BOSTON - Major League Baseball and the players association yesterday neared an agreement that would shelve franchise contraction until at least 2003, sources from both sides confirmed. Such an agreement would allow teams to begin marketing tickets for next season while removing what union executives and agents believed had become a drag on the free-agent market.
"There has been ongoing discussions for several days on this topic. A deal, if it comes, could come at any time," confirmed Major League Baseball executive vice president of baseball opertions Sandy Alderson.
Alderson said reports of a done deal were premature. An agreement appeared imminent on Friday before talks bogged down.
"There's no confirmation at this point ... no settlement," Alderson said. "I don't have any information that something has been done."
A key component of an agreement reportedly would be the Major League Baseball Players Association's concession that the commissioner possesses the right to unilaterally contract (or remove) teams. The union had filed a grievance contesting the issue, insisting any such move was to be part of collective bargaining.
Commissioner Bud Selig's proposal to contract two franchises - widely believed to be the Minnesota Twins and the Montreal Expos - caused a firestorm from both the union and federal and state government officials.
A Minnesota district court judge ruled that the Twins must fulfill terms of a lease that binds them to the Metrodome for the 2002 season. Major League Baseball appealed the ruling but a hearing before the Minnesota Supreme Court was docketed for Dec. 27, a virtual eternity to a game that needed to settle on next season's schedule while also arranging for a possible dispersal draft of the players on the two dissolved teams.
Selig also came under intense questioning during Thursday's appearance before a congressional judiciary committee examining whether to revoke baseball's antitrust exemption.
Selig's presentation of numbers showing more than $500 million in losses was met with almost universal skepticism from lawmakers, union officials and media. Only five of 30 franchises were shown to have turned a profit in 2001; the Orioles reported a $13.7 million loss.
A union grievance over contraction was scheduled to resume yesterday in New York but was recessed given the progress toward an agreement. Talks between the sides will resume today with an announcement possible tonight.
Uncertainty over two franchises' future and the possibility of a dispersal draft has contributed to a lethargic marketplace.
Almost nonexistent bidding for marquee free agents such as Barry Bonds and Juan Gonzalez has caused super-agents Scott Boras and Jeff Moorad to hold impromptu news conferences the past two days at the winter meetings' headquarters. Pitcher Jason Isringhausen became the first free agent of consequence to defect to a new team yesterday when he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals. First baseman Jason Giambi is expected to sign a seven-year deal with the New York Yankees in the next two days.
Teams typically experience their most active season-ticket sales during the Christmas season. Delaying an agreement until after the Dec. 27 appeal in Minnesota would be devastating.
Elimination of two teams would mean the loss of 50 major-league roster spots and instant unemployment for front office and minor-league employees. The Twins and Expos both appealed recently to workers not to abandon them, though both have found it almost impossible to discuss trades.