March 21, 2003
Exposing MLB's Contraction Plan
Last spring, MLB settled its lawsuit with the Minnesota Twins' landlord within days after being ordered to produce sensitive internal documents relating to contraction. Some of these documents have now been leaked to the press. As this Newsday article, and others like it, show, just months after MLB's hand-picked Blue Ribbon Economic Panel had concluded that contraction was unnecessary, high-ranking MLB executives had begun a yearlong process of identifying which teams should be killed.
MLB originally identified eighteen teams as potential contraction candidates. By December 11, 2000, the list was down to eight clubs: Anaheim, Arizona, Florida, Kansas City, Minnesota, Montreal, San Diego and Tampa Bay. That day MLB received a 12-page memo from its attorneys summarizing the stadium leases, broadcast rights contracts and other key issues for each of these clubs.
By July 2001, the list of MLB's self-described "contraction targets" had been reduced to a Final Four of Anaheim, Minnesota, Montreal, and Tampa Bay. Anaheim was included as part of a contract-and-move strategy in which the Oakland Athletics would have taken the Angels' place in Anaheim, leaving the Bay Area with a single club. MLB had begun to evaluate the potential legal and political fallout from choosing each of these clubs--and had begun to rate baseball writers on a scale of one to 10 for their support of contraction and of the Commissioner.
(One year after being targeted for possible contraction, the Arizona Diamondbacks won the World Series. One year after making the semifinals of this literally double-elimination contest, the Anaheim Angels won the World Series. The Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos have to hope that history repeats itself.)
These documents, and probably many more which have yet to be disclosed, drive the final stake into MLB's claim that contraction was motivated by economic necessity. In fact, it was a calculated, anticompetitive abuse of MLB's monopoly power. MLB intended to restrict output by buying out some owners at a premium (a premium which would have been unnecessary if, as MLB insisted, these clubs were on the verge of bankruptcy), while the rest would enjoy larger shares from the common Central Fund.
In announcing contraction, Commissioner Selig dismissed the howls of protest from fans of the affected teams. The Chicago Tribune quoted him, in fact, on November 7, 2001, saying:
"You'll have to define why this is a sad day. If that's true, then in every industry in America that has made adjustments, it has been a sad day for them. Would you say that? I don't because everything changes."
Compare that to the Commissioner's remarks last Thursday while addressing the Sports Business Journal's "World Congress of Sports," a conference of sports business professionals. After quoting from Bart Giamatti's pretentious ode to the game for the 10,000th time, Selig reveled in baseball's myth and the central role the game plays in the lives of dedicated fans:
"How many of you still remember the first time you walked into a ballpark on the hand of a parent or grandparent and first experienced that great expanse of green? The experience has been depicted in films and described in books and magazine articles. The experience is one of our game's greatest strengths and one of its most powerful and enduring features. We must continue to build on the mythology that surrounds it.
We can all relate to these emotional ties. They send us to the bleachers, rather than a park or beach, to relax on a summer afternoon. They sustain hundreds of Retrosheet volunteers who spend thousands of hours proofreading columns of numbers against scratchy old microfilms to resolve insignificant discrepancies, and millions of fantasy gamers for whom baseball strategy becomes part of everyday life. When the threat of a strike or lockout endangers these ties, we get angry.
Bud Selig understands these ties. In 1965, when his hometown Milwaukee Braves announced they were moving to Atlanta, Selig led the group which tried to attract a replacement. He haunted major league meetings for years thereafter, begging and pleading the owners to give Milwaukee another chance, before finally bringing the bankrupt Seattle Pilots to town less than a week before Opening Day 1970. Yet when two other teams were deliberately placed on the chopping block, all he could say was: "Tough luck. Times change."
Sorry, Bud, that's not good enough. If you wouldn't accept your favorite team's move to greener pastures, why should Twins or Expos fans accept the premeditated murder of theirs?
After the contraction fiasco, an internal report obtained by the New York Times (no link--Times stories vanish from the free area very quickly) faulted MLB for not pre-selling the concept to "national baseball opinion leaders in advance of the announcement." Without such pre-selling, the report concluded, the media lacked a "firm understanding of the concept," and "indulged in the pathos of contracting the Twins."
Nice try. Given what happened when contraction was actually announced, any extended "pre-selling" would only have produced even more lawsuits, even more angry Congressmen, and a controversy that would have overshadowed the remainder of the 2001 baseball season. No baseball writer in a potentially affected city would have endorsed the elimination of a team whose contraction would cost him his own job, and no writer with a rudimentary grasp of economics would have been deceived by the owners' plan to overpay for "failing" businesses. For fans, contraction was like broccoli-flavored candy: one taste made them gag, and no amount of pre-selling could have persuaded them to swallow it.
If the Commissioner doesn't understand why, he need only look to the mythology he so wholeheartedly embraces.