Inside Tulane's arbitration competition

NEW ORLEANS -- The week before the week preceding the Super Bowl, things are usually slow in the host city. But I can personally attest that wasn’t the case this year in New Orleans. During a recent trip to the Big Easy, I met an American film icon in a hotel elevator, caught a glimpse of Adam Richman of "Man vs. Food" fame roaming Bourbon Street in search of good eats, found a restaurant that can do amazing things with Brussels sprouts, and gained some valuable insights into the world of Major League Baseball salary arbitration.

From Jan. 23-25, I had the good fortune to take part in Tulane University Law School's National Baseball Arbitration Competition, which gives aspiring Tal Smiths and Ron Shapiros an opportunity to test their oral advocacy and writing skills against their peers during a nerve-wracking, 36-hour period. This year, representatives from 40 law schools across the U.S. and Canada gathered to argue the cases of Colorado outfielder Dexter Fowler, Mets first baseman Ike Davis and Angels and former Braves pitcher Tommy Hanson before a distinguished panel of experts. And me.

The salary arbitration process doesn’t drive Internet traffic in the same way that, say, A-Rod’s wellness clinic activities make news, but it’s a major item on baseball’s winter calendar. This year, 133 big leaguers with the requisite three to six years service time (along with a select number of “Super Twos’’) filed for arbitration. Teams and players exchange figures in January, and if they can’t reach a settlement, the club and player make their cases before a three-person panel at a hearing in February.

The player’s side is entrusted with proving he merits a salary $1 above the "midpoint," while the team's burden is to show the player should be paid $1 below the midpoint. The financial stakes vary according to the player's service time and on-field achievements. This year San Diego third baseman Chase Headley filed for a $10.3 million award while the Padres offered $7.075 million. Headley settled on an $8.575 contract last week to avoid having to go to a hearing. That's not small potatoes.

The Tulane competition is the brainchild of Gabe Feldman, director of the school's sports law program and a former associate of the prominent Washington, D.C., law firm Williams and Connolly. What began as a six-team, intra-school event in 2006 has since grown into a major national event. Among the 40 schools represented at this year's competition: Arkansas, Florida State, George Mason, Notre Dame, Penn State, Pepperdine, Stanford, Villanova, Virginia and William & Mary.

"The competition gives law school students a unique opportunity to hone their advocacy skills in a field they're passionate about and in front of baseball executives who do this for a living," says Feldman.

As front-office people and agents can attest, the preparation for hearings is exhaustive, and there's an art to the process. In the course of building a case against Dexter Fowler, the Rockies are obliged to point out that his advanced defensive metrics are poor and his home-road splits are pronounced. But they need to do it artfully, in a way that doesn't overly disparage the player and create a rift in future relations.

A player’s "platform" season is pivotal, and both sides have to come up with suitable comparables, or "comps," of recent cases that might help frame the debate for the arbitrator. While judging Fowler's case, I saw references to Michael Bourn, B.J. Upton and Angel Pagan, among other center fielders.

This year's champion was New York’s Pace University, which beat a team from host Tulane in a spirited and exceedingly close final. As a reward for their expertise, Pace students Greg Dreyfuss and Dan Masi and coach Jared Hand came away with bragging rights, an impressive line or two for their résumés and a trophy the size of Jose Altuve.

My big prize came two days before the final, when the guy who chauffeured Miss Daisy, played Nelson Mandela in "Invictus" and served as God to Jim Carrey’s Bruce Almighty happened to be pressing the buttons on my hotel elevator when I worked up the nerve to address him. Morgan Freeman might have thought I was a little unhinged when I told him I grew up in Maine about 15 minutes from the Buxton hay field where he found the note that helped reunite him with his friend Andy Dufresne in "The Shawshank Redemption." But he was kind enough to consent to a photo, which raised my stature considerably with my two daughters.

Next year at this time, Morgan will probably be working on a film in a different locale or scrubbing a boat on that pristine beach in Zihuatanejo. Meanwhile, dozens of bright, ambitious law school students will descend upon the Tulane University campus in New Orleans to chase their personal grail. In the world of salary arbitration, as in life, you can either get busy living, or get busy dying.