With Selig, news always goes from bad to worse

ON BASEBALL

July 14, 2002|By Peter Schmuck

Major League Baseball may well be in the desperate economic straits that beleaguered commissioner Bud Selig described on Wednesday, but it's still hard to believe that he would follow up Tuesday night's All-Star fiasco with another dose of doom and gloom.

The easy explanation is this: Selig, who is nothing if not a bit transparent, made his dire proclamations about the possible insolvency of one team (believed to be the Tampa Bay Devil Rays) and the immediate financial problems of another (the Detroit Tigers) to take the focus off the All-Star controversy and do some more public relations posturing in advance of the resumption of collective bargaining negotiations.

If only it were that simple.

Selig's statements certainly had that effect, but it is not unreasonable to speculate that they might also signal a much more complex bargaining strategy that includes the threat of increased contraction and the sale of a new franchise to one of the prospective ownership groups in Washington.

Arbitrator Shyam Das is set to rule Aug. 1 on the Major League Baseball Players Association's grievance over Selig's November announcement that baseball would eliminate two teams. If management's right to do so is affirmed, the owners could expand contraction to three teams, then auction off one new Washington/Northern Virginia franchise at a premium price.

Several recent events point in that direction, particularly the revelation that the Devil Rays might be on the verge of bankruptcy. The expansion Rays always were a more logical contraction candidate than the Minnesota Twins, who now appear likely to get a new ballpark and survive. The only thing keeping the Rays from becoming a disappointing footnote in baseball history is their long lease at Tropicana Field, but baseball may be in a more favorable position to negotiate a buyout if the team becomes insolvent.

The Expos apparently are going to be eliminated, though baseball could choose to auction the club with its roster intact. If so, a third team would have to be contracted to maintain an even number of franchises.

The next logical candidate is the Florida Marlins, but that would put baseball in the uncomfortable position of vacating a populous state that exerted great political pressure on the industry to get two expansion franchises during the 1990s.

It has become fairly obvious that neither the Miami nor the Tampa Bay area is enamored with regular-season baseball, but it seems unlikely that both franchises would be eliminated.

Selig's warning on Wednesday also could be a pre-emptive move in the event that the arbitrator rules against the owners and insists that contraction be negotiated as part of the new collective bargaining agreement. The owners might then allow some franchises to go bankrupt in an attempt to sidestep direct union involvement in the contraction process.

Taxing matters

Management officials say that the union is playing an obstructionist shell game with its opposition to ownership's proposal for dramatically increased revenue sharing and a 50 percent luxury tax on payrolls over $98 million.

The union, after all, chided the owners in the early 1990s for not agreeing among themselves to share more revenue. Now, with Major League Baseball eager to share 50 percent of local revenues, the union is balking.

"Generally speaking, they promote things that are inaccessible," said MLB executive vice president of baseball operations Sandy Alderson. "They promoted revenue-sharing when they knew ownership was not willing to share based on the politics of ownership at the time."

The union has countered with a smaller revenue sharing proposal that it claims will do more for the poorest clubs than the ownership plan.

De facto salary cap

Why are the players so adamantly opposed to the 50 percent luxury tax on excess salary over $98 million? Because the union views the proposal as a salary cap in sheep's clothing.

If the richest clubs continue to spend heavily, the tax would transfer money to the small-market clubs, but the tax is intended - on its face - to discourage that kind of spending.

The union knows that if the owners put a leash on the New York Yankees, it will negatively impact bidding on free agents across the board and drive down salaries, but that isn't the only thing they have to fear.

It would take little more than a nod, a wink and a couple of seasons for the owners to turn the $98 million tax threshold into a de facto $98 million hard salary cap, since it would only require a handful of teams to begin cutting back on spending to reduce to that level.

Cardinals need arms

The St. Louis Cardinals were hoping to deal for two pitchers by the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, but now general manager Walt Jocketty is conceding that getting one quality veteran might be a very tall order.

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