By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
The Angels, who desperately want a middle-of-the-order bat, have the prospects to trade for Soriano, and their second baseman, Adam Kennedy, is a free agent after this season. But if Soriano plays this season, he also becomes a free agent, so there's no guarantee he would re-sign with the Angels.
Soriano's impending free agency could be a determining factor in the continuing conflict, and it's a point the union may argue if the Nationals put Soriano on the disqualified list. The Nationals and Major League Baseball officials believe that a player on the disqualified list doesn't accrue service time. Soriano has almost 5 1/2 years of major league service time, and must get to six years to become a free agent. If he were to remain on the disqualified list, management argues, he would not have his six years, and therefore would not become a free agent at the end of 2006. Instead, he would remain Nationals property.
Baseball's collective bargaining agreement, however, doesn't explicitly state that players on the disqualified list don't accrue service time, and the union, should it get involved, might argue that Soriano should earn credit for his time even if he ends up on the list.
Gene Orza, the chief operating officer for the MLBPA, did not return phone calls Tuesday. But Jeffrey Kessler, an experienced sports labor attorney who argued the case of former Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens for the NFL players' union, said Tuesday the MLBPA could potentially argue that the punishment for Soriano -- being put on the disqualified list and potentially losing his $10 million salary -- was "excessive, that it didn't fit" Soriano's transgression.
"The union would try to show that the club didn't have 'just cause,' " Kessler said.
Other labor experts, though, cited the unprecedented nature of Soriano's actions. "In an industrial setting, they'd use the term 'insubordination,' " said Quinn Mills, a professor at the Harvard Business School.
Should the Nationals and Soriano come to such a moment, the case would likely be heard by an arbitrator. Gould, the former NLRB chair, said unless Soriano had a provision in his contract that he must be a second baseman -- a provision that Soriano's contract doesn't contain -- he wouldn't bet against the club in such a case.
"I think it's likely an arbitrator would find that the player's argument would lack merit," Gould said. "The basic thing that a team expects from a player is team play. A club must have some measure of flexibility to make decisions on assigning players to positions. If not, how do we have team sports?"
Nationals Note: The club announced that former major leaguers Dante Bichette, Darnell Coles and Keith Moreland have been hired as roving hitting instructors for the minor leagues. The three will take over the job that last year was manned by Mitchell Page, who is now the Nationals' hitting coach.
Staff writer Dave Sheinin contributed to this report.