An unwelcome refrain: 'You're fired'

Sports arbitrators pay for their decisions but don't always receive credit for work

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When John Gaherin, the chief labor negotiator for Major League Baseball, arrived for a meeting with the chief of the players union and baseball's arbitrator, he carried an envelope in the pocket of his suit jacket.

It was two days before Christmas 1975, not a time to be conducting serious business, but Mr. Gaherin and Marvin Miller, the executive director of the union, knew why Peter Seitz, the arbitrator, had summoned them.

They knew the subject of the meeting would be as serious a bit of business as baseball had ever experienced -- and Mr. Gaherin went to the meeting prepared.

Mr. Seitz, the arbitrator, had informally telegraphed his decision in a grievance case, and now he would formally hand his written opinion to the two men. As soon as he did, Mr. Gaherin handed Mr. Seitz the envelope.

"You're fired," it said in effect.

Such is the perilous life of impartial arbitrators in baseball and other professional sports. Either side -- the league or the union -- has the right to fire them. Like managers, they are hired to be fired.

"He told me he had expected as much," Michael Seitz, Peter's son, said. "His feeling was there was no other way to decide the case, because the baseball owners had been stupid in assuming that when they didn't have a player under contract, they still had a contractual hold on him."

Fredric R. Horowitz, a 64-year-old lawyer from Santa Monica, Calif., is the latest to take a turn. He will arbitrate Alex Rodriguez's appeal of a 211-game suspension.

While arbitrators pay for their decisions, which anger either the owners or the players, they don't always receive credit for the significance of their decisions.

Mr. Seitz, for example, was responsible for creating free agency in baseball with his decision in the 1975 Andy Messersmith-Dave McNally grievance, although some reports in the media have mistakenly credited other cases: Curt Flood's 1970 lawsuit against baseball and Catfish Hunter's 1974 grievance against Charlie Finley.

As heroic as Mr. Flood was in pursuing his lawsuit, which he lost, it fell well short of having an effect. Its failure was one of the reasons the owners were so confident of winning the Messersmith-McNally grievance in court when they appealed Mr. Seitz's decision -- which said players could be free agents if they played the renewal year in their contract without signing a new contract.

What the owners failed to understand, in their inexperience in labor matters, was that judges rarely overruled an arbitrator's decision, doing so only if an arbitrator's authority had been exceeded.

Baseball would have preferred settling all of the doping cases stemming from the investigation into Biogenesis, an anti-aging clinic believed to have distributed banned substances to baseball players. The union also seemed eager to settle. But Mr. Rodriguez has appealed his 211-game suspension. Given the volatility of the Rodriguez case, it would not be surprising if Mr. Horowitz's first major case were also his last.

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