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Contraction Signals That Baseball’s About to Birth Something Ugly

What is it about expansion teams winning the World Series that brings out the worst in baseball owners? In 1997, the champagne corks were still damp in the Pro Player Stadium clubhouse when Florida Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga started chopping up his club for parts. It seemed an all-time record for baseball chutzpah—until last week, when the buzz from the Arizona Diamondbacks' thrilling battle with the Yankees was allowed to last all of 48 hours before baseball dropped its latest bombshell: a 28-2 vote of owners to wipe two ball clubs off the face of the map, effective before next spring's first pitch.

One week later, the best guess remained that the two teams "contracted" would be the Montreal Expos and Minnesota Twins, which would be followed by a game of musical owners in which Expos chief Jeffrey Loria would buy the Florida Marlins, while Florida honcho John Henry would end up with Anaheim. But baseball czar Bud Selig has refused to name names, leading to speculation that the announcement was designed to spread maximum panic in baseball markets from Miami to Oakland in hopes of shaking loose some stadium money. "I think the real straightforward strategy is, they're putting the screws to the Twin Cities and Miami," says sports economist Rod Fort. It also serves as a threat against the players union: Give in to a salary cap, or we'll wipe out 50 big-league jobs.

Fort and other sports-business experts have long insisted that axing teams makes no economic sense, because the recouped TV and other revenues would pale in comparison to the estimated $500 million cost of buying out two owners—and that's just for starters. "Whatever long-term leases these two have, even just with popcorn vendors, those are all going to have to be bought out," says Fort. "So the cost mounts, and the cost mounts."

That, along with an expected wave of lawsuits, is why most sports analysts pooh-poohed contraction when it was first broached by Rockies owner Jerry McMorris in 1999. But now some aren't so sure. "Two years ago people thought it was probably 25/75 contraction would work," says sports-business consultant David Carter. "Last year it was probably 50/50; right now it's probably 75/25. And once those teams are announced, it becomes a virtual lock." What was once a bluff is rapidly becoming a line in the sand, especially as high-revenue owners grow increasingly peeved at having to share revenue with their less wealthy brethren; in one story recounted by Sporting News editor John Rawlings, George Steinbrenner told an owners meeting a few years ago that "I would sooner send $1 million to save the whales than send it to the Pittsburgh Pirates!" (Steinbrenner's actual words were apparently saltier than these, but Rawlings wasn't saying.)

Meanwhile, the question most baseball fans are asking is: Why the Twins? Minnesota, after all, is a largish market (14th in the U.S.) with a team that spent the better part of the summer in first place, as fans returned in droves—the team's jump from 1.1 million to 1.8 million in attendance was easily the best in baseball. (For that matter, even Montreal drew moderately well when the team was in contention: From 1994, when the Expos ended the strike-shortened season with baseball's best record, to 1996, Montreal outdrew the Mets.) And while the Twins and Expos were the two lowest-revenue teams in baseball in 2000, this is an honor that many teams have claimed; as contraction opponents point out, a decade ago the targeted teams would likely have been Cleveland and Seattle.

First and foremost, it seems, is that the Twins had a willing owner, billionaire banker Carl Pohlad, who jumped at the chance to get $200 million-plus for the team he bought for $32 million back in 1984. But Minnesota makes an attractive target in other ways as well: With just a one-year lease on the Metrodome, the inevitable breach-of-contract lawsuits are likely to be less costly. And unlike Florida, whose state supreme court ruled in favor of an earlier antitrust suit against baseball, Minnesota's courts upheld baseball's antitrust exemption against a suit relating to the Twins' abortive 1997 move to North Carolina. "I've had people suggest that's a motivation," says Tulane Law School dean Gary Roberts. "If they shut down a team in Florida, they could be subject to an investigation by the Florida attorney general that the courts would enforce."

If the prospect of killing off an original American League franchise (the Twins descended from the old Washington Senators of Walter Johnson and Joe Cronin) for the sake of convenience doesn't turn your stomach, there's an even more nefarious possibility. Since 1998, when Tampa Bay was granted a franchise, baseball owners have been without a viable relocation threat if they aren't kowtowed to by their hometowns. (Seven big-league teams made use of the Tampa threat in the 1980s; almost all got new stadiums as a result.) Minnesota, then, could be the new Tampa Bay, with a ready-made stadium for any owner to hold up as a threat should their new-stadium talks stall.

But as a threat, it seems unlikely to prompt much immediate action, on either the stadium front or the labor front. Legislators in Minnesota and Florida have showed little interest in building stadiums to head off contraction. And as for the union, says Fort, "I think what'll happen is Fehr will look them in the eye and say, 'Fine. You can't.' "

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