SBJ/June 15 - 21, 1998/No Topic Name

MLB thinks the once unthinkable

To save Major League Baseball from the perils of its ailing markets, it may have to abandon at least one of them.

That was one of the the messages emanating from Major League Baseball's truncated owners' meetings, held last week in Seattle.

"We can't consign a team to bankruptcy," said Bud Selig, chairman of Major League Baseball's Executive Council. "I hope [relocation] isn't coming. But if we have to move a club that can't compete because of its economic situation, then that's what we'll have to do."

With new, revenue-friendly ballparks popping up throughout baseball — nine built since 1992, four under construction and more likely on the way — the gap between the haves and have-nots has widened significantly.

The gap is too wide to be erased by revenue sharing, most owners agree. The only remedies are to fix the market or leave it. The latter hasn't happened since the winter of 1971, when the Washington Senators were allowed to leave for the promise of booming Dallas. That could change.

MLB's struggling franchises — the Montreal Expos, Minnesota Twins, Florida Marlins, San Diego Padres and Pittsburgh Pirates can't all fit in baseball-hungry Northern Virginia. But the likelihood that one of them will go is growing.

"If [a move] is what must be done, it will be done," said Claude Brochu, president and general partner of the Expos. "That being said, I still think we're going to get it done in Montreal."

Many of baseball's troubled markets are approaching critical junctures. The Expos have set a deadline of the end of June for their efforts to secure funding — both public and private — for a $250 million park in Montreal. The Twins' fight with city fathers has been well-documented. The Pirates are two weeks away from a crucial vote on stadium funding in Pittsburgh. The Padres appear to have momentum, but their deal hasn't been finalized.

And then, there are the Marlins. They need a new stadium, too, but first they need to line up an owner — a situation that has become more problematic with team president and putative buyer Don Smiley apparently unable to line up the money he needs.

It all adds up to a line of potential movers, with Montreal pacing the field.

The Expos made progress on staying in Montreal recently when they lined up $100 million Canadian ($68 million U.S.) from Europe's Interbrew, the maker of Canadian beer Labatt, in exchange for naming rights on the proposed ballpark. But Brochu said the team will still need more corporate and public money to fund the project and stay north of the border.

"The only way of doing it," Brochu said, "is to establish a partnership between the club, the business community and government. You've got to put it all together."

Several years ago, Brochu looked outside the Expos partnership for help. "I went to Bell Canada, a huge multibillion-dollar business," Brochu said. "They said, 'Here's a $5 million donation to keep the team in Montreal. Don't ever come back for any money. I don't want to ever see you again.' You say thank you very much and accept the reality."

The reality is that if a club in an underperforming market is to succeed, it must find a way to generate the revenue to compete. Or, find another market.

"It may be that it's going to take economic failure in one of these cities to wake people up," said Angels president Tony Tavares. "Americans don't respond to warnings any more. What Americans respond to is emergency. Until you get to that point, it's hard to get people to act."

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