Major League Baseball has spoken with its plan to eliminate two teams, likely the Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos, before the 2002 season. Now comes the opposition.
A federal bill to be introduced today by Sen. Paul Wellstone, Minnesota Democrat, and Rep. John Conyers, Michigan Democrat, designed to limit baseball’s antitrust exemption severely, highlights a multipronged, though uncoordinated, attack on baseball’s first attempt at “contraction” since 1899.
Joining the congressmen with baseball in their crosshairs are the Major League Baseball Players Association, which has filed a formal labor grievance against the league; Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch, who plans to sue if baseball folds the Twins; Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who subpoenaed baseball yesterday; and a growing band of season ticket holders, stadium authorities and municipalities, all of which also plan to file lawsuits claiming breach of contract or restraint of trade.
Aside from Conyers and Wellstone, none of the these parties is working in conjunction with each other. But their goal is the same: prompting baseball to find and enact other solutions to its competitive and fiscal disparity problems.
“Congress is not going to sit on their hands while a bunch of billionaires conspire with each other to cut jobs and threaten our cities and states,” Conyers said.
In baseball’s celebrated 140-year history, the game has done plenty to generate widespread public discord, ranging from the Black Sox gambling scandal of 1919 to the 232-day players strike of 1994-95 that wiped out the World Series. But perhaps never before has the game been subject to such a simultaneous legal and legislative assault, one that is just starting.
“Certainly, this is the most action against baseball since ‘94,” said Mark Conrad, professor of sports law at Fordham University School of Business. “What we’ll see going forward is whether we have real legal issues or if the problem is more political.”
Baseball’s antitrust exemption, which has been in place since 1922 though modified since then, currently allows the game to expand, move or fold franchises as it wishes and operate an intricate minor league system. No other major sports league in the country enjoys such federal protection, and the exemption already has survived numerous stiff challenges from Congress. Wellstone and Conyers aim to remove the protection on moving or eliminating teams.
“The end result of baseball’s special treatment has been the perpetuation of a closed, cartelized industry in which the few, incumbent club owners possess inordinate power over fans, players, municipalities, vendors, and potential expansion investors, who all remain economically marginalized,” Wellstone, Conyers and six other members of Congress wrote yesterday in a letter to their colleagues on Capitol Hill.
The players union primarily is fighting contraction on the grounds that nearly every element of its basic agreement with the owners ranging from licensing to player movement to revenue sharing is predicated on the existence of 30 teams. A hearing on the grievance may happen as soon as early next week. But if arbitrator Shyam Das rules in favor of the owners, the union still has plenty of ammunition at least to postpone contraction long enough so its application for 2002 is impossible.
Also in their arsenal is a delay in the approval of the final 2002 schedule the union must sign off on the schedule for it to take force and a potential case before the National Labor Relations Board.
The struggling Florida Marlins and Tampa Bay Devil Rays are not expected to be the teams baseball owners aim to wipe out. But Butterworth’s investigative subpoena seeks all of league records pertaining to contraction and relocation with the aim of determining what the league’s plans are as soon as possible. Baseball has yet to name the two teams to be contracted. Both the Marlins and Devil Rays have been the subject of relocation rumors involving Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia.
“The people of Florida are entitled to some straight answers about the future of major league baseball in this state. … The owners’ meeting may represent a classic example of competitors gathering to restrict competition in order to reap excess profits,” Butterworth said.
By reducing baseball’s roster of teams from 30 to 28, each remaining owner stands to gain a larger piece of shared revenue from national television and licensing contracts.
MLB spokesman Rich Levin confirmed receipt of the Florida subpoena and said the league has no initial plans to contest it. Commissioner Bud Selig said last week league lawyers have spent thousands of hours preparing for a legal onslaught.
“We have received [the subpoena] and will deal with it in due course,” Levin said.