Major League Baseball owners yesterday agreed to proceed on their plan to eliminate two teams, likely Montreal and Minnesota, despite a still-growing and formidable gauntlet of legal and legislative opposition.
The original goal of wiping out the teams before next season, however, now stands under serious question following a one-day owners meeting in Chicago. No new votes were taken on the matter, but Commissioner Bud Selig backed off the 2002 plan by refusing yesterday to issue any timetable for contraction or formally name the teams slated for extinction.
“Will we contract? We will contract,” he said. “But when you’re trying to do something historic, it doesn’t come easy.”
Selig said he wants to make some progress on a new labor deal with the players the current accord expired earlier this month before going much further on eliminating teams. But holding up progress on contraction most immediately is a legal injunction in Hennepin County, Minn., requiring the Twins to play the final year of their stadium lease at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. The Twins are seeking to have an appeal on the decision heard early next month.
Selig himself received a strong show of support from the owners, unanimously gaining a three-year contract extension that will keep him in his current post through 2006. Selig, who held the title on an interim basis from 1992 to ‘98, becomes the first baseball commissioner since Bowie Kuhn to be elected to multiple terms.
Baseball’s frenetic offseason continued yesterday on Capitol Hill as well, as the House Judiciary Committee scheduled its first hearing for Dec. 6 on efforts to roll back the game’s antitrust exemption. The witness list is not fully set, but Selig will appear, and players union chief Donald Fehr, Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, and perhaps District Mayor Anthony Williams will likely be among those invited to testify.
At that hearing, Selig said he will release team-by-team financial data that will show the 30 clubs lost more than $500 million this year, only five clubs recorded a profit and industry debt now exceeds $3 billion, the game’s highest deficit ever. The owners last released such data in July 2000, and Selig said the game’s economics have deteriorated significantly since then.
“Our economic problems are far more serious than most people comprehend,” Selig said. “The debt is most worrisome of all. When you have an industry that loses over $500 million, and 25 clubs are in the red, that is a business practice that is not only unacceptable, it is stunningly bad.”
Since baseball announced its contraction plan three weeks ago, the game has been assailed by parties from coast to coast. The players association has filed a labor grievance, which will be heard by an arbitrator starting today. A decision, however, is not expected until early January. Fifteen members of Congress, meanwhile, are assembling what could be the strongest challenge to date on the game’s 79-year-old antitrust exemption.
By not formalizing any timetable on contraction, baseball remains in a decided state of flux. A prospective 30-team schedule for 2002 has been released, but not finalized, meaning teams cannot book any travel yet for road games. The free agent market has been ground to a near-standstill. And players association officials don’t yet know whether upcoming labor talks will be opened in a context of 30 or 28 teams playing next year.
No movement was made at the meeting regarding reports of Montreal owner Jeffrey Loria taking over the Florida Marlins and Marlins owner John Henry seeking to join a group bidding on the Boston Red Sox.
Under Selig’s nine-year stewardship, baseball has more than doubled industry revenues to nearly $4 billion per year, implemented the wild-card playoff system and interleague play and opened 11 new stadiums. The game, however, also wiped out the 1994 World Series and fell further behind the NFL in the allegiance and devotion of U.S. sports fans in that time.
“It is absolutely imperative now more than ever that we have stability and leadership,” said New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. “[Selig] will take baseball where we need to go.”