- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 13, 2001

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has spent a fair amount of time in Washington over the past year. Between Capitol Hill hearings, charity fund-raisers and White House visits, Selig has made nearly a dozen trips to the District since last fall, a rather high number considering the city has no major league team.
And in that time Selig has made a reversal of opinion that would rival any congressman.
Once one of the game's staunchest traditionalists and preservers of the status quo, Selig is now by far baseball's leading advocate for contracting as many as four franchises from the current 30-team lineup. The move, unseen in baseball since 1899, would be designed to address the game's alarming economic and competitive disparity.
In a season that has both Barry Bonds and the Seattle Mariners chasing history, Selig's strong consideration of removing teams has become the year's defining note so far and has pushed relocation talk involving Washington, Portland, Ore., and other cities to a back burner.
Contraction is not formally on the agenda for a two-day owners' meeting starting this morning in Pittsburgh, and no vote on the issue is planned. But the issue is steadily being researched by the league and promises to be a hot topic among the owners' informal discussions.
"The economic situation is so pervasive and the problems are so pervasive that everything will come under consideration," Selig said.
But can contraction be done? Should it? And is Selig serious, or is the idea of contraction simply a bargaining tool as many have suggested, a bluff for labor talks with the players union once they begin in earnest this fall? The debate surrounding and answers to those questions likely will remain the game's biggest story this summer.
On one hand, contraction seems to make perfect sense. Almost every other business similarly entrenched in American culture closes unproductive plants and eliminates unpopular products all the time.
It's possible to argue, for example, that General Motors and its products are far more integral to American life than major league baseball. And not a day goes by that GM does not assess its financial health and make significant decisions based on its findings, including closing plants or removing entire product lines when necessary.
"If General Motors or any other large corporation had part of its operation failing economically to the glaring degree that some baseball teams are, drastic steps would absolutely be taken and far quicker than the pace baseball's on," said Dean Bonham, a Denver sports marketing executive who has worked with many MLB teams.
In that vein, the evidence against Montreal, Florida, Tampa Bay and Minnesota the four most likely targets of contraction is rather damning. The quartet combined to post just two campaigns above 2 million in home attendance since 1993; 2.5 million is seen as the minimum benchmark for fiscal health. And the Expos, Marlins and Twins have floundered for years trying to get new stadiums built.
Contraction also holds the promise of improving the quality of play on the field. With as many as 100 major league jobs eliminated, the game would certainly see a reduction of gopher-ball happy relievers sporting ERAs above 6.
"I don't know that it will happen, but sure, it would have an effect," Baltimore manager Mike Hargrove said. "It would make teams deeper, make them a little more solid."
But contraction also could give baseball far more problems than it solves by lopping off a few franchises. Among the potential tripwires:
Marketing. No other major sports league has lost a franchise since the original Baltimore Bullets of the NBA folded in 1954 this despite rampant and sometimes unsuccessful expansion by each league across the country. Becoming the first league since then to close down a team could bring a heavy dose of negative publicity when baseball is already battling image problems.
Minor League Baseball. Major League Baseball is bound by contract with its 160-team minor league counterpart to provide each club with a big league affiliation. It could be a difficult sell to have the remaining major league teams take on extra minor league affiliates to fulfill that contract.
"We've looked into the possible ramifications of this for quite a while now," said Mike Moore, president of Minor League Baseball. "It's difficult to know what's going to happen until we get a little more clarity on what they're going to do. But we certainly want to maintain as many teams as possible."
Cost. The owners of each contracted team would need to be bought out, and sources within the game point to a starting price of $200 million for each franchise. Also requiring financial buyouts would be key personnel of each team, such as presidents and general managers, and large vendors, such as concessionaires. The money likely would come from shared pools like network TV contracts and licensing revenues funds many of the other small-market teams desperately need.
Lawsuits. Just the mere mention of contraction has engaged lawyers in Florida and Minnesota and made them prepared to file breach of contract suits against baseball. Nearly every stadium in the league was built with at least some public funding, and much of that funding came attached with covenants to stay put for an extended number of years. The Devil Rays, in particular, have a lease for Tropicana Field that runs through 2026.
"[Lawsuits are] the strongest tool we have," Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth told the Associated Press. "I'd be glad to use that quiver in my arrow or any other tool I can find."
The union. Any contraction would require a three-quarters approval vote by the owners and then acceptance by the players union. The players have not been notified in any form of the owners' intent to contract, but if and when they do, they are expected to fight the potential job losses vigorously. Union executive Donald Fehr likely will not deviate much from his long-held argument that, besides the New York Yankees, baseball's haves and have-nots have fluctuated significantly in the last decade, making the singling-out of any one team unfair.
The contraction talk, not surprisingly, also rankles the two local bidding groups trying to return baseball to the Washington area.
"I don't think that's a viable answer when you have markets such as this more than ready to embrace major league baseball with open arms," said William Collins, head of a Northern Virginia-based effort to land a team.
More fundamentally, however, there is the question of whether contraction would achieve the desired effect. For example, the Yankees' 1999 revenues still topped those of Kansas City, the No. 26 earner, by more than $114 million. Without a much larger and more systemic answer to baseball's economic ills, contraction likely will generate a reality similar to the current one, just with less teams.
"This is a very real issue for baseball," Bonham said. "But it cannot be the sole answer to the problem."
Staff writer Mark Zuckerman contributed to this report.

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