Thursday, September 17, 1997
No pleasing baseball owners

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - John Harrington is not out to please everyone. The chairman of baseball's realignment committee recognizes he can not achieve consensus without complaints.

Someone is sure to be angry with whatever happens. Someone else may sue. Change is inevitable. Unrest is unavoidable.

"Everybody wants to do something," Harrington said Tuesday. "But no one wants it to affect them: Do open-heart surgery, but don't leave a mark."

Because baseball never does anything seamlessly, it should come as no surprise that rearranging the membership of the major leagues would involve a lot of loose threads. Harrington and Bud Selig, the interminably interim commissioner, had once hoped to move decisively at the owners meetings that began here Tuesday night. But their thread is unraveling, and their agenda grows progressively more modest.

'Progress is important'

Vested interests can be expected to veto any proposal that calls for sweeping change to the structure of the American and National Leagues, and every other proposal to date has met sturdy opposition. Instead of reaching a resolution at their quarterly meetings, the owners now appear resigned to merely rejecting some of the sillier suggestions. Emerging from a committee meeting late Tuesday, Selig reiterated that he has no timetable for realignment, no drop-dead deadline and no single proposal to pitch to the owners.

Next season's expansion necessitates some decisions, but it will not necessarily lead to wholesale changes. Harrington characterized geographic realignment - in which as many as 15 teams would change leagues - as "the leadoff hitter" in what figures to be a series of proposals. The ultimate solution may lay deep in the lineup.

"Progress is important," said Harrington, chief executive officer of the Boston Red Sox. "You're starting with 10-12 variations that are still alive. If we can whittle 'em down to two or three and study them, maybe we can have a vote in two or three weeks. Who knows? Maybe there can be a breakthrough here."

Probably not. What began eight months ago as an exercise to identify the ideal arrangement of baseball's divisions has dissolved into a series of petty, provincial disputes. The owners are always talking about the good of the game, but they almost always act in their own self-interest.

San Francisco Giants owner Peter Magowan is perceived as the main obstacle to getting a deal done now, but that is only because it is his turn.

Magowan objects to competing in the same division with the Oakland A's, claiming exclusive rights to National League baseball in the Bay Area. He is annoyed that his arguments have not been accorded as much consideration as territorial rights asserted by the Chicago Cubs and New York Mets. He is threatening to call in the lawyers. "The last thing baseball needs," Magowan said, "is another legal mess."

What about game's needs?

What baseball needs most is in the eye of the beholder. To Harrington, it is more sensible scheduling; to Selig, it is a lasting solution to enduring problems. To Reds Managing Executive John Allen, top priority is maintaining Cincinnati's National League tradition and avoiding the designated hitter.

After that, Allen's chief concern is competitive. If the Reds are in the same division as the mighty Atlanta Braves and the wealthy New York Mets, they might be a long time between titles. Allen would prefer to compete against more comparable payrolls: the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals.

"Market size and the ability to compete short-term and long-term is important to us," Allen said Tuesday. "Second would be the impact on our broadcast partners. Cost-savings would work third on my list."

The money, Allen says, is almost immaterial. All of the Reds' transportation costs amount to less than $1 million per year. The difference between chartering a plane to St. Louis and San Diego is mainly a matter of fuel costs. Relatively speaking, it is incidental. "We're not going to save enough for a starting pitcher," Allen said.

Which begs the basic realignment question: What's the rush?