Major League Baseball owners voted yesterday to disband two franchises in an effort to ease the financial strain placed on the industry by a group of struggling small-market teams.
Baseball commissioner Bud Selig announced the decision at a televised news conference at a hotel in Rosemont, Ill., last night, after owners reassembled for a quarterly meeting that had been postponed in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Selig did not specify which two clubs would be bought out by the remaining teams and folded - leaving fans in at least four major-league cities to wonder whether they will have a team next season. Recent speculation has centered on the Montreal Expos and Minnesota Twins, but the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Florida Marlins also appear to fit the criteria that the owners set for reducing the number of major-league franchises from 30 to 28.
"It makes no sense for Major League Baseball to be in markets that generate insufficient local revenues to justify the investment in the franchise," Selig said. "The teams to be contracted have a long record of failing to generate enough revenues to operate a viable major-league franchise."
The decision to contract rather than relocate franchises to new markets appears to be a huge blow to the efforts of prospective ownership groups in Washington and Northern Virginia to land a National League team. Selig would not entirely rule out relocation but said it would not be part of the current attempt to solve baseball's economic problems.
"Merely transferring existing problems to another ownership group or another city would only exacerbate the problem, not resolve it," he said. "If you move the problem from Point A to Point B, you've still got the same problem in a new location."
The immediate benefits of contraction are twofold. The 28 remaining teams each would get a bigger share of the majors' $2.5 billion television deal, while saving as much as $20 million per year in revenue-sharing payments to each of the two poorest teams.
If baseball goes through with the plan, it would be the first time the majors have downsized since 1899, when the National League reduced the number of franchises from 12 to eight by dropping the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Senators, Louisville Colonels and Cleveland Spiders.
Among other major sports, the National Football League last lost a franchise in 1951, when the Baltimore Colts shut down, cutting the number of teams from 13 to 12.
In 1954, the National Basketball Association's Baltimore Bullets disbanded, reducing the league from nine to eight.
The National Hockey League went from 18 to 17 teams in 1978, when the Cleveland Barons and Minnesota North Stars merged, with the new franchise located in Minnesota.
"We're plowing historic ground here," Selig said. "Obviously, no modern American sport has done this, and so understand there will be a fair number of potholes along the way."
The biggest obstacle will likely be the Major League Baseball Players Association, which has contended since the first talk of contraction that any reduction in the number of major-league teams would have to be negotiated as part of the next collective bargaining agreement.
`Most imprudent,' says Fehr
Though union officials do not dispute Major League Baseball's right to determine the number of franchises, they consider contraction a subject for collective bargaining because of the impact it will have on a large number of players.
Clearly, the announcement rankled union director Donald Fehr.
"Today's announcement by the commissioner that the clubs will attempt to immediately eliminate two as yet unnamed major-league clubs is most imprudent and unfortunate," Fehr said in a prepared statement. "This decision has been made unilaterally, without any attempt to negotiate with the players, apparently without any consideration of other options, including relocation, and seemingly with little concern for the interests of the fans.
"We consider this action to be inconsistent with the law, our contract, and perhaps most important, the long-term welfare of the sport."
Selig indicated that management would seek to work out a deal on contraction before undertaking negotiations on a labor agreement to replace the one that expired at the end of the World Series.
The owners also moved to calm concern about an impending work stoppage by announcing they would not stage a lockout or implement a free-agent signing freeze this winter.
Still, the statement from Fehr hinted at a return to the bitter labor relationship that spawned the 1994-1995 work stoppage and forced the cancellation of the 1994 World Series.
"This is the worst manner in which to begin the process of negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement," Fehr said. "We had hoped that we were in a new era, one that would see a much better relationship between players and owners.
"Today's announcement is a severe blow to such hopes."