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One special union undone by another

As usual, baseball finds way to ruin great storyline

In baseball, bad blood never seems to cool. It just simmers on an open fire. The Red Sox, for example, may hate the Yankees, but not as much, it seems, as they hate the players' association. As for the union, the wishes of its most gifted member count for little, it appears, when weighed against the letter of its latest contract law.

The long national ordeal now known now as "The A-Rod Deal" has finally resolved itself to one issue: Do Larry Lucchino, Tom Hicks and Bud Selig detest Gene Orza, Don Fehr and Scott Boras enough to screw up what may be the most entertaining trade -- or sequence of interlocking trades -- in the whole history of American sports?

Will baseball's decades of labor-management animosity, which finally began to dissipate when a strike was averted 15 months ago, be re-ignited because money and ego once again defeat common sense?

Baseball finds itself at a symbolic juncture when its character is being tested. Oh, again? Whenever the sport hits an incredible high note and seems poised to regain much of its endangered popularity, its most flawed people seem eager to take the stage and, in some preposterously ill-conceived farce, bring the game into disrepute.

For example, only two days after the magnificent 2001 World Series, Commissioner Selig announced his ignominious "contraction" plan.

Now, after the best multi-tiered postseason ever, and on the brink of two trades that would invigorate the sport to an almost ridiculous degree, old adversaries are sticking out their chins, spoiling for a fight.

Just two days ago, it seemed almost certain that Alex Rodriguez would be traded to Boston for Manny Ramirez and that Boston would then trade Nomar Garciaparra to the White Sox for Magglio Ordoñez. So many lusted after these trades for so many reasons that an unprecedented number of bridges were recklessly burned.

For once, it seemed that a trade absolutely had to be completed simply because the thought of returning to the status quo was so horrifying to so many people.

Then, on Wednesday, the forces of darkness emerged. Rodriguez had offered to "restructure" his contract, a euphemism for taking a pay cut. The union let the Red Sox know that they'd give the deal their blessing as long as that pay reduction was small enough so that the union could save face with its members.

The union had to be able to say, with a straight face, that the contract had been "restructured," not "reduced." After all, the A-Rod deal set the standard for the whole industry and, to an extent, impacted every other players' salary, especially in arbitration cases. On the other hand, Orza, a close friend of Rodriguez, freely acknowledged that the union, as long as it wasn't stabbing its members in the back, owed it to an individual player such as Rodriguez to let him pursue his bliss as well as a buck.

Orza claims he explained all this to Lucchino and stressed, "Just do not abuse the principle" of restructuring vs. reducing. The union is touchy these days because player salaries are trending down this winter, not up.

The Red Sox just couldn't resist sticking it to the union, especially in the first offseason market place in 25 years in which the union sometimes appears to be on the run. The deal the Red Sox presented to the union, at least according to Orza, "sought in excess of $30 million in reductions."

The union killed the deal. Sensing a PR windfall, or perhaps having deliberately fomented one, management types had a field day. "It is a sad day when the players' association thwarts the will of its members," said Lucchino, the Red Sox' president. "The players' association unfortunately may determine this issue," intoned Ranger owner Hicks.

As a final twist, Selig grandstanded by saying that he might okay the trade over the union's objections and, if necessary, let an arbitrator decide the case. To top it off, Selig set a 5 p.m. deadline yesterday.

Naturally, top union leaders, the ones who would be needed for input on this momentous "deadline" decision -- which represented no deadline to them -- decided that they just had to spend yesterday in Florida at the now famous Bubba Trammell Grievance Hearing. In other words, the union spit back in Bud's eye.

So, to any old baseball labor hand, yesterday's doings were an ugly foregone conclusion. It was dig-in-your-heels-and-sling-mud time. "The proposed trade between the Boston Red Sox and Texas Rangers is dead," Lucchino said in a statement after Selig's charade deadline had passed. "The Players' Association's intransigence and the arbitrary nature of its action are responsible for the deal's demise today."

Lucchino is just playing "bad cop." Rangers General Manager John Hart says there's no reason that the deal can't still be done. And everybody in the game knows it. Selig's three-day "window" was always showmanship. The owners, operating with Selig, can bend the rules on trades any way that suits them. Especially in the offseason. It's their own affair inside their own monopoly. The Red Sox aren't going to play the Rangers this weekend, are they? So who cares when a deal is done? The union sure doesn't care and won't stop it.

Orza, naturally, accused the Red Sox, and Lucchino in particular, of negotiating bad faith in a national TV interview on ESPN. In Orza's view, the Red Sox hadn't made any pretense of giving Rodriguez something of value -- even vague value -- to compensate him for the obvious "reduction" in his contract.

What should be done?

As usual in baseball, the correct course is obvious. Unfortunately, in baseball that usually results in less than a 50-50 chance of success.

The union needs to understand that it will take a huge nationwide beating in respect if it doesn't help A-Rod go where he wants to go. The players' association has never had to eat crow gracefully. But it had better learn fast. That $252 million deal needs to get trimmed by 5 percent. On the other hand, the Red Sox need to understand that demanding a 10 percent cut is too much to ask the union to swallow. Cut that "reduction" in half and maybe everybody can wink and call it a "restructuring."

So, who pays the freight to get the deal done? The Red Sox and Rangers need to split the money they save on the A-Rod "restructuring." The Red Sox can stuff a few million dollars in Manny's back pocket as they ship him to Texas. But Hicks better not expect too many millions.

Why? Because at the bottom of this whole mess is Hicks's idiotic contract to Rodriguez three years ago. He's made the biggest mistake. And now it's his job to take the biggest hit.

What if these ancient baseball rivals can't settle their differences? Well, that will have its pleasures, too. If the A-Rod deal really does die, who's to say it won't be even more fun that way? Somewhere, there is a fan so pure of heart that he or she doesn't plan to enjoy all of the delicious/malicious potential in this farce. If we think we've seen bad blood so far, just wait until A-Rod returns to Texas or Nomar comes back to Boston.