Baseball proposal may face squeeze

Lawsuits, union stance among many obstacles to contraction plan

November 08, 2001|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Major League Baseball may be hell-bent on contraction, but the decision to fold two franchises before the start of the 2002 season faces so many obstacles that the final outcome could be much different than baseball owners intend.

The Major League Baseball Players Association, the strongest union in professional sports, has made it clear that the players will fight to preserve the 30-team configuration that ownership now considers unworkable.

The owners already face a restraining order and a court hearing aimed at preventing them from folding the struggling Minnesota Twins that was scheduled for today and rescheduled for Tuesday in Minneapolis.

And the announcement to postpone any discussion of relocation could lead to another congressional challenge to baseball's antitrust exemption.

In the face of all these predictable responses, baseball commissioner Bud Selig moved ahead decisively with his announcement on Tuesday night that the owners had voted to buy out the owners of two floundering small-market teams - believed to be the Twins and Montreal Expos - and disband them.

Selig did not name the teams or set a specific timetable, leaving open the possibility that the announcement was the first salvo in a hardball collective bargaining strategy aimed at gaining payroll concessions from the players union, but the announcement still sent shockwaves through several major-league cities.

Baseball probably will get no significant resistance from Montreal, which has shown little inclination to support the Expos, but the owners are certain to face myriad challenges from any other city targeted for contraction. Virtually any entity that might suffer financial harm because of the plan could muddy the situation with a lawsuit.

The most stalwart resistance, however, figures to come from the players union. Executive director Donald Fehr voiced his strong displeasure with the announcement on Tuesday night, and gave every indication the players would avail themselves of all legal and collective bargaining options to oppose the plan.

The players may not technically have any recourse against ownership's ability to determine the number of franchises that will play next year, but the 80 roster positions that would be affected by the plan are under union jurisdiction.

The union also has the right to strike, now that the most recent collective bargaining agreement has expired. In a worst-case scenario, the players could simply refuse to show up to work next season if they aren't satisfied with the contraction plan. It seems more likely, however, that a deal would be struck to expand major-league rosters to absorb all of the displaced players.

Though Selig insisted the announcement was "absolutely not a bargaining ploy," there is also the possibility contraction could be traded off in collective bargaining for payroll concessions from the union.

It is the likely resistance from the union that has buoyed the spirits of the groups working to get one of the struggling small-market teams to move to Washington or Northern Virginia.

Fehr's statement on Tuesday night portrayed relocation as a more workable option, leaving members of the Northern Virginia group with hope that a team could be moved there by 2003 as part of a collective bargaining settlement.

"I think the outfall of this is that relocation is still on the table," said Mike Scanlon, spokesman for the Northern Virginia baseball group that has been working the past seven years to secure an expansion franchise or an existing club. "We feel it will be discussed in the negotiations with the players union. We still like our chances."

Scanlon said yesterday his group also is encouraged by a seemingly unrelated news event that took place Tuesday night - the election of new Virginia governor Mark Warner.

"Mark Warner was one of our organization's original members," he said. "There is no question the political support is there. The planets are aligned. If you're going to do it, do it now. There is no time to delay."

Maybe the Washington/Northern Virginia hopefuls are grasping at straws.

Selig indicated during his news conference on Tuesday night in Chicago that Washington was not an "acceptable" market.

Northern Virginia's best hope might lie in the possibility that Congress will revisit Major League Baseball's precious antitrust exemption, which might place pressure on Selig to take another look at relocating at least one of the struggling teams.

No doubt, the spurned legislators of Minnesota would be willing to join hands with Virginia and Washington to call for hearings on the subject if baseball goes ahead with contraction. Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota said he'll introduce a bill to strip Major League Baseball of the antitrust exemption it's held since 1922.

It was that kind of pressure that persuaded baseball to put two teams in Florida, a decision that owners have come to regret and Northern Virginia's prospective owners cite as proof that their area is better suited for a franchise.

"They should have put the Tampa Bay franchise in Northern Virginia during the last expansion," Scanlon said. "We were right then. I feel fairly confident about our chances now. We're a determined group. We're not going to let this slip away."

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