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January 21, 2003

Prospectus Feature

The Appearance of Misconduct: A Conspiracy Theory Worth Considering

by Tim Walker

Jonah Keri has ably analyzed the Colon trade and its ridiculousness for the Expos. I want to focus on the deal as an indicator of the shadiness and shame implied by the league's ownership of the Expos.

First, some background. For better and for worse, Major League Baseball is a legal cartel. As such, it may be thought of as a sort of open, friendly conspiracy (it conspires to keep any competing league from offering top-level baseball in North America). Nothing wrong with that in itself -- we happily put up with cartels in most of our major sports, and in other areas of life as well. And as long as I the consumer understand the arrangement, benefit from it, and have some kind of recourse to get out from under it, what's the problem? No one makes me spend money on MLB or the NFL. If I have a beef with one of these cartels, I can always boycott their sponsors, or push for new laws to rein them in, or just go to Longhorn games instead. So far, so good.

But for their own long-term health, sports leagues must convince their consumers that they field a fair product, or else the entire attraction of honest competition is ruined. By this token, baseball's fans must be able to believe that MLB holds itself in check by various means, whether in the structure of the amateur draft, or in a player's arbitration calendar, or in the rules of the waiver wire. These rules (and many others) allow for open explanations of events: The Red Sox signed Johnny Damon fair and square under the free agency rules; the Yankees got stuck with Jose Canseco's contract because the Rays really were looking to unload him via waivers; there's only so long the Expos can hold onto Vlad Guerrero thanks to his free-agency calendar. And so on.

Whether we like an individual piece of news or not, we have reason to believe that matters were handled out in the open. The league's internal rules are made even more potent in this regard since they're monitored by a powerful player's union and, at least in theory, by an independent press.

Onto the problem at hand. The very nature of the league's ownership of the Expos raises the specter of misconduct - of a violation of consumers' trust - because it subverts this system of checks. Because the league now controls the Expos' players, this specter extends not just to Expos fans, but to fans of other teams (like the Red Sox), and to followers of the league as a whole.

Protestations of innocence from Selig & Co. are irrelevant. Maybe the Commissioner does have firewalls in place such that he holds no sway on the Expos' day-to-day operations. It doesn't matter. Again, it is the very nature of the arrangement that opens the way for back-channel, conspiratorial explanations for events. Indeed, given the current arrangement, it actually becomes logical to entertain such notions.

Most conspiracy theories fail at the level of common sense because they have too many moving parts - too many conspirators, too many secrets to keep, and so on. Most folks can then deflate these elaborate theories with simple questions: What bizarre overlap of motives would lead the Mafia to cooperate with Cuban communists to assassinate JFK? By what elaborate system of coordination would the Trilateral Commission pull the levers that run the world? It's not that the conspiratorial explanations are impossible, just that they're so unlikely that they fail the sniff test for most folks: "Huh? . . . Naah, that could never happen." Put another way, these theories fail the test of Occam's razor. That is, they don't supply the simplest explanation that fits the available facts.

In the case of the Colon trade though, it may actually be simpler to use a conspiracy theory to explain what happened. Consider:

  • The league owns the Expos and controls the few blue-chip players the club has available to trade.
  • The Red Sox and the Yankees, after much public effort and several rich competing offers, failed to acquire Colon.
  • The White Sox (owned by Selig crony Jerry Reinsdorf) came from out of the picture to acquire Colon and vastly improve their chances of unseating the Twins in the A.L. Central.

It is of course possible that Omar Minaya merely fell down on the job of extracting maximum exchange value for Colon, and that Ken Williams succeeded in pulling off a rare, masterful three-way trade. Minaya did clear a huge chunk of payroll and get a 'name' pitcher; Cashman simplified his glut of starters; Williams helped push his club to the front of its division. It's possible that the whole exchange is a case of three GMs doing their jobs.

But a Selig-led or -inspired conspiracy to make this trade happen would require only (a) cronyism on Selig's part -- which we may take as a given -- and (b) two phone calls. It's merely a thought experiment, but how hard is the following scenario to believe?

  1. Selig determines that the Yanks shouldn't get Colon. It would make them an even more prohibitive favorite to win their division, the A.L. pennant, and the World Series. Plenty of Yankee-haters would point out that the icing on their championship cake came from the league-owned Expos, and Selig has no interest in doing Steinbrenner any favors anyway.
  2. Selig determines that the Red Sox shouldn't have Colon, either. He already had to put up with too much guff from the press for awarding the franchise to his own favored bidder rather than to the highest qualified bidder. There were also plenty of league-watchers who questioned the two trades last season of Cliff Floyd, since the deals involved the three franchises that were involved in the game of ownership musical chairs the prior winter. No more of that.
  3. Understanding how close the White Sox are to retaking the A.L. Central (a matter Rob Neyer addressed the other day), Selig decides to do his old pal Reinsdorf a favor.
  4. Selig calls Reinsdorf.
  5. Selig calls Minaya (or Expos club president Tony Tavares).

Elapsed time? A few minutes. Advanced planning? None. Number of actors? A handful: Selig, Reinsdorf, Minaya/Tavares, Williams, and Cashman. The last two would only be doing their jobs and wouldn't need to conspire at all, which leaves only three or four interested parties - Selig, Reinsdorf, and Minaya/Tavares - to keep their mouths shut. This scenario's low number of moving parts lets it pass the sniff test.

It also passes another informal test that hadn't occurred to me until I bounced the theory off my buddy Paul, who has long experience in electoral politics and public-relations work, and even longer experience as an MLB-watcher. He found the theory plausible enough that he recast it another way: If he were Selig's p.r. man, and he knew that this deal had gone through without Selig's knowledge, he would scramble to make it known - for example by leaks to friendly reporters - that the Commissioner had no involvement in the deal. In other words, he would ensure that Selig had clear deniability.

It doesn't matter whether Selig had a hand in the Colon trade. In the long run, it probably doesn't matter whether the deal pushes the White Sox over the top or not. What matters is that the league has put itself in a position where speculation like this even makes sense. Each day that Major League Baseball owns the Montreal Expos is a day in which baseball fans have yet another reason - another very good reason - to question the league's integrity and, by extension, their own support of the game.

Fix it, Bud.

Tim Walker is a business writer in Austin.

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