Tuesday, November 27, 2001

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig and the 30 team owners served first with their plan to eliminate two teams, likely Montreal and Minnesota, before the 2002 season. An unconnected band of players union officials, stadium authorities, attorneys and Congressmen quickly fired back with a series of grievances, lawsuits, subpoenas and legislative bills.
Now comes Round Three.
Selig and the owners are meeting today in Chicago, site of the vote taken three weeks ago to wipe out two teams, to advance their plans further. Among the agenda items are whether to press on with the plan to contract teams, a possible enhancement of power and contract extension for Selig, and a refinement of its bargaining strategy with the players association. The current accord with the players expired earlier this month.
The stakes are certainly serious enough, as team’s rosters for next season and the further poisoning of management-union relations stand at risk. But with each passing day, time becomes more of an issue and presses upon the owners’ hopes to make contraction a reality before the start of spring training, now just 10 weeks away. Selig originally said he intended to name the teams slated for elimination by late November, and that announcement could come today.
Even if the Twins and Expos publicly receive the fate everyone has expected for weeks, a litany of questions remain. Is there still enough time to organize a dispersal draft for the players on those teams and close out the business affairs of each team? Can and will baseball plow ahead on wiping out the Twins in the face of a Minnesota legal injunction that keeps the club tied to the Metrodome in Minneapolis through next year?
And what of the Florida Marlins? Recent reports out of South Florida suggest current owner John Henry has found a buyer for his beleaguered club, and the most popular candidate within baseball circles is Montreal owner Jeffrey Loria. Under a complex scenario now being discussed, Loria would exit Montreal, leaving the Expos to be either contracted right away or operated as a league-run club until its final fate is determined, and then take over the Marlins.
Henry, also wanting to remain in baseball, would then join a bidding group in Boston led by former San Diego owner Tom Werner seeking to buy the Red Sox.
“Everything that has happened so far has been very predictable,” Selig said. “Contraction remains a viable option for solving our [economic] problems.”
Selig has been reluctant to define a hard, drop-dead date after which contraction could not happen for 2002. But industry analysts widely believe that day has long since passed.
“I’ve never thought they had enough time to do this before next year. Now it’s not close,” said Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economics professor who has written frequently on sports economics and consulted for the players association. “Whether or not they press on anyway remains to be seen. They’ve made their first move and they’ve created chaos in the [free agent] marketplace because of it. Now some further decisions need to be made.”
Turning the Expos into a league-run operation could be achieved much easier for 2002 by nearly all accounts, and that option could ultimately benefit Washington. By keeping the Expos alive, baseball insiders say the owners might then opt to put the franchise up for bid, somewhat similar to its previous expansion efforts, instead of targeting a specific relocation market. Baseball’s general requirements for new markets, such as a solid stadium plan, would still apply, but money would be a primary factor.
Three sources close to the owners last night confirmed the possibility of such a plan. The option holds appeal because buying back the Expos from Loria would cost the other owners perhaps $150 million. That figure could then be doubled or perhaps tripled through bidding, money that would be split among the owners instead of going to Loria.
Meanwhile, baseball continues to elevate its presence here in Washington, the most recent development being the formation of a political action committee. The move is a first for professional sports.
Baseball already is a major lobbying force on Capitol Hill, spending more on lobbying than the NFL, NBA and NHL combined in each of the past three years. The formation of a PAC allows baseball to support favored politicians in more meaningful and directed ways without violating campaign finance laws.
Also on Capitol Hill, Congressional sources said yesterday an initial hearing on efforts in both chambers of Congress to roll back baseball’s antitrust exemption could be scheduled as soon as Thursday. With a mandatory seven days notice of a hearing, that points to a hearing date of late next week at the earliest.

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