CHICAGO Roger Clemens vs. Curt Shilling in Game 7 of the World Series made for some incredibly gripping and historic theater. But Sunday night’s high drama in Phoenix still may prove no match for the Bud Selig vs. the owners vs. the players union battle now set to unfold.
Team owners and league officials are meeting here today to begin plotting their intended course of action for perhaps the most daunting offseason in baseball history. On the tentative agenda are no less than the possible elimination of the Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos through contraction, and the drafting of a labor negotiation strategy that, if it backfires, could lead to the game’s ninth work stoppage since 1972.
The current accord with the players which required a 232-day players strike and more than two years of negotiation to reach expired following the conclusion of Sunday’s World Series finale.
The game has dealt with franchise instability, wide competitive disparity and labor unease before. But never before has Selig and the owners grappled with all these issues simultaneously, with so much divergence of opinion both internally and externally or in an era where baseball’s annual revenues are soaring toward $4 billion.
“We have some very tough decisions to make,” Selig said during the World Series. “I don’t know if people understand how complex this puzzle is. There’s a lot of pressure on me and us to begin and solve these economic problems.”
The contraction issue is by far the most prominent and contentious issue on the table for the owners’ first meeting since June, and not just because the game has not eliminated any franchise since 1899. Selig for months has contended contraction remains a viable option to help correct the game’s fast-growing fiscal and competitive imbalance, one that has seen teams in the top 10 of team payroll win more than 95 percent of all playoff games since 1995.
But it remains unclear whether the owners will truly have the fortitude to pay as much as $500 million to wipe out the Twins and Expos the two teams most often rumored for contraction and withstand the legal and public relations onslaught certain to follow.
Also uncertain is what contraction would do to greater Washington’s chances of landing a major league team, and whether the players union is entitled to participate in the final decision. Union chief Donald Fehr insists he is, while Selig is expected to push on a vote on contraction before talks on a new labor deal start as a means to gain leverage. Wiping out two teams would eliminate 50 major league jobs and potentially all those with the minor league affiliates connected to those teams.
The union has yet to be formally briefed on any ownership intiative, players association spokesman Greg Bouris said last night. Until a new labor deal is struck or a lockout or strike is called, terms of the old agreement will remain in place.
Several industry sources said Selig and Twins owner Carl Pohlad, frustrated by years of financial losses for his team and inability to replace the sterile Metrodome, both particularly want to have a vote today on contraction.
But Pohlad has been pilloried in Minnesota newspapers in recent days over his apparent willingness to eliminate a franchise that traces its roots to 1901 as the original Washington Senators and a charter member of the American League. That reaction may prompt a last-minute push by the 86-year-old Pohlad to reconsider.
Though Selig also typically does not bring an issue to vote unless he has the votes, contraction is by no means unanimously embraced among the owners. With the widely varying economic states of each of the teams come widely varying agendas. Contraction requires approval by at least 23 of 30 owners.
“We’re talking about a very diverse lot here,” said one baseball insider close to Selig. “Bud wants this, but it’s not necessariy a slam dunk.”
Baseball’s troubled franchises also include the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Florida Marlins and Oakland A’s. The Twins and Expos, however, are the favored candidates because of their anemic fan support and the relative ease to contract them.
The Expos, of course, are far and away the game’s foremost embarassment. Their average draw this year of 7,935 at Olympic Stadium was beaten by many minor league teams. Owner Jeffrey Loria has stopped even trying to build a new stadium, and local media exposure is nearly nonexistent.
The Twins, meanwhile, drew an average of 22,287 per game this year, sixth-worst in baseball despite a surprise push for the AL Central title. Minnesota only has one more year on its Metrodome lease and minimal debt while the red ink-laden Devil Rays are locked into their Tropicana Dome for another quarter century.
The Marlins are still trying to get a new stadium built in downtown Miami and have also been the source of two relocation rumors. One has Marlins owner John Henry leaving the team in Florida for Loria, who wants to remain in baseball, and then buying the Anaheim Angels from Walt Disney Co. Another has Henry moving the Marlins to Washington. Neither scenario, however, appears well formed to date.
“Like everybody else, we’re anxiously waiting to see what happens,” said Mike Scanlon, spokesman for the William Collins-led group trying to bring a team to Northern Virginia.