The Chicago Cubs on Thursday won the first round of a legal fight with Commissioner Fay Vincent to block his mandated realignment of the National League.
U.S. District Judge Suzanne B. Conlon, in Chicago, approved the Cubs' request for a preliminary injunction that temporarily halts the realignment process and ruled that Vincent exceeded his authority in ordering the Cubs into the West Division after the club had exercised its rights under the National League constitution and vetoed the move.
" . . . It is clear that the broad authority granted the commissioner by Article I of the Major League Agreement is not as boundless as he suggests," Conlon wrote of Vincent's use of his "best interests of baseball" power.
Vincent issued a statement saying he was disappointed with the decision and would file an immediate appeal with the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to lift the injunction. That appeal was filed Thursday, and the court was asked for an expedited decision. No date has been set for a hearing or exchange of briefs.
Several baseball people speculated Thursday that the appeals process probably will delay the approval of a 1993 schedule so long that realignment would be impossible.
"It's too early to tell (about that)," Deputy Commissioner Steve Greenberg said. "At some point, a decision on '93 will have to be made. It depends on how quickly the Seventh Court acts."
That, however, might not be the end of it. A reversal of the injunction ruling might prompt the Cubs to appeal to the Supreme Court, which would further delay the actual trial on the Cubs' contention that Vincent exceeded his authority.
The courts have always supported the commissioner's power. The 7th Circuit has established precedent in that regard, ruling against then-Oakland Athletic owner Charles Finley in 1978 after Commissioner Bowie Kuhn had cited his "best interests" authority and blocked Finley's fire sale of Joe Rudi, Vida Blue and Rollie Fingers.
Conlon, however, said Thursday that Vincent's decision violated Article VII of the Major League Agreement, which gives the commissioner power to decide disputes between clubs when there is no other mechanism for determination.
Although attorneys for Vincent argued that his "best interests" power, as articulated in Article I, overrode any other clause in the agreement, Conlon wrote, "Article VII expressly limits the commissioner's jurisdiction to resolution of disputes 'other than those whose resolution is expressly provided for by another means.'
" . . . Reading Article I in light of Article VII, the commissioner lacked the authority to unilaterally abrogate the Chicago Cubs' (veto) rights under . . . the National League constitution," she continued. "Accordingly, there is a strong likelihood that the Chicago Cubs will prevail on the merits."
Conlon also wrote that the Cubs have a unique contractual right to remain in the East Division, and that monetary damages could not compensate "for the loss of the intangible benefits of this unique right."
She basically supported the club's contention that Vincent's authority, as outlined in the Major League Agreement, is limited to correcting "an act, a transaction or a practice . . . not in the best interests of baseball." The Cubs argued that Vincent's decision to realign the league was based on no such act, transaction or practice.
"I would hope that the commissioner wouldn't argue with the umpire on this one," said David Hiller, a lawyer for the Tribune Co., which owns the Cubs.
"While the matter is not yet finally resolved, the action today was a good thing for Chicago, the Cubs, their fans and the game of baseball."
Vincent ordered realignment on July 6, citing the National League's 10-2 vote in favor of it and the practicality of a geographical alignment.
His decision moved the Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals to the West Division with the expansion Colorado Rockies. The Atlanta Braves and Cincinnati Reds were moved to the East with the expansion Florida Marlins.
Although the Major League Agreement says the commissioner cannot be sued by the clubs or any of their executives, the Cubs went to court on July 7 to seek an injunction, saying their fans would suffer irreparable harm from the move by the loss of traditional rivalries and later starting times on the club's cable network.
Citing the intangible benefits of remaining in the East, Conlon said the Cubs had qualified for an injunction by proving irreparable harm.
Her rebuke of the commissioner seemed to provide fodder for those owners who have expressed concern over Vincent's use of power.
It was learned Thursday, however, that several clubs who favor realignment, including Atlanta and the two expansion teams, are considering a show of support for the commissioner in his appeal by filing independent briefs or separate legal action against the Cubs.
President Stan Kasten of the Braves said in a statement that the Braves would take whatever steps are necessary--active or passive--in support of "our own best interests."
National League Vice President Katy Feeney, who chairs the scheduling committee, said work continues on several 1993 formats, but time is a significant hurdle because the schedule first has to go to the clubs for approval, then to the players' union. The collective bargaining agreement calls for union approval by Oct. 1 at the latest.
"I can't say there's a definitive date by which a schedule would have to be in place in order to realign in 1993, but it should have been done months ago," she said. "This means everybody will have to scramble."