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Contraction Signals That Baseball’s About to Birth Something Ugly

If Selig carries out his threat, what happens next would be uncharted territory—the last time baseball lopped off a handful of franchises, after all, the McKinley administration remained mum on the matter. But a few things seem likely:

  • Lawsuits, lawsuits, and more lawsuits. The public authority that runs the Metrodome has already gotten a temporary restraining order halting contraction until a judge hears its argument that the Twins' lease forces them to play the 2002 season in Minnesota. Meanwhile, the Florida and Minnesota attorneys general have each declared they'll file antitrust suits if their teams are abolished; authorities in Virginia and Oregon, rumored relocation sites for the Expos, could join in the litigious fun as well. "As an antitrust lawyer, I don't think there are any issues here," says Roberts, who nonetheless considers contraction a dumb move. "But that's not to say that some judge in a town whose team is going to get taken away won't find some antitrust problem." Add in potential suits by season-ticket holders, the players union, and those popcorn vendors, and contraction-related cases could be clogging up the courts for years to come.

    Illustration by Stan Shaw

  • Renewed congressional attention to baseball's finances. Minnesota senators Paul Wellstone and Mark Dayton and Representative John Conyers of Michigan were preparing to introduce a bill to repeal baseball's cherished antitrust exemption this week, while Senator Tom Harkin, whose home state of Iowa could lose minor-league teams if baseball shrinks, has asked the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold hearings. Even if these bills die in committee—which seems likely—having baseball's cherished financial records dragged through the mud on the Hill can't be at the top of MLB's to-do list.

  • Complete meltdown in the hot-stove league, with free agents clueless as to whether a team bidding on them will even exist come spring. The Twins, who had seemed likely to name coach Ron Gardenhire as their new manager, have now put off that decision until they know whether he'll have a club to manage. In one nightmare scenario reminiscent of the "syndicate ball" era that prompted 1890s contraction, the Montreal Gazette suggested that Expos owner Loria, in anticipation of buying the Marlins with the proceeds from his buyout, could simply ship his best players to Florida in exchange for a bucket of balls before contraction takes hold.

    And if all parties play their cards wrong, there could still be a lockout by spring training as well. Pitchers and catchers report in three months. Let the countdown begin.

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