SBJ/April 1 - 7, 2002/Opinion

MLB builds on an ugly off-season

The baseball season began this week, and not a moment too soon. Anything would be better than the off-season to which the game's leaders subjected the fans.

The tingle from the Arizona Diamondbacks' World Series victory over the New York Yankees hadn't subsided before Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig loosed his contraction plan upon an unprepared populace. He followed that with his poor-mouthing performance before Congress at the same time the Boston Red Sox were changing hands for a record-high price.

In subsequent weeks, some of the owners played a dismaying game of musical chairs, a past loan to Selig from then-fellow-owner Carl Pohlad — a conflict of interest in many another industry — was revealed, and the major leagues as a whole created a situation fraught with possibilities for stickiness by taking over the operations of the Montreal Expos.

As all that was going on, the Yankees, rich and talent-laden, helped themselves to the choicest morsels from the free-agent buffet before allowing the less fortunate to feed.

Just to prove they could — and to paste a bit of payback on the D'backs — they upped the ante enough to snare the veteran pitcher David Wells, who'd previously given every indication of an intention to sign an Arizona contract. The Yanks' display reminded anyone who needed reminding about the economic caste system baseball allows to exist.

Making things even less tolerable was the thought that the winter was supposed to be devoted to putting the game on an improved competitive footing. Negotiations between the owners and players' union were expected, with increased team revenue sharing and a tax on big payrolls leading the agenda. Selig placed himself in the forefront of those pushing for the changes, which have wide popular support.

But then came the contraction push that shoved everything else into the background. While it's clear that the Expos can't succeed in Montreal and that other clubs are financially shaky, Selig et al. made a less-than-wholehearted effort to explore franchise moves, two-city franchises or other ways to avoid the pain that killing teams would bring.

Moreover, the lawsuits and arbitration proceedings the action triggered were predictable, as was the likelihood that at least one would succeed and stall the plan. That's what happened, leaving the game to navigate a season with the moribund Expos still in place and fans of the Minnesota Twins and several other teams wondering whether the ax will fall on them. That's not the sort of run-up that breeds enthusiasm.

So inept was the handling of the situation that it left some observers thinking aloud that the outcome was intentional. One theory has it that, faced with an (unnamed) ownership faction determined to shut down the game while it played Armageddon with the union, Selig and his allies put forward contraction as a way to delay a bargaining collision.

Put it off it did, but the talks are under way now, joining the list of distractions from the games on the field. Reports indicate that the union has accepted the idea of greater revenue sharing among the teams, although to protect the fat-cat clubs whose spending buoys salaries it disagrees with management about the extent and method of the redistribution.

Despite (or, perhaps, because of) baseball's history of making a mess of its labor-contract negotiations, this is heartening. Both sides should take care not to let their positions on implementation derail a plan the public would welcome.

After the off-season they've just been through, people deserve nothing less. They also could use a baseball commissioner who's less tone-deaf.

Frederick C. Klein (fklein@mindspring.com) is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.

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