Major League Baseball apparently remains committed to disbanding two franchises, but commissioner Bud Selig hinted yesterday that the industry's controversial contraction plan probably won't be implemented before the 2002 season.
"Baseball will contract," Selig said, after owners huddled for the second time in three weeks at the O'Hare Airport Hilton Hotel outside Chicago. "I can't give you a timetable today. Some things are out of our hands."
The owners gathered to receive an update on the plan to reduce the number of franchises, but the only decision announced yesterday was that Selig's term as commissioner had been extended through 2006 by a unanimous vote of the 30 clubs.
Selig's term was set to expire at the end of 2003 - and there was no reason to believe that his term would not be extended at that time - but owners wanted to make a show of solidarity as they prepare to enter into another round of collective bargaining with the Major League Baseball Players Association.
The fate of the contraction plan is far less certain. The owners are expected to designate the Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos for dissolution, but the negative response from the union, the federal government and the localities involved has created a morass of legislation and litigation that could delay the shutdown of any franchises for at least a year.
Major League Baseball has been ordered by a District Court judge in Hennepin County, Minn., to maintain the Twins franchise through the end of its Metrodome lease next season. The players union also has moved to stop contraction by filing a grievance charging that owners did not act in good faith when they made the decision to contract without entering into collective bargaining to resolve related matters covered by baseball's just-expired labor agreement.
If that isn't enough for management to chew on, congressional hearings have been tentatively scheduled for Dec. 6 to review the sport's precious antitrust exemption.
In the face of all that, Selig released a report yesterday that claimed Major League Baseball lost $500 million last season. He said that 25 of the 30 franchises lost money and that the central office had to guarantee loans to a number of clubs to keep them solvent.
"We've had to help clubs, quite frankly, to stay afloat," Selig said. "We're doing something now we should have done years and years ago: We're addressing our problems. We had an option to do something and we just didn't do it. ... The loss stunned everybody. The debt is even more worrisome to people we do business with."
If that's true, then the contraction fight may be little more than a preliminary bout in another protracted labor dispute with the players.
Management claimed in the early 1990s that more than half the major-league franchises were losing money, but the union chalked that up to creative bookkeeping and fought successfully to prevent the implementation of a hard salary cap.
Of course, the lengthy labor dispute cut short the 1994 season and forced the cancellation of the World Series that year, which alienated fans and depressed attendance for several seasons. The owners and players vowed at the time to forge a new, more cooperative relationship, but it already has been put to the test with the first public appearance of friction between the two sides.
Selig sought to allay fears of a 2002 lockout following yesterday's meeting, but the decision by the owners to extend his term and their apparent commitment to contraction point toward another hardball attempt to change the economic structure of the sport.
The labor agreement expired on Nov. 7, and there have been no substantive negotiations toward a new one. Instead, the owners and union officials have been jockeying over the date of the hearing with arbitrator Shyam Das to determine whether contraction must be collectively bargained.
Selig had little to say on any other subject, but he discounted reports that a deal had been reached to transfer ownership of the Florida Marlins from John Henry to Montreal Expos owner Jeffrey Loria and denied speculation that Major League Baseball would run the Expos franchise if it is still operating in 2002.
In the absence of a definite contraction plan, the Twins announced that they will begin mailing out season-ticket renewal applications this week, but will not yet move forward in their search for a replacement for retired manager Tom Kelly.
Local fans have not given up on saving the Twins. The leader of a group trying to keep the Twins in Minnesota delivered petitions with 110,000 signatures to Selig and Twins officials yesterday, but baseball probably won't consider maintaining the franchise unless state officials reverse course and endorse the construction of a new downtown ballpark.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.