If the baseball strike isn't settled during the current round of labor negotiations, the major-league owners could find themselves in court -- not with the players union, but with Orioles owner Peter Angelos.
Sports law specialists agree that Angelos should strike first in a potential legal battle over the use of replacement players by seeking a declaratory judgment that would forbid the American League from forcing him to use strikebreakers during the regular season.
"It's the most efficient and the least costly way of anticipating an issue," said John Wendel, a Florida attorney and the former general counsel to the minor leagues.
A declaratory judgment, if it is granted, would prevent the American League from taking any action against Angelos -- such as fining him $250,000 per game or taking away his franchise -- until his case is settled. By initiating this process, Angelos could go before a local judge who might be more sympathetic to his anti-replacement stand.
"The real motivation is to get into district court in Baltimore, get it into court now, and get the issue taken care of," said Mark Sargent, a University of Maryland Law School professor who specializes in business law. "It would prevent the league from portraying itself as the injured party, which they would do, after the fact."
Angelos said he does not plan to file a lawsuit until he sees what happens with the current round of labor negotiations.
"If this strike doesn't settle, we will take all the legal steps necessary to protect the franchise," Angelos said.
American League officials have prepared for a court battle, but are not hoping for one.
"Obviously, we have been exploring our options for some time now," said league spokeswoman Phyllis Merhige. "It's not something we're looking forward to."
Their arguments will rest on differing interpretations of the American League constitution and the Major League Agreement, documents that Angelos signed in order to purchase the Baltimore franchise.
Angelos, a labor lawyer who made millions representing union workers, said his position against strikebreakers is solidly grounded in the league constitution. As long as the players are on strike, he said, he does not have to field a team.
"I think the language is pretty clear," Angelos said.
Article 3.8a of the league constitution says that an owner can lose his franchise for failing to play a scheduled game "unless caused by strikes, unavoidable accident in travel, or by some other cause which such Member is not responsible, including, but not limited to, acts of God."
Acting commissioner Bud Selig reads it differently than Angelos does.
"If that's the way the constitution has been interpreted, I can tell you others have interpreted it differently," Selig said at a Feb. 15 Senate subcommittee hearing on baseball's antitrust exemption.
The league's main argument is that Angelos, in refusing to use replacement players, is not acting "in the best interests of baseball." Both the commissioner and the league president have the right to fine Angelos $250,000 per game.
The Baltimore litigator is confident that his interpretation will hold up in a court of law.
"In all due respect to Bud, it seems to me the American League constitution is clear," Angelos said. "Selig says he respects our interpretation -- he said he has another one. I suggest he not rely too much on the interpretation that he has been provided."
Legal specialists insist that the language of the contracts is not clear. That may work in Angelos' favor, particularly if he seeks a declaratory judgment from a local judge.
"Because there is so much ambiguity, the trial judge is going to have great discretion," said University of Illinois law professor Stephen Ross, a specialist on antitrust law in sports. "I understand his position is very popular in Baltimore. When he walks into a court in Baltimore, the judge is going to look for a reason to rule in his favor."
That will most likely be in federal court in Baltimore.
The American League constitution is under the jurisdiction of New York law, but Angelos can avoid that fact by filing in federal court.
The downside of seeking a declaratory judgment in federal court is that if Angelos loses, he could be forced to use strikebreakers.
"The tough decision is, if the court rules against you, are you going to tell the American League to go take a hike?" Wendel said. "If he asks for a declaratory judgment, he better be prepared to play replacement players."
A legal setback will not test Angelos' resolve.
"The Orioles are a major-league ballclub, that's their business," he said. "No one has the constitutional right to in any way denigrate the game, denigrate the franchise and offer something not of major-league quality to Orioles fans."
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