The attempt by the Boston Red Sox and Texas Rangers to consummate their protracted and high-finance trade involving Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez was thwarted Wednesday when the players' union rejected proposed alterations in A-Rod's contract, ruling he would be reducing rather than restructuring in violation of the labor agreement.
Whether the union will be alone, however, in delivering the final word is still to be determined.
Commissioner Bud Selig, acting on behalf of both clubs and players, all hoping to have the deal go through, might choose to challenge the union's decision and approve the restructuring.
The union would then have to decide on the filing of a grievance that could leave the fate of the trade up to baseball arbitrator Shyam Das amid an uncertain timetable.
Although no one was saying the deal is dead, or that it can't be resolved before Selig's 2 p.m. deadline today (which he could extend while studying his legal options), Scott Boras, who represents Rodriguez, said that unless the Red Sox made another attempt to restructure the contract, "I don't think the trade is going to get done."
One thing is certain: A complicated process became even more clouded Wednesday amid dueling statements centered around the union's decision, which basically prevented completion of a trade that would have sent Rodriguez to the Red Sox, Ramirez to the Rangers and led the Red Sox to trade shortstop Nomar Garciaparra.
The Dodgers, who have made Garciaparra's acquisition their No. 1 priority this winter, are still alive, sources said, despite Internet reports that the Red Sox have conditionally decided to trade him to the Chicago White Sox for outfielder Magglio Ordonez if the Rodriguez trade goes through.
According to sources, the White Sox aren't sure what they would gain by giving up Ordonez for Garciaparra.
Ordonez and Garciaparra are eligible for free agency after the 2004 season, the deal would force the White Sox to trade their incumbent shortstop, Jose Valentin, and they have concerns, the sources said, about Garciaparra's mood and approach, considering he would have preferred to be traded to the Dodgers, basically his hometown team.
There is also the lingering possibility of a three-way trade in which Chicago would send Garciaparra to Los Angeles after trading Ordonez to the Red Sox, but that too may be remote considering the Dodgers were reluctant to meet the White Sox demands that relief pitcher Guillermo Mota and two prospects be included in a trade that would have brought Ordonez to Los Angeles.
Dodger General Manager Dan Evans declined to comment Wednesday, when the Garciaparra phase of the Rodriguez-Ramirez trade possibility was pushed to a back burner by the heated issue of the union's role in the trade process.
Basically, according to a baseball official familiar with the discussions, Rodriguez and the Red Sox had agreed to restructure some of the $179 million remaining on his 10-year, $252-million contract that stretches through 2010.
Some of that $179-million salary would have been reduced and some deferred in exchange for giving Rodriguez the right to become a free agent earlier in his complex contract.
The reduction and deferment would have made it easier for the Red Sox to meet the Rangers' demand that Boston pick up all of Rodriguez's remaining contract while also paying $5 million a year toward the $97.5 million owed Ramirez through 2008.
The labor agreement, which requires that all contracts be approved by both the union and the commissioner's office, prevents the devaluing of an existing contract.
Union lawyer Gene Orza ruled that this is exactly what the Red Sox, in concert with Rodriguez and Boras, had proposed.
"It was clear that it crossed the line separating restructuring from reductions, and by a huge margin," Orza said in a statement. "We suggested an offer the club could make to Alex that would not do that, but, as was its right, the club chose not to make it.
" ... The principal involved is a transcendent one, affecting all of Alex's fellow players. To his credit, Alex recognized this from the outset."
Replied Rob Manfred, baseball's lead lawyer, in a statement: "The basic agreement contains a rule that requires any special covenant to be an actual or potential benefit to the player.
"In a situation like the current situation, where there was a restructuring, where the player was getting something and the club was getting something, Gene Orza is not the final arbitrator on whether the restructuring provides an actual or potential benefit to the player. The commissioner currently is considering his legal options in consultation with the two teams."
It is difficult to predict how it plays out today.
Will Selig extend the deadline? Will he challenge the union and risk prolonged arbitration?
Can the Red Sox and Rodriguez (hungering to leave Texas and play for the Red Sox) restructure his contract in a way that will satisfy the union?
Might the Red Sox, restructuring or not, simply decide to pick up all of the financial obligations?
Or might the Rangers, who would save $81.5 million in the contract exchange even if Boston doesn't contribute to the paying of Ramirez's salary, reduce their demands (which include a young pitcher or two)?
In a statement, Red Sox President Larry Lucchino called it a "sad day" when the union thwarts the "will of its members" with an action "contrary to the desires of its players."
"We appreciate the flexibility and determination that Alex and Cynthia Rodriguez have shown in their effort to move to Boston and the Red Sox," Lucchino said.
Similarly, Texas owner Tom Hicks released a statement in which he said:
"Given the impending deadline imposed by the commissioner's office, the actions of the [players' union] may unfortunately determine the issue."
The commissioner may still have something to say about that.