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Legally Speaking: Could MLB wade into the Chase Field debate? Maybe

The interior of Chase Field is pictured Sunday Aug. 30, 2015 in Phoenix. Chase Field is home of the Arizona Diamondbacks. (Cronkite News Photo/Jacob Stanek)
LISTEN: Derrick Hall, Diamondbacks President and CEO

Will Major League Baseball get involved in the dispute between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Maricopa County Stadium District over Chase Field? Will it force the D-backs to leave their downtown Phoenix home?

It was legally possible, but not probable — at least not unless the situation becomes extreme.

At this point, the fight between the D-backs and the county is a landlord-tenant dispute. No matter how anyone wants to spin it, the basic premise was an argument over which party should pay for repairs.

Legally speaking, there were essentially two types of repairs involved: capital repairs and everyday maintenance repairs.  The D-backs argument was the county was contractually required to pay for needed repairs through the end of their lease in 2027.

The last known cost of these repairs was estimated around $185 million.

Maricopa County has denied responsibility and claimed repairs were the legal responsibility of the team.

What makes this divide even wider is that the county doesn’t have the money to pay for the repairs. The team has suggested it would pay for repairs in exchange for some reduction in rent and/or equity but the county refused to go down that road.

Before taxpayers get upset and claim this was just a play by a professional sports team to get more money from the county, let me point out that, in the contract between the parties, the county did agree to be responsible for a particular class of repairs and to save the money for those repairs.

You see, it all comes down to what repairs are needed and how are those repairs are classified.

This is not the same situation the Arizona Coyotes, Glendale and the National Hockey League faces.

This is not about a team in bankruptcy and the league taking ownership. This is not about a city changing its mind and trying to find a reason to cancel or void a contract.

This is about a landlord, a tenant, a piece of property and a contract. But with all things in life that seem simple, a complication is often just a step away.

That arose in court this week.

In oral argument over the county’s motion to dismiss the team’s complaint and send the battle to arbitration, Leo Beus, lead attorney for the Diamondbacks, told the judge that the league was very concerned with the situation.

This started the flood of speculation and rumors that the league was ready to jump in, take over and move the team.  As I wrote above, it is possible but not likely — at least not yet.

Major League Baseball is a business with a lot of working parts. If one part fails, it affects the other parts and disrupts the system. The league does not want that to happen.

If Chase Field falls into further disrepair, safety issues will arise, which causes problems with the players, the staff and the public.

Games cannot be played or have to be postponed; schedules have to modified. This would affect thousands of people, from vendors, to parking attendants, to security, to media personnel, to ticket outlets, to transportation services — you see what I am getting at.

There are legal consequences to all of these actions. In the extreme, worst-case scenario, Chase Field would have to be shut down and the D-backs would have to be moved to a different facility.

Moving them to another city also isn’t easy. The league has contracts with teams about their locations and their territories cannot be modified simply.

Now, add unintended consequences into the mix, one of which is precedent. Does the league want to set the precedent of getting involved with disputes between the teams and their landlords?

This could lead to it getting involved with disputes between the teams and their cleaning crews, or their security or their vendors.

Could the league get involved? Sure. Team president and CEO Derrick Hall spoke with Doug & Wolf 98.7 FM, Arizona’s Sports Station on Thursday and confirmed this:

“I don’t like any of this happening during a great season. Court hearings are scheduled and they take place. MLB has the ultimate authority and they naturally are very concerned in light of what happened … a little over a month ago. County attorneys made reference to a leak that was, ‘Mop up and move on,’ which I think is not fair or accurate.

We had to evacuate the building just prior to opening the gates. They found out about this – having to relocate people, move people out of suites We have been warning the County Stadium District about this for quite some time as the building gets older. Now it has happened.

That’s near-catastrophic and if we did not have air-conditioning that day, we can’t play baseball. So I think when you hear Major League Baseball saying that they would move us out, it’s more temporary, because obviously [owner] Ken (Kendrick) and I would never want to leave Arizona. That’s not our intention and we never said we’d want to. This is our home. This is where we want to be.

There’s nowhere to play in the marketplace if something like that happens indoors and in the summer, so I think Major League Baseball is talking about an emergency or a contingency plan and, again, they do have the ultimate authority.

An emergency. That is what it would likely take to get the league to step in, take control and move the team. For now, fans can focus on the successful season the D-backs have had thus far and continue to support the hometown team through the end of their season — which will hopefully be in November.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Karen Mullins is set to make a decision as to whether the team and county will continue to play ball in a courtroom with a judge or in arbitration with an arbitrator. Either one will cost thousands of dollars.

She assured the parties her decision would be made in the next two weeks.

I am personally hoping the parties end up in mediation and soon. Neither side wants an angry fanbase, a frustrated team, canceled contracts, legal consequences or a big baseball field that is sub-par and falling into disrepair.

There is a legal way to sort it out but is going to take common sense, a lot of dedication and very hard work.

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