No shortage of motives involved in contraction plan



November 25, 2001|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Baseball owners will return to Chicago on Tuesday, apparently to discuss the fallout from their announcement two weeks ago that they plan to disband two struggling franchises before the start of the 2002 season.

Commissioner Bud Selig isn't saying what will come out of that meeting, but it seems fairly obvious that the owners are about to modify their contraction proposal to deal with the predictable obstacles that have sprung up in its path.

Did anyone seriously expect Major League Baseball to be able to shut down the Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos without a fight?

Baseball is under court order in Minneapolis to maintain the Twins franchise at least through the 2002 season. There is a bill pending in Congress to further modify the sport's longstanding antitrust exemption. And the Major League Baseball Players Association is awaiting an arbitration hearing on its grievance aimed at blocking the controversial plan.

The only logical thing for the owners to do now is get some of the heat off by admitting that the attempt to eliminate franchises in such a short time frame was impractical. Baseball has appealed the court ruling in Minnesota, but the wheels of justice do not turn fast enough to straighten out the situation before MLB has to finalize the 2002 schedule.

In short, the Twins will play at least one more year at the Metrodome, which will buy time for someone to come forth with another stadium proposal and - just maybe - save them from extinction. The Expos likely will play next year, too, but nothing is going to save baseball in Montreal.

Selig will be left to do what he should have done in the first place, concentrate on reaching a new labor agreement with the union, using the prospect of contraction as a bargaining chip to extract payroll concessions from the players.

Of course, that appears to have been what this was all about in the first place. Why else would the owners make such an onerous announcement just two days after the end of one of the most uplifting World Series in recent memory?

Even after the miscalculations that spawned the disastrous 1994-95 work stoppage, it's difficult to believe that the owners ever really thought they could pull off a two-team contraction in the space of 3 1/2 months - the time between their Nov. 6 announcement and the opening of spring training camps.

The plan called for a Dec. 15 dispersal draft of the players employed by the two disbanded franchises, but that obviously was based on the presumption that the proposal would meet with only token resistance from the union and the two municipalities impacted by the decision.

Factor in the marginal economic benefit of spending $400 million to buy out the two franchises in exchange for bigger slices of the national television pie and smaller revenue-sharing outlays, and the contraction plan begins to look like a bait-and-switch.

The union would have considered contraction little more than a bargaining bluff if it had been introduced during the early rounds of collective bargaining. Now that it has been forced to take it seriously, it could have some effect on ownership's attempt to change the economics of the industry.

Tuesday's meeting also might have a second purpose - to show ownership solidarity with Selig at the outset of collective bargaining. Though Selig has ordered the agenda to be kept strictly confidential, it reportedly will include a vote to extend Selig's reign as commissioner beyond the end of his current term in July 2003.

There is no reason to believe that Selig would not be reelected in 2003, but an extension would send a message to the union and to any potentially insurgent owners that baseball's current power structure is here to stay. The negative reaction generated by news of the extension vote, however, might prompt Selig to remove it from Tuesday's agenda.

Marlins sale on agenda?

Baseball owners also may consider an offer from an unidentified party to buy the Florida Marlins from John Henry for $150 million and keep the franchise in the Miami area, according to the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.

If that's true, the potential sale debunks earlier speculation about a contraction-related deal that would have set up Expos owner Jeffrey Loria to buy the Marlins and Henry to use that money to take control of the Anaheim Angels.

Henry reportedly remains interested in acquiring another major-league team, so a deal with the Walt Disney Co. for the Angels still would appear to be a strong possibility.

Don't count out Anderson

Brady Anderson may have looked like a guy who was playing out the string last year, but don't be surprised if he bounces back with a solid all-around performance in 2002.

Anderson clearly needs a change of scenery. It was obvious that he did not fit into the club's rebuilding effort and the impending retirement of close friend Cal Ripken had to make it difficult to stay excited about playing in Baltimore.

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