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September 25, 2001

The Imbalance Sheet

Contraction Action

by Keith Law

The specter of contraction has reared its ugly head again. The very public tiff between Jerry McMorris, principal owner of the Colorado Rockies, and the Montreal Expos, has brought the subject back into the public debate.

For those who missed it, McMorris proposed that last weekend's series between the Rockies and Expos be moved to Colorado, with the Rockies donating the games' receipts to a September 11th charity. The reason would have been obvious enough, but McMorris decided to rub vinegar in the wound by pointing out that playing the games in Denver would draw significantly more fans and raise much more money for the charity than playing the games in Montreal could. McMorris had the facts on his side, but the Rockies' PR department would probably like to slap him with a leash and a muzzle after his ill-considered foray into verbal gamesmanship. One can easily imagine a scenario where the Expos would have negotiated a deal to move the series had the negotiation been conducted in private.

The Expos promptly went out and drew the three worst crowds in their history, failing to reach 3,000 in paid attendance for two of the games against the Marlins, and finding themselves outdrawn by the Northern League's Winnipeg Goldeyes by a factor of more than two. Many pundits who began the calls for the dissolution of two or four major-league teams earlier this year have resumed their ignorant chanting.

"Ignorant" because it's neither feasible nor desirable. Each franchise dissolved takes 25 guaranteed major-league jobs with it, and likely more given the transient but nonzero population of any MLB team's disabled list. Many teams now also give substantial contracts to draft picks and international free agents as well. If MLB eliminates two or four teams, then 60 to 120 or so major-league jobs disappear. How likely is the Players Association to accept that?

Congress would also have a few things to say about the elimination of any United States team. Congress stuck its nose into the last two expansions, threatening hearings if potential buyer groups continued getting the runaround from MLB in their attempts to buy existing teams or expansion franchises. An attempt to undo those efforts would likely be met with unwanted meddling by the boys in Washington.

But the more egregious error that contraction backers are making is thinking that contraction is a good idea. It's not. There are plenty of population bases available to support more major-league teams, from the underserved areas of greater New York (Brooklyn or New Jersey) and San Jose (or Santa Clara) to expansion bridesmaid Washington, D.C., to fast-growing markets like Las Vegas and Austin. There's also a wealth of talent in the minor leagues and overseas that could easily fill another two to four teams beyond what the majors have now without a dropoff in the caliber of play. Adding two teams would allow the majors to return to more sensible scheduling--or even to eliminate the scourge that is interleague play.

If baseball wishes to solve the problem of its poorest franchises, it has several simple solutions at hand. Bob Nightengale of Baseball Weekly recently reported that some owners have considered banding together to buy out the territorial rights claims that the Giants and Orioles have over San Jose/Santa Clara and Washington, D.C., respectively, allowing the A's to move to Santa Clara and the Expos to move to Washington or northern Virginia. Making the case that New York can accommodate and even thrive with a third baseball team would provide another home. It simply requires slightly more creative thinking than the Turing-esque "contraction!" auto-response, and a firm grasp of economic reality.

Keith Law is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Related Content:  Gamesmanship

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