- The Washington Times - Monday, April 1, 2002

Not long ago a word reserved for expectant mothers, "contraction" morphed into baseball's pre-eminent buzzword in the offseason.The mere mention of contraction the term used by commissioner Bud Selig to denote Major League Baseball's plan to eliminate two clubs stirred passions from coast to coast, generated several legal challenges and even prompted action on Capitol Hill.
Contraction is now off the table for 2002, and the Montreal Expos, one of the two teams targeted for elimination, is now owned by MLB and will play this season. But contraction remains very much alive in MLB offices and, barring a successful counterattack by the players' union or a sudden change in heart by Selig, will happen in 2003.
"The clubs recognize that our current economic circumstance makes contraction absolutely inevitable," Selig said.
Since the 1994 strike, baseball has suffered under a system in which top-revenue teams outspend low-revenue teams by more than a 7-to-1 margin and clubs in the top half of team payrolls have won 98 percent of postseason games.
But just as when contraction was announced in early November, the move comes with many more questions than answers. Among them:
Other than Montreal, who is truly a viable candidate for contraction? Because of scheduling logistics, teams must be eliminated in sets of two. The Minnesota Twins, the other targeted team, may have a new owner and a viable stadium plan by midsummer. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays have an ironclad stadium lease with more than quarter-century left. MLB will not wipe out the Florida Marlins and give new owner Jeffrey Loria a quick windfall. Kansas City Royals owner David Glass has publicly rejected any attempts to kill his team. And the Oakland A's, despite a still-fruitless search for a new stadium, appear safe due to two straight postseason trips.
Wouldn't it be easier and far more lucrative to move the Expos to the Washington area, or anywhere else out of Quebec, than eliminate them? That's the obvious sales pitch from two Washington-area groups lobbying to purchase and relocate an MLB club. Rumors have been rampant for months that Selig and the owners will ultimately choose that route and sell the Expos to local interests for more than $300 million, yielding a tidy profit over the $120 million they just paid for the club.
Since MLB designed contraction as an attempt to restore competitive balance, is the current imbalance truly systemic or a historical blip? The question lies directly at the heart of much of the current disagreements between management and players. Selig and the owners contend the schism is irreversable under the current economic system. The players counter that just 15 years ago, current high-revenue clubs in Cleveland, Seattle, Texas, Atlanta and Houston likely would have been the contraction-bubble teams.
How would MLB shed teams and then convince the general public that baseball is still relevant? Despite the marked troubles pro sports have had in recent years, contraction to date has been the domain for less popular sports such as soccer and lacrosse.
And beyond these broad queries, there are the thousands of details needing to be settled should contraction happen, ranging from the fate of the minor leagues to fairly dispersing the players and other assets of any eliminated club.
The answers to some of these questions will arrive later this spring when abritrator Shyam Das rules on the players' grievance levied against the contraction effort. Private hearings on the grievance, which was filed shortly after the November announcement, have been held all winter. Management contends it can unilaterally shed clubs at will and the union can only bargain the aftereffects. The players argue that since nearly every significant item in the labor agreement is predicated on the existence of 30 teams, it must be involved at every stage.
The union holds a long record of success against the owners in legal battles, but no one has a true read yet on the outcome in this case.
"There's still quite a lot ahead of us on that one," said Rob Manfred, MLB's executive vice president for labor.
But as time goes on, the contraction debate likely will become far less about shedding teams than about power and control.
"To a certain degree already, this isn't really about contraction anymore," said an industry source familiar with the grievance proceedings. "The owners feel they should be able to run their businesses how they see fit without running to the players all the time. The union, obviously, feels differently."
Relocation, meanwhile, stands as one the most pressing but ill-defined areas for MLB. For two years, Selig has advocated allowing teams to move if their current markets prove economically unviable. With the possible exception of Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, the change in stance came as welcome news to nearly everyone. Plenty of struggling clubs existed and still do, and after some significant initial pain, the NHL and NFL both emerged as stronger leagues after allowing several teams to move in the 1990s.
Two months ago, Selig went further, saying relocation in MLB would happen "much, much sooner than later," and that Washington was "the prime candidate" for such a move. But to date, no defined process or criteria for a move has been publicly identified. MLB relocation point man Corey Busch has studied every potential market in great detail, but has not created any rank order of those cities, nor given the cities any clear framework for what might happen next.
That, in turn, has left bidding groups in the District and Northern Virginia both hopeful and in the dark as to MLB's true and specific intentions.
"There is a sequence at work here. They want to address contraction first and reach a new labor deal with the players, and only after that deal with relocation," said Fred Malek, chairman of the Washington Baseball Club. "We're at least several months away from that, and that sequence, I think, is prudent. We all want to know what the [economic] landscape is going to be."


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