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February 2, 2011

Purpose Pitches

The Problems Mark Cuban Won't Fix

by Christina Kahrl

What time of year is it? Wait, is it CBA season already? Maybe so, because when pitchers and catchers report to camps in Arizona and Florida, we're already coming down to short time for the current agreement between 30 mega-wealthy operators and the MLBPA.

Yet, how can we tell that 'tis the season, when the snows are still piling up, yet we have no war of words to heat things up? In today's day and age, we're not getting the brinksmanship to which we had become accustomed as a run-up to full-fledged labor wars. Instead, we get polite quips about ongoing process.

Which is not to say that we aren't getting positioning of a different sort, which is interesting since we're now on the other side of the Deadspin exposés of last summer. Consider the recent revelations about ownership situations — do they legitimately reflect a metastasizing series of ownership issues, and an indication of the state of the economy? Exhibit A has been on display in recent weeks, what with the Mets' mess and the new quest for an investor. Add in the name of Madoff, and it becomes easy to see this as an echo of a nation's financial problems reflected within its pastime.

But whether or not the Wilpons have endured this long since buying out the Doubleday stake six years ago by depending on Ponzi schemes and all-too-conventional predatory capitalism is sort of beside the point; just six years after dispensing with their co-owner, the Wilpons now say they need someone with money to join them in their playground. Is it at all coincidental that Sandy Alderson, long one of the game's designated fixers, is now the club's GM?

However, looking around, the Mets aren't the only owners in a public mess. The Dodgers, already discarded by Fox in another unfortunate association between team and media conglomerate, await the outcome of Bravo's latest ugly rich people reality TV series, I'll See You in McCourt! The Marlins are “undercapitalized,” or perhaps just the last great self-dealing swindlers exploiting a permissive political landscape to get what may be the last ballpark built in the age of Bud the Builder. But poor-mouthing is also the modus operandi of the new Selig-selected ownership groups operating the Diamondbacks and the Padres — who are now corporate cousins as well as division rivals, thanks to another Selig-mandated decision: the return to syndicate ownership, the clubby notion that undermined the legitimacy of the National League more than a century ago, giving the game historical atrocities like the 1899 Cleveland Spiders.

It's a strange transition from the past if you're a fan of a certain age. Where once we had the Lords of the Realm, international businessmen like the Busches or Ray Kroc, or national figures like Edward Bennett Williams, these days we're dealing with a set of nondescript new centurions, Bud Selig's bland choices, and frequently men lifted out of other ownership groups already conjured up in previous franchise acquisitions overseen by Selig and re-employed as the centerpiece of some new combination of owners. As a result, we know that we're not necessarily dealing with the 30 owners best equipped to own and operate their franchises, at least not in terms of financial well-being — if we were, John Henry's lot would never have reached Boston. We're not even necessarily dealing with the 30 best people or partnerships interested in owning and operating baseball teams, but we'll never know what Miles Prentice or James Dolan or Franklin Haney might have done.

Every ownership situation in public flux automatically invites a clamor for Mark Cuban, but that's besides the point — the selection process isn't about finding the best owners possible, but about who's the best get-along, go-along guy, or guys. Just five of the 30 owners operating clubs predate the days of Fay Vincent's overthrow, and that's counting generational handovers like the Yankees' Li'l Steinbrenners, or the Twins' next-gen Pohlads. As a result, this is very much Bud's picked crew; whatever course the Czar sets, you can be sure it'll go with him to the edge of the world and beyond. Whether or not that makes Michael Weiner's job as MLBPA president easier or harder remains to be seen.

However, as recent examples like the great BoSox/Expos/Fishy franchise switcheroo of 2002 reflect, shockingly huge moves are possible with Selig's select men, which perhaps inspires concern over what else they might be capable of. Even so, even with so many franchise situations publicly in flux, not to mention the A's and Rays both noisily begging for new venues, if there's one thing I hope we get from the new CBA — beyond more baseball — it would have to be the complete absence of any talk about contraction, save to dismiss it out of hand.

However, baseball's been fairly monkey-see/monkey-do in trying to be more like the other sports on Selig's watch. As a result, whatever hard-core contraction warriors roost in MLB's offices have probably gotten a boost from what's going on in the NBA. As pro hoops gears up for its own labor/management confrontation, it isn't exactly surprising to see the owners there putting contraction on the table, with the Lakers' Jeanie Buss only the latest figure to weigh in on the “need” for contracting teams.

As a way of putting a new/old threat on the table to arm owners with as many points of negotiation, contraction was and is simple enough. It's a scary, direct threat on the union's membership, because it aims at cutting their numbers down by 60 or so if you're talking two franchises, not to mention the hundreds of other minor leaguers an organization employs.

However, as I wrote a decade ago, contraction is a fairly vile, stupid, and ultimately self-defeating proposition. To even conjure it up was then and remains today a casually stupid, self-destructive bit of anti-marketing for the industry, and a great way to make fans question their commitments.

Even before getting into the MLBPA's unlikely acquiescence under any terms, there's the likelihood that we'd be treated to another bit of Capitol Hill theatre, where MLB either has to run out  a mouthpiece or gear up for another awful Bud Selig performance in front of angry legislators who are happy to threaten the game's antitrust protections, and represent so many constituents whose taxes helped fund Bud's age of construction. Then there would be the stack of payouts, to buy off lawsuits from media partners, ticket holders, concessionaires, municipal or private stadium management outfits with leases they expect payment for ... not to mention buying out the two owners of baseball teams who would follow in footsteps of Bartleby the Scrivener and prefer not to.

But more fundamentally, there were the three questions I asked then about the concept of contraction, and repeat now:

  • Is contraction necessary because of the shortage of major-league markets?

  • Is contraction necessary because of the long-lamented shortage of talent?

  • Is contraction necessary for financial reasons?

Now as then, I think the answers are decisively No to each. Where markets are concerned, as Neil deMause noted last week, there are still some kinks to work out as far as where the 30 play, but that doesn't negate the basic viability all 30 teams have where they are. Repositioning the A's or the Rays within their markets isn't an existential challenge to either team, it's the pursuit of further profitability as well as aesthetic considerations — both worthy goals. What about talent distribution? Here again, I don't think there's much to that complaint, because teams are being even more aggressive today in their global pursuit of baseball talent.

But what about the financial reasons? Despite so many owners in the news for all the wrong reasons, other than perhaps the Astros' Drayton McLane, nobody seems to be in much of a hurry to get out of the baseball business. If anything, the list of owners purportedly in trouble with their bottom lines has less to do with the act of owning a team than the weakness of their candidacies as owners. That doesn't betray a need for more talent or for better markets; instead, it calls into question where some of these jokers came from.

Weak or poorly selected owners and ownership groups aren't an unusual development, not in the game's history, or on Selig's watch. But that isn't an argument for contraction, any more than there could a defensible reason to resort to syndicate ownership. Instead, it is an argument for baseball to outgrow the feudalism of the past in choosing who operates its teams, and open up in a way that doesn't reduce ownership to a popularity contest or a question of fealty.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

Related Content:  Bud Selig,  Ownership,  A's,  The Who,  Ownership Groups,  The Process

2 comments have been left for this article.

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Purpose Pitches: The S... (02/03)
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