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Pirates, Alvarez grievance case pits power brokers

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

It had to end up here, in a conference room, with well-groomed lawyers on each side and one arbitrator, literally in the middle, trying to bring some sanity to the mess they created.

The grievance hearing Wednesday that will ultimately determine the fate of Pedro Alvarez's career is delicious with plotlines: the $6 billion corporation against the union that represents its meal tickets; the brilliant agent against his longtime nemesis; and the 21-year-old kid, the son of a Dominican immigrant who drives a livery cab around New York City, against the public that so quickly turned on him.

Because it involves Alvarez, a third baseman from Vanderbilt taken No. 2 in this year's draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates, and entails a tangle of legalese, the story of how a simple contract agreement devolved into a name-calling squabble has not gained much traction.

Don't let that conceal the reality: This is a big, fascinating decision, one that both parties involved agree could set a precedent to be used in future cases outside of baseball. And it will be up to Shyam Das, the man who decides ongoing disagreements between Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association, to sort through the he said-he said chaos that will unfold in front of him in the conference room.

At issue is the contract to which Alvarez agreed on Aug. 15 or Aug. 16 – depending, like much in this case, on who's telling the story. That the parties can't even agree on the dates is of little surprise when considering the two men behind the chaos: Scott Boras and Frank Coonelly. Boras is Alvarez's agent, and he has left indelible marks on the draft in the past, apparent today in the huge signing bonuses. Coonelly is the Pirates' president and a former lawyer at MLB whose job included making sure the bonuses doled out were within a specific slotting system he created.

Boras and Coonelly had butted heads dozens of times in the past. To say they dislike each other would be tame. Boras never spoke with Coonelly as the midnight EDT signing deadline drew near Aug. 15. MLB asked for the deadline to be included in the most recent collective bargaining agreement in order to get picks to sign sooner. In the two seasons it has been implemented, it created the opposite effect, with top players negotiating until the 11th hour.

The timeline as the deadline approached is sketchy. Alvarez's camp suggests Boras spoke with the Pirates on Aug. 11, the next day and the morning of the 15th. The Pirates claim such conversations did not occur. Alvarez also spoke with the Pirates himself on Aug. 13, a source said. Pirates general manager Neal Huntington did not return an email seeking comment for this story.

Alvarez's side said the team called at 8:56 p.m. Aug. 15 with an offer. The Pirates deny doing so. Both sides agree that at 11:56 p.m., the Pirates made a $6 million offer, and at 11:58, Boras and Huntington spoke again. Eventually the Pirates asked Boras for permission to talk with Alvarez, who was with Boras in his California office. Boras handed the phone to Alvarez. He accepted the $6 million offer.

Did he do so before the clock struck midnight? Again, the stories diverge.

The Pirates, in a finely crafted 575-word statement from Coonelly, contend Alvarez agreed to the deal in a "timely fashion" and MLB confirmed the deal. Boras claims Alvarez accepted after midnight, an assertion that seems with merit, since MLB has stated that it allowed negotiating windows past midnight for Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Washington.

And here is the heart of the issue, and likeliest to cause a heated argument in the arbitration case: By giving that extra negotiating leeway unilaterally, did MLB break its own collective-bargaining agreement?

On the surface, the answer seems to be yes. MLB did not contact the union to say that it had allowed the negotiations to stretch past midnight. Boras said he never negotiated past midnight because he did not want to bend the rules and claims the assertion that he did so with another client, Eric Hosmer, selected by Kansas City with the No. 3 pick, is false.

Boras emailed union lawyers in the hour after the deadline and said the Pirates had continued to negotiate with Alvarez after the deadline. Extensions had been granted in other situations – the Red Sox used one in trading Manny Ramirez to the Dodgers after the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline – but for the Pirates to have requested one, especially knowing Boras and Coonelly's history, was perhaps short-sighted.

"When you're Frank Coonelly, you're not just any club president," one agent said. "You know the rules."

Then again, the pressure on the Pirates was immense. This week they clinched their 16th consecutive sub-.500 season. Their minor-league system is a mess, and last year's draft was perhaps the biggest disaster of all: Worried about the cost of catcher Matt Wieters, a Boras client, they instead chose pitcher Danny Moskos with the No. 4 pick. Wieters is now the best hitting prospect in baseball. Moskos finished the year at Class A with a 5.95 ERA.

Coonelly and general manager Huntington came in last offseason as part of an overhaul of the Pirates' management. The first task was to focus on the farm system, the linchpin of successful low-revenue franchises. They vowed to spend whatever it took to sign the best talent.

Instead, Alvarez refused to sign the contract to which he agreed, Coonelly released his terse statement, the union filed its grievance and the haymakers ensued.

"Regrettably, we are not surprised that Mr. Boras would attempt to raise a meritless legal claim in an effort to compel us to renegotiate Pedro's contract to one more to his liking," Coonelly wrote. "We are, however, disappointed that Pedro would allow his agent to pursue this claim on his behalf. Pedro showed tremendous fortitude and independent thinking when he agreed to his contract on August 15."

The barrage of ill feelings in Pittsburgh toward Alvarez has not dissipated. Fans think he's greedy. One writer called him a "punk." They cringe to think all of this is merely a play by Boras to get a higher bonus than Buster Posey, the Florida State catcher who went fifth to San Francisco and signed for $6.2 million. Boras calls such a claim ludicrous.

The case technically is not between Alvarez and the Pirates. The union filed its claim as MLBPA vs. MLB. This is important. In 1997, Boras filed a grievance to make J.D. Drew, who had been drafted by Philadelphia, a free agent. Though MLB altered its rules following the grievance, an arbitrator ruled that he could not decide specifically on Drew because he was not yet a union member.

That Alvarez's name appears nowhere in the case title does not mean he won't be under scrutiny. The union allegedly has phone records that prove Boras spoke with the Pirates after midnight, and if so, the violation will be difficult to deny. An MLB source said it will argue that the agreement does not extend to amateur players and those not under contract, a contention the union's wording tries to render moot.

Should the MLBPA succeed in doing so, the options of Das, the arbitrator, seem limitless. He could slap MLB on the wrist, say extending deadlines is illegal from here on and rule Alvarez's contract valid. Or he could render the contract illegal, throw it out and make Alvarez a free agent.

The likelier result, sources from both sides agree, is somewhere in the middle, whether it's reopening a negotiating window – the Pirates say they will not negotiate – or sending Alvarez back into next year's draft, with the Pirates receiving a compensation pick per the CBA rules or, conceivably, getting docked that compensation pick for breaking them.

If Das sticks strictly to interpreting the CBA and offers no remedy for Alvarez, there is a chance Boras could take the case to federal court. The probability is minimal; neither side wants the headache. And that could lead to a settlement even before Das makes a decision.

"There's too much to lose on both sides," an MLB official said.

With baseball's revenues growing at such an incredible pace, there has been unprecedented goodwill between MLB and the union.

This case harkens earlier times, when the two sides were more adversaries than business partners. Even if it is a fight between proxies for Boras and Coonelly, it is a fight nonetheless. It's one that will see MLB lawyer Rob Manfred on one side and union lawyer Michael Weiner on the other, one with Coonelly and Huntington providing testimony along with Boras and Alvarez, one that certainly will stretch beyond tomorrow.

No easy solution is apparent, nothing that could make this case vanish like a whisper. There is too much at stake, too much drama, too much history and too much money. This is a mess that can't be cleaned up easily.

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