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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.

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