Economics drive contraction talk

By Tracy Ringolsby
November 8, 2001

MILWAUKEE — In the ’90s, Major League owners welcomed expansion, and the $450 million they divided from the expansion fees paid by the four new franchises.

Today, the owners are paying the price.

Commissioner Bud Selig admitted Wednesday that the two most recent expansions were factors in owners giving ”overwhelming¹¹ approval to eliminate two teams by the start of next season.

Selig also said he has targeted baseball’s annual winter meetings, which will be held in Boston Dec. 9-13, as a deadline for working out details for contraction.

While Selig declined to identify the teams targeted for elimination, all indications are Minnesota and Montreal are the top two choices with Florida the backup.

“I can’t put a time frame on it with all the things that needed to be worked, but it has to be done expeditiously,” Selig said. “I would hope it could be handled by the meetings.”

Selig balked at the idea contraction could be delayed until 2003 to allow more time to work out details.

“We do not want to have two lame-duck teams,” he said. “We had a lame-duck team in Milwaukee in 1965 because a judge ordered the Braves to play here for one more year. They drew 565,000. It was very painful for the team, and for the people in Milwaukee. Nobody was better off from that experience.”

While a heavy fog obscured the panoramic lake view from Selig’s office, Selig said he was trying to clear up the long-term vision of baseball.

“We can’t look for short-term gratification,” he said. “We have to look down the road and understand the impact.”

The expansions, which created the Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies in 1993 for an expansion fee of $95 million each, and Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1998 for an expansion fee of $130 million a team, provided short-term gratification, but created long-term trouble, he admitted.

The Rockies are considered one of the financially stronger franchises, but they have shown losses each of the last three seasons.

Florida is a potential contraction candidate, and also has been mentioned as the No. 1 candidate for relocation to the Washington, D.C., area. Tampa Bay would also be on the list for contraction or relocation, but has a long-term lease that makes any move with the Devil Rays more difficult.

Amid the celebration in Arizona over Sunday night’s victory against the New York Yankees in Game 7 of the World Series that earned the Diamondbacks a world championship is the sobering reality that Arizona will lose in excess of $50 million in 2001, increasing the franchise debt to more than $250 million, according to sources close to that franchise.

“There is no question that two expansions, one after another, was more than baseball could handle,” said Selig. “Branch Rickey used to say it’s all right to talk expansion, but it has to be digestible.

“With all the good things from the last decade, the three-division alignment, the addition of a wild-card, inter-league play and a return to the unbalanced schedule, two expansions in a five-year period was hard for the game to digest.”

Selig said he finds contraction a better alternative than bankruptcy.

“We have gone 30 years without franchise movement,” he said in refuting the suggestion baseball is bluffing about contraction. “No sport has bent over backwards more than baseball to keep its teams in place. Š To say that there are markets that provide insufficient new revenue to complete in Major League Baseball is a fact. In fact, if not for other owners subsidizing other teams some clubs would be out of business already.”

Selig was surprised as the strong negative reaction from Don Fehr, head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, but stood behind his statement when contraction was announced on Tuesday that there have been contraction discussions with representatives of the players association.

Baseball’s Basic Agreement expired on Wednesday, but Selig said the decision to eliminate teams is a separate issue.

“(Contraction) is not something we have done to create leverage or threaten the players,” said Selig. “It’s too early to tell (if it will impact negotiations on the Basic Agreement), but I would hope not. Whether it helps or hurts is something only time will tell.”