the league’s respect (or at least tolerance) of it has had major impacts on baseball over the last two decades, and maintaining the bargaining process and the league’s respect/tolerance for it is essential both to preserving players’ rights and continuing baseball’s era of prosperity. It was the bargaining process that helped players stave off owners’ overreach in 1994, when they walked off the field to show owners they took their rights seriously. The result was a two-decade long (and counting) period of labor peace, during which baseball has prospered so fully for both sides that neither has considered disrupting it during past CBA negotiations (MLB was the only of the four major sports to agree on its most recent CBA without a work stoppage). It was that bargaining process that allowed for the development of a drug testing program, flawed as it may be, that both sides deemed fair in the wake of the Steroid Era. The only thing that could bring this stretch of bargaining success to an end is another overreach that fosters enough distrust to make one side question the other’s faith in the process, which will come into focus again when the current agreement ends after the 2016 season.
It’s possible that’s exactly what Selig has done by overreaching on the drug agreement in the most prominent PED case since drug testing and suspensions began.
Not that Rodriguez is a saint. if guilty of the Biogenesis crimes, he is a fraud and a cheat, a player not much liked by many of his fellow competitors and who most fans would just as soon see go away. It’s not even clear that he understands the significance of the fight he’s in, given that the New York Times reported Saturday that Rodriguez sent a letter to the union accusing it of inadequately defending him during the investigation and asking it to step aside during the arbitration hearing (it did not). The union, Rodriguez doesn’t seem to realize, is his most powerful and perhaps his only ally. Rodriguez also doesn’t realize — or just plain doesn’t care — that this fight is about the preservation of all players’ rights more than it is about a victory for one Alex Rodriguez. And while he has every right to pursue legal action against MLB, the timing of his filing makes it seem like a leverage move aimed at the arbitration hearing, as well as more evidence that Rodriguez would prefer to go at this alone, a move that isn’t in anyone’s interest but his.
As objectionable as Rodriguez may be, though, he’s only the fight’s (unfortunate) face. The commissioner is still the villain here, the one who could have suspended Rodriguez within the stated bounds of the agreement rather than trying to toss him out of the game. He’s the one who decided not to do that, fearing that it giving Rodriguez a 50-game suspension would look soft. He’s the one who started a fight with a player who was willing to fight back, the one who started that fight in a way that ensured that the union would fight back too. And the result could be disastrous. At best, we’re talking about drugs again when we should be talking about the compelling stories and characters happening on the field. Worse, it could make it harder to improve baseball’s drug testing system through the negotiating process, if either side is even committed to doing that now. Worst, the effects of this fight could linger until 2016, when both sides will have to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement. It’s possible this could make those negotiations harder than they should have been, that it could make baseball’s 20 years of labor peace harder to continue.
It’s already hard to see how all of this fighting will result in anything positive — for Selig’s legacy, for players, or for the game of baseball. Alex Rodriguez, we may find out, was a rampant cheater who needed to be punished. But there was a process for that, and Selig did his best to get around it. So if all this fighting somehow hurts or ends baseball’s “golden era,” it will be Bud Selig’s fault.