The owners' big bluff

Selig & co.'s threat to get rid of two baseball teams is a heavy-handed ploy to wring concessions from the players union.

Published November 8, 2001 8:01PM (EST)

In the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series, Mariano Rivera threw wide to second base after a bunt attempt, and the powers that run Major League baseball groaned. Without the Yankees as champions, there was no clear argument that the big-market teams dominate baseball, and without that there was no clear argument for why the owners would need to force their revenue-sharing plans on the players in the upcoming negotiations. Never mind that the Yankees haven't come close to "dominating" in any season but 1998, that they haven't been as good as (let alone better than) several other teams with fewer resources and that their success has been due to a remarkable ability to pull together in clutch situations.

For nearly five years, the fact that the Yankees keep winning the World Series has been the principal argument for the owners' contention that small-market teams (meaning teams with relatively small revenue streams) cannot contend with big ones. Now, as they attempt to squeeze the players union in upcoming negotiations, they won't have the Yankees to kick around anymore.

After all, the Seattle Mariners and Oakland A's, two of baseball's most oft-cited "small-market" teams, established the best records in baseball, while the National League's best records were posted by two teams in midrange market cities, Houston and St. Louis, and the eventual winner, Arizona, was ... well, what exactly is Phoenix, a large, small or intermediate market? That's part of the problem these days, remembering exactly who is in a big market and who is in a small one. A couple of years ago the Baltimore Orioles, because of their new Camden Yards ballpark, were supposed to be a big-market franchise; now, a couple of years later, even though the Orioles still pack 'em in at the yard, the O's whine like a small-market team because Mike Mussina wants out. What happened? Nothing to cut the Orioles' revenue, just some new ballparks in other cities, which boosted other teams' attendance to Orioles levels.

So who exactly are the small-market teams that can't compete? One, it seems, is the Minnesota Twins, who finished with a .525 won-lost percentage, the 15th best record among 30 teams, and the Montreal Expos, who finished at .420, which is pretty lousy but still beats Baltimore (.391) by a long shot. (Guess a new ballpark wouldn't help the Expos much.) Anyway, those are the names being bandied about for "contraction," the newest term in baseball's ever-growing list of nonbaseball terms that every fan must know. Simply put, contraction means death; the teams that must undergo contraction will declare bankruptcy and sell off their players to other teams. That's the theory, anyway.

It's not going to happen, of course; MLB would be bogged down in so many lawsuits and restraining orders from the cities that are now home to the "contracted" teams that it'd be tied up for years. And if this is obvious to me, it's obvious to the Players Association, which the bluff is aimed at. The way this is supposed to work is that the owners go into negotiations saying, "Times are rough for us -- either you give us some kind of agreement that keeps us from competing with each other for players or we shut down two shops and close out 50 jobs." This is supposed to cow the players into agreeing to some form of salary cap or luxury tax that will hold salaries down.

I swear, these guys never learn. The Players Association is a union, no matter how wealthy and successful its members, and it thinks like one. First, the players would tell the owners that it's no dice even if it did mean shutting down the teams, as no self-respecting union -- and the MLBPA is nothing if not self-respecting -- can afford to let itself be bullied by the threat of closing into taking a lesser deal. Second, the players would remind Commissioner Bud Selig that a contraction would practically be a death knell for the owners' precious anti-trust exemption -- particularly since the absurd conflict of interest that has the commissioner owning the team, Milwaukee, that would most benefit from Minnesota's closing would convince all but the thickest congressman that the exemption is a sham. Particularly when the owners are willing to pay a buyout estimated at two to three times the franchises' value just to kill it off. And did I mention that the national networks that paid such enormous sums to MLB thinking there would be MLB teams in those cities are not going to be happy?

Shortly after Sept. 11 Bud Selig told the American press that baseball was a social institution and, as such, carried large responsibilities toward the American public. Well, all that sure changed in a hurry. In times of hardship you gotta do what you gotta do, even if it means cutting responsibility toward Minnesota and Montreal. Well, screw Montreal, they're not American anyway.

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As for those dominating Yankees, I'm straining to recall a worse performance in a World Series. When was the last time you saw a team get beaten four straight in its opponent's park by a combined total of 26 runs? Has that ever happened in baseball history? Did you see a single decent performance by anyone on the Yankees besides Roger Clemens and Mariano Rivera? Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina were both outpitched twice, no one seemed to have two decent at-bats, Paul O'Neill suddenly forgot everything he had ever learned about running the bases and Scott Brosius, with the game on the line in the final inning, forgot to throw to first and complete a double play. Joe Torre seemed to have no strategy or plan but to pray that he was a run ahead after seven and ask Mariano Rivera to pitch two innings instead of one. In retrospect it seemed inevitable that if Rivera ever gave up a run, it was all over.

The Yankees got the crap beaten out of them, and yet, at the very end, they were a single good play away from taking it all. It was like watching Custer's Last Stand and realizing that the 7th Cavalry was just an arrow away from victory at Little Big Horn.

One more point. If Major League managers start listening to the old-fart experts, there are going to be a lot of bum arms in baseball next season. The idea that if Curt Schilling can go twice on three days' rest, why can't everybody else? -- you know, like they did in the old days -- completely overlooks the most important point. It's not how many innings you throw, but how many pitches, and Schilling, on this current streak, was able to pitch on short rest because he hadn't thrown that many (about 105 or so) in two previous starts. But to do that on a regular basis would mean turning Schilling into a six- or seven-inning (or maybe just five-inning) pitcher during the regular season. Ask Arizona manager Bob Brenly if he wants to do that or leave Curt Schilling the way he is.

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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