Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Commissioner's Authority: 2012 Edition


In an unabashed fire sale, the Miami Marlins have agreed to trade virtually every player making significant money to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for younger, and cheaper, talent.  Making the 1,500-mile trip north from Miami to Toronto, along with $160 million in committed salary, is any good will Marlins team owner Jeffrey Loria has generated since purchasing the team.  The outstanding question is whether this action will trigger MLB Commissioner Bud Selig to respond and veto this trade.

While teams have the right to trade salaries for potential, as illustrated by the blockbuster Red Sox / Dodgers trade this past August, this maneuver by the Marlins feels entirely different.  Under the rubric of full disclosure, I’m a Red Sox fan and was thrilled the Dodgers don’t have an accountant on staff to realize they assumed $250 million in payroll.

Despite only being around for a decade, salary dumps have already marred the Marlins’ short franchise history.  Following the 1997 and 2003 seasons the Marlins ripped apart their team by unloading virtually all of their assets as well, but those trades followed world championships and had a different feel.  This time around there doesn’t even appear to be the pretense of improving the talent on the field.

In the past year, Loria manipulated the city of Miami to contribute $360 million of public funds into the construction of their $515 million ballpark, traded away a National League Rookie of the Year and three time All-Star in Hanley Ramirez, and fired the fiery and Fidel Castro loving manager Ozzie Guillen.  Yet none of these maneuvers seem as offensive as the latest move to enhance the team’s bottom line.  Statements of exasperation and frustration are emanating from executives from around the league as well as from the Marlins’ players left behind.

The question is whether commissioner Bud Selig will invoke his legal right to protect the “best interests of the game” and quash this trade.  If he does, he has legal precedent behind him.  In 1976 Charles Finley, owner of the Oakland Athletics, tried to sell three of his teams stars—Vida Blue, Rollie Fingers, and Joe Rudi—to the Boston Red Sox for $3.5 million.  Bowie Kuhn, the MLB commissioner at the time, struck down the deal because it was “not in the best interests of baseball.”  Despite a legal challenge by the MLBPA’s Executive Director Marvin Miller, Kuhn’s legal right to block the trade was upheld in the seminal Finley v Kuhn decision.

More recently, in December of 2011 the NBA’s commissioner David Stern vetoed a proposed trade of Chris Paul by the New Orleans Hornets to the Los Angeles Lakers.  While the facts were slightly different because the NBA owned the Hornets at the time Stern rejected a trade based on what he felt was best for the league—and every owner outside of Los Angeles hailed this decision.

Has the recent trade by the Marlins reached the level of absurdity forcing Selig to take action?  If MLB does veto this trade, has it met the threshold necessary for a Commissioner to successfully invoke “the best interest of the game” defense under law?  Stay tuned.