MLB Commissioner Bud Selig speaks during a news conference in New York

MLB’s takeover of the Dodgers could imperil baseball’s antitrust exemption

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Yesterday I noted that Major League Baseball may be wary of a fight with Frank McCourt because it has a lot of rules with respect to club ownership that exist simply because owners agree to them and that, if challenged, there are likely several that wouldn’t hold up in court.  One of them — Major League Baseball’s putative right to approve who buys a team and enters the ownership club — could be seriously jeopardized in all of this.

You know how it works: a team goes on the market and the bidders line up. Before the deal is done, MLB “approves” the winning ownership group. And that group is not necessarily the highest bidder. There is much talk, however, about who Bud Selig likes and who he doesn’t, who is friends with Jerry Reinsdorf and who isn’t and that sort of thing. This is the step where Mark Cuban’s ambitions get thwarted.  It’s also a step that probably violates antitrust laws and, according to the only court that has ever considered the matter, does not fall into baseball’s more-limited-than-you-think antitrust exemption.

Flash back 18 years to the case of Piazza v. Major League Baseball (831 F. Supp. 420 (E.D. Pa. 1993) for those of you who care), in which some gentlemen from Pennsylvania tried to buy the San Francisco Giants and move them to Florida. Then-Giants’ owner Bob Lurie was going to sell, but MLB stepped in and indicated that it would not approve the sale. The buyers sued, arguing (among other things) that baseball illegally restrained free trade in the market in which baseball teams are bought and sold. Baseball argued that it was allowed to do this pursuant to the antitrust exemption.

The trial court agreed with the would-be buyers during the preliminary stages of that case, ruling that the antitrust exemption didn’t apply to the purchase of teams.

Granted, this wasn’t a final decision on the merits. Rather, the court basically ruled that if the plaintiffs could prove that MLB wrongfully thwarted the sale — say, that baseball had no legitimate business basis for excluding a potential ownership group –they could win. Of course it never got that far. Having seen that its antitrust exemption was in peril, baseball settled with the plaintiffs, paying them $6 million for their trouble, and the case went away and does not now serve as any sort of binding precedent.

Since that time, baseball has continued to approve or deny “ownership applications” as though they were country club memberships as opposed to the restraint of the sale of goods in a free market. It has been able to get away with this because, to my knowledge, no current owner selling a team has challenged baseball’s ability to approve buyers — remember, they themselves got into the club through this very process — and, with no dispute, there can be no court case. Both the Cubs and the Rangers sales had the potential for this inasmuch the team sales were thrown into court, but neither instance created a situation in which the selling owner wanted to sell to A, but baseball wanted to sell to B.

So, back to the present: Frank McCourt is making serious noises about suing Major League Baseball. No matter how this all shakes out, it’s hard to see it ending in any way other than a sale of the Dodgers.  As is suggested by the legal experts cited in today’s article from Bill Shaikin in the Los Angeles Times, the only way that McCourt won’t sue over the specifics of the sale is if baseball agrees to take the highest bidder.  If that highest bidder isn’t someone Bud Selig wants to let in his club — say, I dunno, some skeezy businessman from some unpronounceable former Soviet Republic who is on record saying that he wants to give out the biggest free agent contracts in recorded history — Selig could have a serious dilemma on his hands:  allow a potential maverick (Maverick?)  into the club or risk re-litigating the Piazza case.

I want to see Frank McCourt gone and I want to see a responsible owner in Los Angeles with a minimum of fuss.  But boy howdy, it would be fun to see Major League Baseball’s anti-competitive practices blown away too, so I can’t say that I, as a popcorn-eating gawker to all of this, will be disappointed either way.

Twins pitcher barfs before almost every appearance

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 18:  Ryan O'Rourke #61 of the Minnesota Twins reacts after loading up the bases in the seventh inning against the New York Yankees on August 18, 2015 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Twins righty Ryan O'Rourke has pitched in 54 big league games. He has barfed before almost every one of them.

No, really:

Through his first 54 big-league outings over the last past two years, O’Rourke estimates he emptied the contents of his stomach close to every time.

“I don’t do it in the public’s eye,” O’Rourke said Tuesday. “I go in the bathroom, or sometimes it’s just on the back of the mound. But, yeah, it happens.”

I wonder if I’ve barfed 54 times in my entire life. I doubt I have. Then again, I’m not doing anything in front of tens of thousands of people with potentially millions of dollars at stake.

Yet he who is without sin hurl the first, um. Well, never mind.

The new intentional walk rule isn’t a big deal but it’s still dumb

PHOENIX, AZ - JUNE 06:  Anthony Recker #20 of the New York Mets calls for an intentional walk as Paul Goldschmidt #44 of the Arizona Diamondbacks looks on during the eighth inning at Chase Field on June 6, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
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Let us preface this by stipulating that the new rule in which pitchers will no longer have to throw four balls to issue an intentional walk is not a big deal, objectively speaking. Teams don’t issue many IBBs to begin with. A couple a week, maybe? Fewer? Moreover, the times when a pitcher tosses one to the backstop or a batter reaches out and smacks a would-be intentional ball may be a lot of fun, but they’re extraordinarily rare. You can go years without seeing it happen.

So, yes, the intentional walk rule announced yesterday is of negligible consequence. We’ll get used to it quickly and it will have little if any impact on actual baseball. It won’t do what it’s supposed to do — speeding up games — but it won’t harm anything that is important either.

But let us also stipulate that the new rule is dumb.

It’s dumb because it’s a solution in search of a problem. Pace of play is a concern, but to listen to Rob Manfred and his surrogates in the media tell it, it’s The Most Pressing Issue of Our Time. Actually, it’s not. No one is abandoning baseball because of 5-15 minutes here or there and no one who may be interested in it is ceasing their exploration of the game because of it. And even if they were, IBBs are rare and they’re not time-consuming to begin with, so it’s not something that will make a big difference. It’s change for change’s sake and so Rob Manfred can get some good press for looking like a Man of Action.

It’s also dumb because it’s taking something away, however small it is. One of my NBC coworkers explained it well this morning:

I agree. Shamelessness is a pretty big problem these days, so let’s not eliminate shame when it is truly due.

Picture it: it’s a steamy Tuesday evening in late July. The teams are both way below .500 and are probably selling off half of their lineup next week. There are, charitably, 8,000 people in the stands. The game is already dragging because of ineptitude and an understandable lack of urgency on the part of players who did not imagine nights like this when they were working their way to the bigs.

Just then, one of the managers — an inexperienced young man who refuses to deviate from baseball orthodoxy because, gosh, he might get a hard question from a sleepy middle aged reporter after the game — holds up four fingers for the IBB. The night may be dreary, but dammit, he’s going to La Russa the living hell out of this game.

That man should be booed. Boo this man. The drunks and college kids who paid, like, $11 to a season ticket holder on StubHub to get into this godforsaken game have earned the right to take their frustrations out on Hunter McRetiredBackupCatcher for being a wuss and calling for the IBB. It may be the only good thing that happens to them that night, and now Rob Manfred would take that away from them. FOR SHAME.

And don’t forget about us saps at home, watching this garbage fire of a game because it beats reading. We’re now going to have to listen to this exchange, as we have listened to it EVERY SINGLE NIGHT since the 2017 season began:

Play-by-Play Guy: “Ah, here we go. They’re calling for the intentional walk. Now, in case you missed it, this is the way we’re doing it now. The new rule is that the manager — yep, right there, he’s doing it — can hold up four fingers to the home plate umpire and — there it goes — he points to first base and the batter takes his base.”

Color Commentator, Who played from 1975-87, often wearing a mustache: “Don’t like it. I don’t like it at all. There was always a chance the pitcher throws a wild pitch. It happened to us against the Mariners in 1979 [Ron Howard from “Arrested Development” voice: it didn’t] and it has taken away something special from the game. I suppose some number-cruncher with a spreadsheet decided that this will help speed up the game, but you know what that’s worth.

No matter what good or bad the rule brings, this exchange, which will occur from April through September, will be absolutely brutal. Then, in October, we get to hear Joe Buck describe it as if we never heard it before because Fox likes to pretend that the season begins in October.

Folks, it’s not worth it. And that — as opposed to any actual pro/con of the new rule — is why it is dumb. Now get off my lawn.