ST. PETRSBURG, FLA — ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Howard Metzenbaum was preaching to the choir. Whenever he took a verbal shot at Major League Baseball, applause erupted among the crowd of 150-or-so, expansion-hungry Floridians who showed up for yesterday's hearing on baseball's antitrust exemption.
There was no pretense of objectivity. Metzenbaum, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust, Monopolies and Business Rights, is working to remove the antitrust protection afforded baseball by the Supreme Court in 1922.
He was joined on the dais at Bayfront Convention Center by U.S. senators Connie Mack and Bob Graham of Florida, who left little doubt that their involvement in the antitrust issue was linked to the failure of the Tampa/St. Petersburg area to acquire a major-league franchise.
"I must say that Senate hearings don't usually include applause," Metzenbaum said early in the proceedings, "but you're such an enthusiastic audience, what the heck."
The issue is fairly simple. Major League Baseball has been allowed to operate as a legal monopoly, and there is a political movement afoot to make the game conform to the same rules that govern other professional sports. Baseball officials contend that baseball is a unique enterprise and needs the exemption to operate effectively.
What makes the issue complicated is the number of competing interests and issues that come within the scope of the debate.
The topic of yesterday's hearing was "Major League Baseball's Antitrust Exemption: Can a Weak Commissioner Protect the 'Best Interests of the Game'?"
Metzenbaum largely stuck with that agenda, grilling baseball Executive Council chairman Bud Selig on the redefined role of the commissioner -- as it is spelled out in the newly restructured Major League Agreement.
Several other interested parties appeared before the committee, including former pitcher and current Kentucky congressman Jim Bunning and Major League Baseball Players Association director Don Fehr.
The stated topic of the debate begged the question. Metzenbaum and his supporters say the absence of a strong commissioner leaves baseball without its only legitimate argument for maintaining its unique protection from federal antitrust statutes. Selig spent most of the hearing making the argument that the restructured Major League Agreement strengthens the office of commissioner because it outlines his jurisdiction more clearly.
The questioning got contentious at times, with Metzenbaum pressing issues that sometimes belied his lack of knowledge about the workings of baseball management. Selig held his own, but his refusal to concede that the commissioner's office had been weakened only seemed to aggravate the Ohio senator.
"You have undermined the power of the commissioner to do anything to affect public confidence and integrity," Metzenbaum said. "You have made him a figurehead . . . nothing more than a lackey."
"I couldn't disagree with you more," Selig replied. "In relation to labor, that man has as much authority as anybody else in this country."
The owners intend to appoint a commissioner who will be their chief bargaining agent with the players and umpires, but the power of the commissioner to act in the best interests of the game has been limited.
Metzenbaum and Selig argued frequently over the historic role of the commissioner, with Selig making the case that past commissioners seldom ruled on issues that have prompted the latest challenge to the game's antitrust exemption. He tried to persuade the committee that the role of commissioner needed to be clarified after more than 70 years of ambiguity.
"The Constitution has been amended eight times since 1921," he said. "Don't we have a right to make changes that reflect the changing times?"
"You have the right to do anything you want," Metzenbaum shot back, "and we have the right to take away your antitrust exemption."
The two Florida senators, as well as several other local politicians, turned the hearing into a far more parochial exercise that focused heavily on expansion and baseball's 1992 decision to override a purchase agreement that would have moved the San Francisco Giants into St. Petersburg's ThunderDome.
Perhaps the most provincial statement came from Graham, who compared baseball's expansion criteria unfavorably with that of the NFL. Florida recently was awarded an NFL expansion franchise in Jacksonville.
Selig's popularity with C-SPAN watchers in Baltimore undoubtedly went up when he defended baseball's decision to resist team location and move deliberately on expansion.
"I'm sure there are a few fans in Baltimore who remember Bob Irsay's midnight ride," he said, "and there are people in Oakland who would like Al Davis to bring the Raiders back."
Though Selig was respectful throughout his interrogation, he succeeded in exposing the political nature of the Florida-based hearing with a response to criticism of baseball's handling of the Giants sale.
"If we had not acted the way we did in San Francisco," Selig said, "I'd be sitting in front of [California] Sen. [Barbara] Boxer and Sen. [Dianne] Feinstein right now. You're damned if you do and damned if you don't."