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Opinion
Off-season

By Clark Booth
Posted: 11/16/2007

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Two monumental conundrums hang over the game of baseball this winter, each in its own way a bit of a Gordian Knot.

One is the Mitchell Report, that extravagantly promised Doomsday Book on chemical abuse in baseball being concocted by the ex-judge, former senator, redoubtable mover and shaker, legendary maker of deals, and otherwise objective member of the Red Sox Board of Directors from the rock-ribbed state of Maine. It’s due over the holidays. Ho, ho, ho!

If, as may be safely presumed, names are named and charges are charged, the findings of the judge’s posse, which has been running wild for almost two years, will plunge Major League Baseball into its biggest crisis since the last strike.

Don’t think for a milli-second that those world-class scolds, Masters Don Fehr and Gene Orza, will allow the dues-paying members of their precious players’ union to face the music for crimes that were not crimes when they were committed. Nor will mere smears be tolerated either. It’s a battle Fehr and Orza know they can win, both in the courts and, even more importantly, in the court of public opinion where an overwhelming majority has little interest in whatever passes for “the truth.”

On the other hand, Mitchell’s probe could lead to nothing more than another deluge of pious pronouncements laced with the reaffirmation of stuff we already know. This would make MLB look even sillier for commissioning an inquisition lasting many months and costing tens of millions to produce a glorious grandstand play. It’s unlikely that George Mitchell, who has been around the block a time or two, will stand for that.

Still, Mitchell has impossible options. Come down too hard and precipitate a bruising civil war within the game. Come down too soft and make yourself the laughingstock. Either way you aggravate the great unwashed who pay the freight at the ticket window and by and large only yearn for the entire mess to disappear as long as everyone promises never to do it again. Meanwhile, the owners curse the day they hired him for they are much too busy reaping windfall profits to trifle with what they now regard as folly. How easily they forget how they were scared out of their wits two years ago. Mitchell is damned if he does and damned if he don’t. It’s your classic dilemma.

Meanwhile, pro football, featuring its own finely groomed master race of warriors apparently hatched on the planet Neptune, continues to float above the fray entirely untouched by so much as the whiff of scandal having to do with bloated bodies and beefed up hormones. It’s entirely ludicrous.

Whatever the result, we can be thankful for this much. Soon it will be over and Judge Mitchell’s merry band of inquisitors will be gone. Ken Willis, a Florida sports columnist, states the case perfectly. He writes: “I’m not saying the Mitchell Report has been a long time coming, but I expect it to include indisputable evidence that Lee Oswald acted alone.” Yet another line I wish I’d thought of first.

Issue number two, however, may prove even thornier as well as more intensely aggravating. It concerns that world-class fraud, Alex Rodriguez, and his boorish agent, Mr. Boras. Such a fine couple they make, seemingly cut straight from the pages of Dickens; one playing the role of amiable dolt to perfection while the other stars as the conniving barrister grasping for every last farthing that hasn’t been nailed down.

But it’s not their manners nor even their ethics that’s at issue here but the possibilities they are raising should their bid for spectacular riches this winter be somehow thwarted, or even minimized. If that happens it will be because there is at last no owner in his right mind willing to award Rodriguez 400 million bucks for amassing staggering personal statistics while folding like a cheap leisure suit once the games become important.

It will be that simple, that innocent, and that reasonable. And it could well happen because A-Rod’s charms have worn thin, while Boras is about as welcome as the plague. But there’s no way Boras, in the role of Geppetto, and A-Rod, his dutiful Pinocchio, will accept that. They’ve already revealed their gameplan by dropping the dreaded “C-word”: Collusion.

Boras, of course, is too cagey to come right out and toss that grenade himself. That’s not his style. He doesn’t waste his energy on bluster. So he had his lackeys in the players union do it for him at the winter GM meetings. Essentially, the message conveyed was, “If Alex doesn’t get every last penny he’s demanding it can only be because the owners have conspired against him thus violating the players union contract and breaking the law.” While also, of course, providing grounds for Boras and Rodriguez to reap still more fabulous riches in pursuit of damages. Say this for Scott Boras. Life for him is a chess game played for the highest stakes and he’s always six jumps ahead of the field.

But what most disappointed me is that these nasty little money-grubbing twits have dragged the great Marvin Miller into their scheme. It’s not clear how they managed it. But it’s no coincidence that just as Boras was worming his way through his charade at the winter meetings Marvin was climbing back onto his soap box for the first time in about 15 years to decry the ‘‘conspiracy’’ being mounted against A-Rod. Marvin specifically charged that the Yankees had wronged their poor little ex-third baseman by declaring that if he opted out, so would they. This, Marvin declared, was a violation of the free agency agreement because it effectively posed a threat to the player should he invoke his free-agent rights.

Understand that I’m a great fan of Marvin Miller, the man whose effect on baseball history was as large and positive as that of Jackie Robinson or Babe Ruth. Marvin is a fabulous old lion of the labor movement; a delightful rascal and an irascible Bolshevik from the old school. An hour’s conversation with Marvin is a memory you carry a lifetime.

But he is wrong, this time. Well into his 90s now and far removed from the fray Marvin has no business getting into this cheap dispute. This is not about labor rights. It’s about arrogance and power and greed. Marvin should be above that. It bothers me because Marvin has a darn good chance to be elected to the Hall of Fame -- which he richly deserves -- when the newly revised electoral process does its thing Dec. 2. His chances were terrific until the old fox dipped his toes in this mean-spirited controversy. If Marvin gets spurned can we blame A-Rod and Boras? Why not?

Nowhere is it written that teams are required to bid for free agents nor is it any violation for a team to tell a player that if he chooses free agency he can say ‘‘goodbye.’’ Moreover, a team that’s on record as willing to offer a player $240 million can hardly be accused of anything other than rank stupidity.

Boras has no case. But his intelligence is exceeded only by his chutzpah. He’s planted the “C” seed and he’ll play it, if and when it serves his interests. If he knows it’s ridiculous he also knows he has a 50/50 chance of winning a collusion case because all he needs is an arbitrator who doesn’t have a clue. The odds are 50/50. Boras will take them. That possibility scares the bejabbers out of the owners who got hammered in the great collusion fiasco 20 years ago that cost them a near ruinous nine-figure settlement.

Which is why some team will eventually capitulate to their absurd demands. It could even be your Red Sox who, being rather full of themselves these days, may decide they can outwit Boras and convert A-Rod into a man who plays for a team instead of a contract. Sure would be fun watching them try.