Selig's contraction hint causing jitters

ON BASEBALL

March 11, 2001|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has picked up the hammer. The only question is who he intends to drop it on.

Selig told reporters last weekend in Arizona that he has changed his mind and now would consider the possibility of closing down struggling, small-market teams as part of a doomsday solution to the industry's economic problems.

"I will tell you today that the economic situation is so significant, and as I would call it pervasive, that I wouldn't take contraction off the table," Selig said. "It's one of the options out there that we are considering. No question about it, I have had a change of heart."

And, apparently, a change in strategy.

If baseball owners are truly open to the idea of boarding up under-performing franchises, they may finally have created the leverage they need to improve the economic condition of the game.

Contraction is a double-barreled threat that could hit home with the players union - because it would put players out of work - and also with municipalities that are reluctant to support new stadium construction.

It may be little more than a bluff right now, but with another labor war on the horizon, it could represent a potentially huge bargaining chip for management in the economic power struggle with the players union.

On the local level, at least one small-market team - the Minnesota Twins - is using Selig's chilling comment to advance its attempt to get a new ballpark.

"As it relates to the Twins, is it something were concerned about? Sure," said Twins chief operating officer Kevin Cattoor. "It's something that should concern the state of Minnesota.

"If contraction is an issue with the state of Minnesota, we're in a position to make it a non-issue by being pro-active and addressing the ballpark issue."

Selig's apparent openness to the concept of contraction also has to send a discouraging message to the people who have worked so hard to bring Major League Baseball back to Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia.

Though Selig also has indicated that he would be more open to the idea of moving struggling franchises, his comments on contraction suggest that he recognizes the folly of moving a strapped team into an area where it would compete with a healthy franchise.

Strange farewell

The protracted spring training saga of injured outfielder Albert Belle appears to be at an end, though the disposition of his contract leaves room to wonder whether the Orioles will be able to close the book on him anytime soon.

The team had little choice but to put Belle on the 60-day disabled list, since a straight release would have endangered the insurance coverage on his contract.

Instead, he'll be on the DL indefinitely and receive his regular paycheck, perhaps for the remaining three years of the deal. Over the same period, the insurer will reimburse the club for about 70 percent of Belle's $13 million annual salary - including about $9 million in deferred compensation.

The Orioles just want the thing to be over, but it is not out of the realm of possibility that Belle could attempt a comeback a year from now.

The club declared him "totally disabled" and is confident his arthritic hip will prevent him from ever playing again, but two-sport star Bo Jackson came back from hip replacement surgery to resume his baseball career - albeit for a limited time.

Belle, to his credit, is walking away while he can still walk, but he has yet to spend a full year of his adult life without baseball. Who really knows what he will do next?

Management award

There haven't been a lot of nice things said about the Orioles' front office the past few years, but owner Peter Angelos and his front-office staff appear to have handled the difficult Belle situation as well as it could have been handled.

This could have been a real mess. The club would have been within its rights to declare Belle unfit to play the day he showed up at spring camp, but team officials allowed him to come to that conclusion by himself.

That allowed the Orioles and Belle's agent - Arn Tellem - to work out an exit strategy for the volatile star that protected both Belle's interests and the club's with a minimum of public discomfort.

There still are some open issues, but the money the club expects to recoup from the insurance policy on Belle's contract should provide a major boost to its organizational rebuilding project.

Actuarial backlash?

The insurance payoff on the remaining $39 million due Belle - estimated at about $27 million - will be the largest ever made on a baseball contract, which could have far-reaching repercussions on the way contracts are structured and insured in the future.

"The market hasn't been tested with a major payoff," said New York Mets general manager Steve Phillips. "This could make it interesting."

Insurers have shown some reticence to join in baseball's salary boom. The Texas Rangers could only get coverage for the first five years and $100 million of the record 10-year, $252 million contract they gave superstar shortstop Alex Rodriguez.

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