How Sonia Sotomayor saved baseball nearly 15 years ago

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By Ronald Blum
The Associated Press

Long before she was a Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor was an umpire between baseball players and team owners.

Her decision as a U.S. District Court judge to issue an injunction against owners on March 31, 1995, ended a 7-month strike that had wiped out the World Series for the first time in 90 years.

“We thought it was well written, tightly reasoned,” union head Donald Fehr recalled this week. “She had done her homework, ran a good courtroom. The experience we had there certainly would suggest that she would acquit herself well anywhere.”

When the National Labor Relations Board went to court that March 27 seeking an injunction forcing owners to restore free agent bidding, salary arbitration and the anti-collusion provisions of an expired collective bargaining agreement, Sotomayor’s name came out of the wheel.

She held a telephone conference call with the parties, decided witnesses weren’t necessary and scheduled oral arguments. After listening to lawyers for 90 minutes, she took 15 minutes to deliberate, then spent 45 minutes reading her decision, making clear the bulk of it had been prepared ahead of time.

“She came to the oral arguments on the case with a decision at hand and used the oral arguments basically to confront her own decision-making,” said Gene Orza, the union’s chief operating officer. “She obviously found the
parties’ arguments did not require any change in the conclusion she had reached.”


Sotomayor grew up near Yankee Stadium and described herself that day as a baseball fan.

“You can’t grow up in the Bronx without knowing about baseball, particularly from a family where their claim to fame is that every member of it has a different team that they have rooted for,” she said, following with a description that showed a sure knowledge of the game.

“The often leisurely game of baseball is filled with many small moments which catch a fan’s breath,” she said. “There is, for example, that wonderful second when you see an outfielder backpedaling and jumping up to the wall and time stops for an instant as he jumps up and you finally figure out whether it’s a home run, a double or a single off
the wall or an out.

“Unwillingly, I have been drafted onto the deck of this field with those of you watching out there, waiting for one of those small moments to happen. I personally would have liked more time to practice my swing.”

In announcing her nomination to the Supreme Court, President Obama said her decision showed “a swiftness much appreciated by baseball fans everywhere.”

“Some say that Judge Sotomayor saved baseball,” he said.

She had harsh words in her decision for owners, who had put in place new work rules, then withdrew them under pressure from the Clinton administration but failed to restore the provisions of the expired contract.

“This strike has placed the entire concept of collective bargaining on trial,” she said.

“The injury to the baseball players for playing time lost because of the unfair labor practices, for the rights that they are not able to effectively negotiate, cannot be adequately compensated by monetary damages,” she told the standing-room only crowd at U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

Players had said two days earlier they would end the strike if she ruled in their favor. But it took two days after Sotomayor’s decision for owners to accept the union’s offer to return to work, and the season began April 26, with the schedules shorted from 162 games to 144.

Bud Selig, acting baseball commissioner at the time, said then her decision was “disappointing and may represent a step backward in our negotiations for a
meaningful agreement with the players’ union.”

Elected commissioner in 1998 and still on the job, Selig refused comment this week on Sotomayor, spokesman Rich Levin said.

Randy Levine, hired in late 1995 as management’s negotiator, bargained under Sotomayor’s injunction, which was upheld by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Levine reached a deal with Fehr in late 1996, an agreement the sides
finally signed in 1997. Players and owners successfully negotiated new agreements without work stoppages in 2002 and 2006.

“We’re very proud that a woman from the Bronx is being considered for the highest court in the land. The judge is a true American success story,” said Levine, now president of the New York Yankees. “I think the judge’s decision enabled everybody to take a deep breath and good faith collective bargaining eventually led to an agreement that made some real reforms and has led to 14 years of labor peace.”

Five years ago, she had another major sports decision. By then elevated to the 2nd Circuit, she wrote an opinion for a three-judge panel putting on hold a lower-court decision that would have allowed former Ohio State star Maurice Clarett to be eligible for the NFL draft.

She said it wasn’t surprising that the NFL players’ union would agree to exclude players such as Clarett from draft.

“That’s what unions do every day — protect people in the union from those not in the union,” she said.

James A. Quinn of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, which represented the NFL Players Association, said she had a fast grasp.

“This is somebody that is an intellectual superstar. A very bright woman,” he said. “I suspect that from what I’ve seen from her in the 2nd Circuit that she is able to take very complex problems and analyze them. She’s a good umpire. She calls balls and strikes well.”

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