Jockbeat: Did Sonia Sotomayor Save Baseball Or Didn’t She?


Did Sonia Sotomayor save baseball or didn’t she?  All week long the press has been heatedly debating the extent to which President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee impacted the national pastime with her 1995 decision.

First, a brief summary of what it was that Sotomayor did. In 1994, with the players union on strike, she ruled that the owners were guilty of unfair labor practices. This was in response to a petition filed not — repeat, not, as many writers have claimed — by the union but by the National Labor Relations Board. What Sotomayor said, essentially, is that the baseball owners, after years of taking it on the chin from the union, was seeking to bypass real negotiations and simply impose conditions on the players. (One threat was to field teams of what were euphemistically called “replacement players.” The traditional term for this is “scabs.”)

Understanding that point is key to appreciating the importance of her decision. Some people just don’t get it…

For instance, George Will, who recently wrote: “In fact, what she did was take sides, took union’s side against the management, and in so
doing, wasted 262 days of negotiation. That, far from saving baseball, consigned baseball to seven more years of an unreformed economic
system, which happened to be the seven worst years in terms of competitive balance.”

We love reading Will on the subject of baseball, but remember that he once wrote, “I am an advocate of the free market in every area except baseball.” Will is right about this: Sotomayor did take the union’s side. A judge making a labor-management decision must take one side or another, and when he or she rules for a union, it is inevitably called unfair by management and its supporters.

Everything else Will wrote is wrong.  First, there were no “wasted” 262 days of  negotiation. The owners weren’t negotiating at all; they were faking negotiations and dragging the procedure out with the intent of finally imposing their own rules. (By December of 1994 they had broken off negotiations with the players altogether.)

As the New York Times‘ Richard Sandomir wrote in a very lucid analysis, “The players had struck over the likelihood that owners would impose a salary cap, which they did. After withdrawing the cap in early 1995, owners tried a new strategy: they abolished salary arbitration,
centralized player negotiations with the commissioner’s office, and ended an agreement not to collude on salaries — leading to the
complaint by the NLRB.”

On Wednesday’s Huffington Post, Michael Shapiro also phrased it well: “Sotomayor … acted swiftly and decisively in 1995 when she issued the injunction that effectively ended the interminable strike that cost the game and its fans the 1994 World Series. Sotomayor essentially told the team owners that they could not take it upon themselves to turn back the hands of time and renege on their agreements with the players on salary arbitration, collusion rules and competitive free agent bidding.”

If all this sounds too technical, let’s put it in simple terms: in 1994 the owners were attempting to roll back every gain that the players had made since winning the right to free agency in 1975. The players were fighting for the right to continue to enjoy the fruits of the free market — i.e., the right to test their value in an open market without restrictions — and it was the owners who were pushing for socialism in the form of restrictions such as salary caps.

This is an irony that baseball fans like George Will have never really come to terms with. Neither has the Daily News union bashing stooge Mike Lupica, who absurdly opened his May 27 column by saying “Sonia Sotomayor is one of ours.” (One of whose, exactly —
is Lupica claiming he grew up Puerto Rican in the Bronx instead of middle class in New Hampshire?)

“The President is a baseball fan,” Lupica wrote regarding Obama’s statement that Sotomayor saved baseball. “He ought to know that you don’t get to rewrite the record book.” But rewriting the record book is exactly what Lupica tries to do. “Sonia Sotomayor just made what she thought was a proper decision. But in doing so, what she really rescued at the time was an economic system in baseball that desperately needed changing, one that would not really begin to change until later … Commissioner Bud Selig’s new system did a lot more for baseball than Judge Sotomayor ever did.”

It wasn’t Sotomayor’s job to “change” or “save” anything — it was her job to render a fair decision, which she did. Now Lupica takes the false position that Bud Selig has been taking all along — that there was something terribly wrong with baseball and that Selig was trying to
right it. This had to be done, the historical revisionism goes, because baseball from 1996 through 2000 was suffering from a “lack of
competitive balance, ” proven by the fact that the Yankees won the World Series four times in that five years. (One wonders how baseball
survived from 1949 through 1953 when the Yankees won five straight World Series. For that matter, how the NBA thrived from 1991-1998 when Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls won six times in eight years.)

This is all nonsense. There was never anything to keep major league teams from sharing their revenue at any time if they wanted to, but they
didn’t want to share their revenue, they wanted to share the players’ revenue by lowering their salaries. “Competitive balance” was the
buzzword Selig put out for journalists. I know, because he phoned me at the Wall Street Journal in 2001 after I pointed out in a column
that in fact baseball in the 1990s was the most competitive in its history. So competitive that by the year 2000, for the first time ever,
no major league team finished above the .600 mark and not one finished below .400.

As ESPN’s Peter Gammon shrewdly noted, Sotomayor “didn’t necessarily save baseball, she saved the owners from themselves. The people who tried to rig the system with collusion … and the artificial attempt to implement their own labor system were, as usual, ill-advised and leaderless. When Sotomayor forced the game to resume and charged that they bargained in real faith baseball under Selig went from $1.3 billion to a $7.5 billion business.”  Correct.

In Mike Lupica’s fantasy world, where history is written by Bud Selig, “The tremendous growth baseball has experienced in this decade didn’t
begin until the end of the work rules that Sotomayor preserved with the ruling that ended the strike once and for all.” Here’s the real
history, Mike: Baseball wasn’t in any kind of trouble in the ’90s and has been growing by leaps and bounds every season. The only reason
baseball dipped in popularity and revenue in 1994-1995 was because Selig forced a strike. (Does anyone at the Daily News ever fact
check any of Lupica’s columns? Do any of his editors bother to challenge him when he fabricates history out of whole cloth? )

So, did Sonia Sotomayor’s decision save baseball? Damn right it did.

What shape would the game have been in if the entire 1995 season had been lost along with the 1994 World Series? Does anyone think baseball could have survived the loss of the Series two years in a row? Not only did she save the 1995 season, she made it clear to baseball’s owners for the first time that they would have to bargain in good faith — and baseball hasn’t seen a work stoppage since.