ATLANTA - Realignment may have been within baseball's reach Thursday morning, but the owners refused to grab it.
The votes were in place, John Harrington said, for as many as five teams to switch leagues for the sake of scheduling convenience. A deal might easily have been done.
Yet after eight months of debate and dissent, of focus groups and frustration, Harrington and his hardball reformers are still determined to swing for the fences. They could have compromised Thursday and settled for a short-term fix to long-range problems, but their goals go far beyond Band-Aids.
"The goal is to get it done in one step," said Harrington, who chairs baseball's realignment committee and runs the Boston Red Sox. "There are some plans that we probably could have passed today, but you say to yourself, 'Why cut it short? Let's go for the best plan that you think can pass.' "
Rather than settle for a half-baked solution, the owners elected to extend their self-imposed decision deadline from Sept. 30 to Oct. 15. This limits the time available to construct a 1998 schedule and to gain the consent of the Players Association, but it does allow for additional arm-twisting.
Those owners who cannot be persuaded might yet be bought. Those plans that are not now palatable may yet be swallowed.
San Francisco owner Peter Magowan, formerly the most outspoken critic of realignment, was more conciliatory following Thursday morning's session at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Magowan remains concerned with the proposed move of the Oakland A's to the National League, but he no longer behaved as if the idea were being shoved down his throat.
"I think that's a possibility," Magowan said, "but I don't know that I believe that's going to happen. I don't think it's the intent of (acting commissioner) Bud Selig to shove anything down anyone's throat. I think he's truly, honestly trying to come up with a plan that solves everyone's problems."
Wednesday, Magowan proposed that some Midwestern club be subsidized to join the American League West as an alternative to placing all Pacific and Mountain time zone teams in the National League. Thursday, Harrington acknowledged that paying off the Giants is another possibility.
As Deep Throat once told Bob Woodward: "Follow the money." Greed has always been baseball's most reliable indicator.
"The clubs have a right, just like any business has a right, to try to increase revenues," Selig said. "A schedule that terrorizes individual clubs and their fans is not very helpful to anybody."
Selig's choice of verbs notwithstanding, the current divisional alignment is obviously flawed. Paired with three Pacific Coast clubs in the AL West, the Texas Rangers play many of their road games during prime sleep time in Arlington. Realignment is largely about redressing their grievances.
Under an earlier agreement, the Rangers cannot remain in the AL West if baseball adopts an "unbalanced" schedule - one that allows teams to play more games against division opponents. With many clubs clamoring for an unbalanced schedule to build rivalries and attendance, appeasing the Rangers has become one of baseball's highest priorities.
A vote for rationality
"This is an opportunity for baseball to position itself for the 21st century," said Rangers President Tom Schieffer. "I think each time we have addressed this problem there's less and less emotion and more and more rationality. And, in the end, I think the rationality of it will win out."
Selig and Harrington declined to discuss specific proposals, but an ownership source said Thursday that the realignment committee's thrust has recently shifted to a 16-team American League and a 14-team National League instead of the other way around.
Under that arrangement, both leagues could maintain a presence on the West Coast, achieve time zone balance, and avoid Magowan's threatened lawsuit.
A one-team solution
The solution could be as simple as one National League West team moving into the American League West, freeing the Rangers to play in Central time. Once the Rangers and Giants are appeased, progress on realignment could be rapid.
"There's no perfect plan," Harrington said. "Even if we were starting the industry today, there may not be a perfect plan. You know human nature: There would be a difference of opinion. What we're trying to do is improve the schedule the most with the least moves."
Bud Selig said he would like to see a minimum of five teams change leagues, but for once baseball has no magic number. The extent of realignment will be determined by how much Selig and Harrington can sell.
"The realignment committee and the executive council has seen a lot of plans," he said. "They've looked at more maps than Magellan."