Soriano's Refusal Could Be 'Landmark Case'
Wednesday, March 22, 2006
VIERA, Fla., March 21 -- There was no game for the Washington Nationals on Tuesday, no lineup card to fill out, no position to which their star player wouldn't report. But even in the quiet at Space Coast Stadium, where the Nationals hold spring training, the rumbling could be heard, and everyone in the organization -- and in all of baseball -- was waiting for Wednesday, when Alfonso Soriano will either take his assigned position in left field, or he won't.
If he refuses, as he did Monday night, baseball executives and legal experts say the team and the player could be headed to a seminal moment in labor relations for sports.
"I think it is a landmark case," said William B. Gould IV, former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board who is now a law professor at Stanford University. "I can't recall anything in a major sport where a player has refused outright to perform his assigned job in this manner. . . . It has implications not just in baseball. It has implications for all professional sports."
With the Nationals off for the first time this spring, Soriano, a veteran second baseman acquired in an offseason trade with the Texas Rangers, did not report to the ballpark Tuesday, when only a few players trickled through.
Soriano told MLB.com that he would decide on Wednesday whether he will play second based on conversations with his wife and his agent, Diego Bentz. "I'm going to think about it," Soriano told the Web site. Jim Bowden, the team's general manager, said via e-mail that he spoke to Bentz, but declined to elaborate on the discussion. Two club sources with knowledge of the situation said Bowden and Bentz were scheduled to speak again late Tuesday night, but that no agreement was expected.
Bentz did not return several phone messages. One high-ranking official with knowledge of the situation said, "It's going to play out [Wednesday] on the field." Two other high-ranking club officials said they were relatively optimistic Soriano would play in left on Wednesday. There were, however, caveats. "We won't know until we see who goes out there," one of the officials said.
The club's position has not changed. The Nationals intend to write Soriano's name in the lineup as the left fielder for Wednesday's game against the St. Louis Cardinals in Jupiter, Fla. Should he not report for duty -- and there's a chance he won't even make the trip -- the Nationals would then attempt to put him on baseball's "disqualified list," which would mean he would not earn any pay.
The buzz around baseball, then, was whether Soriano would be traded. Bowden said explicitly Monday that the Nationals were not prepared to take a package in return that they didn't feel is fair value for Soriano. Nationals President Tony Tavares reiterated that stance Tuesday, saying the team will not respond to clubs that feel Washington might be willing to unload Soriano cheaply because of the conflict.
"We're not taking this position in an effort to trade him," Tavares said by phone. "We're taking this position because it's right."
How Soriano's refusal to play the outfield will affect his trade value is unclear, but even before Monday night -- when Soriano returned from the World Baseball Classic, found his name in the lineup, yet left the ballpark without taking the field after refusing to play -- the Nationals couldn't find a taker. The Nationals even invited Bentz to help broker a deal, with no luck. Washington wants a proven power hitter, such as Cincinnati's Adam Dunn, or a young pitching prospect, such as Boston's Jon Papelbon or Jon Lester, in return.
A baseball executive said the Red Sox have not been in contact about acquiring Soriano, and it appears there are problems with several potential suitors. The New York Mets are flush with cash and have a weak second baseman in Kazuo Matsui. But the Mets reportedly would want to unload Matsui, and the Nationals aren't in position to add a second baseman.
The Chicago Cubs have a hole at second, where Todd Walker is penciled in, but Soriano's new stance has only slightly changed their interest. The Nationals would take talented right-hander Carlos Zambrano or prized outfield prospect Felix Pie, but the Cubs won't part with either, and one baseball executive characterized the chances Chicago would trade for Soriano as remote -- unless the conflict between the Nationals and the player drives the price down considerably.