A Questionable Force Play
Tuesday, February 28, 2006
VIERA, Fla., Feb. 27 -- Although the standoff between the Washington Nationals and Alfonso Soriano over what position he will play is outwardly dormant for now, as player and team prepare for the season and hope that the issue resolves itself , both sides are quietly preparing for the possibility of a precedent-setting confrontation.
At issue is whether a team has the power to force a player to move to another position -- in this case, the Nationals want Soriano to move from second base to left field, and he has said he will not. Players are routinely asked to accept position changes they do not relish, but it is believed to be unprecedented in baseball for a player to refuse such a move when the team insists.
"I certainly don't mean to be insensitive to Alfonso Soriano," said Nationals President Tony Tavares, "but he is an employee who is subject to the control of the team's manager, under the terms of the contract he signed."
The Nationals say they believe the dispute -- which has haunted the team since the Dec. 7 trade that brought Soriano to Washington from the Texas Rangers -- will never reach the point of full-blown confrontation. In a meeting between team officials and Soriano and his agent last Thursday, the sides essentially agreed to put off a decision about how to proceed for almost a month. In the meantime, they have agreed not to discuss the issue publicly.
"It doesn't help to speculate," said Bob Boone, the Nationals' special assistant to the general manager. "We're trying to build a relationship here. What we don't want here is a T.O. situation." He was referring to Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens, who was suspended indefinitely by the team for "conduct detrimental to the team."
The Nationals believe the Soriano issue will never reach that point. While Soriano is away from the team for nearly three weeks, playing for his native Dominican Republic in the upcoming World Baseball Classic, team officials will have ample time to evaluate the surgically repaired right knee of incumbent second baseman Jose Vidro. If Vidro is injured, Soriano would move seamlessly into the second base job. And if they are healthy when Soriano returns from the WBC around March 21, the Nationals likely would pursue a trade of Soriano or Vidro.
However, both players' salaries -- Soriano makes $10 million this season, while Vidro makes $7 million, $7.5 million and $8.5 million over the next three seasons -- will make it difficult to trade either one, and team officials, while privately hoping Soriano changes his mind and accepts the move to left field, are also preparing for the possibility they may be forced to take a hard-line stance.
"We are not ones to back down," said one team official, who, like several other people interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Diego Bentz, Soriano's agent, declined to comment on the player's stance, saying, "I don't want to show all my cards."
Officials of the league office and the union are taking notice as well. Rob Manfred, Major League Baseball's executive vice president of labor relations, declined an interview request for this story. However, a management source familiar with the team's position said it is a simple issue of an employer's right to dictate the terms of work.
"The club, like every other employer, has the right to direct the work force," the source said. "If an employee refuses the direction, he is subject to discipline, including fines, suspension without pay and termination."
However, Gene Orza, the union's chief operating officer, argued that the issue is not so finely defined.
"Theoretically, the club would fine and suspend him," Orza said. "The player would argue that they can't force him to play where he doesn't want to play. . . . Since we're speaking hypothetically, what if they asked [Soriano] to be a pitcher? Could they force him to be a pitcher? It's not as simple as you're making it out to be."
In other cases when a player has refused a position switch, the team has usually backed down in the interest of maintaining the peace. That appeared to be the case this winter with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who wanted second baseman Jeff Kent to move to first base. When Kent resisted, the team acquired Nomar Garciaparra to play first.
Soriano's previous employers, the Rangers, at one point approached him about moving to the outfield last season, but did not pursue it when Soriano objected.
Nothing in baseball's Basic Agreement or in the Uniform Player's Contract spells out a player's obligation to play where the team wants him to play. In the standard contract, there is only a loyalty clause, saying, "The Player agrees to perform his services hereunder diligently and faithfully."
William B. Gould IV, former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board and now a law professor at Stanford University, said that in such a dispute, labor law favored the team.
"The player is under contract to the team and he has an obligation to perform services for the team," Gould said. "If he refuses to perform, then I think he has violated his contract and the team has no obligation to pay him."
There is precedent for a team docking a player's salary for refusing to play. Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden recalled a situation as GM of the Cincinnati Reds in 1993 in which outfielder Kevin Mitchell refused to play; Bowden declined to reveal Mitchell's reasons.
"We docked him a day's pay for every day he missed," Bowden said. "It ended up being three or four days."
The Basic Agreement does provide for a grievance process in the event the team takes punitive action, and Soriano, with the union's assistance, almost certainly would file a grievance. The grievance would be a heard by either a single arbitrator or a three-person panel of arbitrators.
Boone, who was part of the Nationals' contingent during the meeting with Soriano and Bentz on Thursday, was a high-ranking union leader in the 1980s, a decade that witnessed two contentious strikes. According to a person present at Thursday's meeting, at one point Boone said sternly to Soriano that the difficult labor fights of that era were never intended to help a player refuse to move to another position.
"We fought for important rights. We went on strike for important rights," Boone said. "But nothing was ever said a player getting to decide where he plays. I respect Alfonso Soriano's plight. But I also respect [Manager] Frank Robinson and Jim Bowden's plight. And I also have to respect the talent of Jose Vidro. . . .
"There are plenty of ways this could end. There is a best-case and a worst-case scenario, but I don't think anyone wants to see the worst-case."