A Brief History of MLB Drug-Suspension Arbitration (or, Don't Worry, A-Rod)

Arbitrators have a tradition of overturning Major League Baseball commissioners' decisions regarding penalties for illegal drug use.
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Alex Rodriguez's fate will be decided by a veteran labor arbitrator Fredric Horowitz. (Reuters / Dominick Reuter)

 Baseball writers have long been fond of exaggerating the Commissioner of Major League Baseball's authority, even going so far as to call him "the Czar" of the game. Over the last few weeks, for instance, much has been made of the clause in the Basic Agreement between players and owners that gives the commissioner the power to act "in the best interests of baseball." Many thought Commissioner Allan "Bud" Selig would use this supposed power to ban Alex Rodriguez from baseball for life after he was recently discovered to have used performance-enhancing drugs.

But in truth, there are a number of restrictions, plus more than half a century of baseball history, that undermine the idea of the all-powerful MLB czar. For starters, Selig doesn't even have the power to enforce his own penalty on Rodriguez, a 211-game suspension, unless Rodriguez is guilty of one specific offense defined in the BA: a third positive test for banned substances. And perhaps more importantly, if a commissioner's decision is appealed, the BA allows an arbitrator to step in and either uphold or overturn the decision. Now that Rodriguez has appealed, whether he'll actually sit out those 211 games will be decided by veteran labor arbitrator Fredric Horowitz, the man agreed upon by both sides -- Major League Baseball on one side and Rodriguez, his attorneys, and the MLB Players Union on the other -- as an impartial mediator. His ruling is expected in December.

Over the years, commissioners haven't seen many cases go their way in the arbitration of drug issues in baseball; in fact, no arbitrator has ever fully upheld a commissioner's suspension in a case related to drugs. So even though there's no way to know what to expect from Horowitz's deliberations, the history of MLB arbitration could provide some useful clues and context.

Arbitration first came to MLB in 1972 after Curt Flood lost his bid before the Supreme Court to become a free agent. The Court's decision, 5-3 in favor of the owners with one abstention, was too close for comfort for baseball's front offices; afraid of losing their antitrust exemption in a future court case, they acceded to the union's request for a neutral arbitrator, one agreed upon by both sides, to avoid future litigation.

In 1975, Peter Seitz became the most important arbitrator in the game's history when he ruled that the so-called "reserve" clause, which bound a player to one team for his entire career, was invalid, thus ushering in the era of free agency. The owners, as was their legal right, fired Seitz immediately after he made his decision. Such has been the fate of many a baseball arbitrator over the years, including Raymond Goetz, Richard Bloch, George Nicolau, and, just last year, Shyam Das.

In 1983, Richard Block overturned Commissioner Bowie Kuhn's one-year suspension of the Kansas City Royals' Willie Wilson and Jerry Martin for cocaine use. Block shortened their suspension to less than a month. In 1992, then-Commissioner Fay Vincent suspended the Montreal Expos' Gilberto Reyes 60 days for a positive drug test, but arbitrator George Nicolau lifted the suspension, ruling that Reyes was a first-time offenders and should receive no penalty.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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