WASHINGTON - Baseball commissioner Bud Selig said yesterday that he remains committed to finding an economic framework that will bridge the huge revenue gap between Major League Baseball's richest and poorest teams, but he stopped well short of predicting another game of hardball with the Major League Baseball Players Association.
Selig, speaking before a luncheon crowd at the National Press Club, restated the need for greater economic parity among the 30 major-league clubs and reasserted his commitment to find a solution that would restore hope to fans of the game's struggling franchises.
"Whatever pain it will take, we will solve this problem," Selig said, "and this game will go on to greater heights than we've ever imagined."
Citing an improved relationship between management and the players union, he expressed optimism that the owners and players can join to fix the complex economic problems that plague the industry, but said that collegial spirit figures to be tested with the end of the labor agreement after the 2001 season.
The last time that owners tried to get a handle on rising salaries and disparate revenues, the effort led to a lengthy strike during the 1994 and '95 seasons. The scars from that labor dispute have healed and Major League Baseball rolled up record attendance in 2000, but Selig said the game was "lucky" to recover.
"The game has come back. ... We were lucky," he said. "We had Cal [Ripken] and then we had Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire and we have great young players like Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra and Alex Rodriguez. The economics have changed, but the game hasn't."
Selig referred several times to the economic study that was produced - at his request - by a panel that included former Senate majority leader George Mitchell, author George Will, former Federal Reserve chairman Paul A. Volcker and Yale University President Richard Levin. The study recommends dramatic changes in the game's revenue-sharing system, including a greatly enhanced luxury tax system.
The commissioner did not say whether he would adopt any of the suggestions in the report, but he stressed that he has a mandate from ownership to do whatever is necessary to restore some economic parity to the industry.
"I know that the vast majority of clubs are quite willing for me to do what it takes to solve this problem," he said.
Selig will have the support of at least one of the big-revenue clubs.
"I understand what his approach is, and I'm completely in accordance with it," Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos said by telephone last night. "Mr. Selig is trying to assure the financial viability of the game, and I'm 100 percent in support of his effort."
Of course, the Washington crowd was more interested in Selig's ability to solve a long-standing problem in the nation's capital - the lack of a major-league franchise - but he was careful not to create false hope.
"I am protective of existing franchises," he said of clubs like the struggling Montreal Expos. "On the other hand, I understand your desires. We haven't moved a team in 29 years. We're going to be damned if we do and damned if we don't."
He seemed to indicate that he would only approve a franchise shift if it were part of a more comprehensive plan to improve the economic condition of the industry.
"Switching franchises doesn't solve your economic problems," Selig said. "We're not going to put Band-Aids on our problems like we have in the past. That may be a solution, but it has to dovetail with a range of other solutions."
Pressed on whether Northern Virginia and D.C. fans should settle for the Orioles as their regional franchise, Selig didn't waver.
"Baseball has become a regional game," he said. "For franchises to be successful, they have to be regional. For teams like St. Louis and Colorado to be successful, fans have to come from all over. But I'm not suggesting that if you're in Northern Virginia you have to be an Orioles fan."