Saturday, February 09, 2002

SULLIVAN: On deck - Lawyers, politicians


All about the money

By Tim Sullivan
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Barring a restraining order, a change of heart or an insatiable craving for French cuisine, Jeffrey Loria will complete the sale of the Montreal Expos and the purchase of the Florida Marlins next week.

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        Until contraction can be achieved or relocation can be realized, the Expos will become a ward of the state, baseball's bilingual orphan franchise. The Marlins, meanwhile, get new management but no guarantee of a long-term future.

        As pitchers and catchers prepare to report for spring training, the season ahead seems destined to be dominated by lawyers and accountants. Baseball has no collective bargaining agreement with its players, no apparent prospect of one and no telling how many legal and legislative land mines are in its crowded on-deck circle.

        Commissioner Bud Selig's efforts to liquidate two of his failing franchises have been thwarted temporarily, but the court-ordered reprieve of the Minnesota Twins offers only delay, not deliverance.

Money talks

        Once the owners approve the Loria transactions on their agenda Tuesday, the Expos will be officially marking time in Montreal. Whatever dollars are devoted to their operation this year will be for the sake of appearances, not survival. Any deals that get done probably involve raising cash rather than expectations.

        Minnesota's plight is more problematic. The Twins have four decades of history, two World Series titles and one grandstanding governor. They also have the ear of Congress. The Senate Judiciary Committee has called a hearing for next Wednesday to review (yet again) baseball's antitrust exemption. While these uniquely American exercises in obfuscation cut little ice in Quebec, they inevitably serve to undermine the owners' command of public opinion. Whatever that's worth.

        Because scheduling considerations make contraction feasible only in pairs, the Expos need a partner willing to be put out of its misery. The Marlins would be a leading contender but for the relative length of their lease. The Twins are more vulnerable because their deal at the Metrodome expires at the end of this season.

Method to madness?

        Thus, though contraction has been blocked for 2002, it is by no means beaten. Once the Twins' lease expires, the tables turn to Selig's advantage. Perhaps the tables already are turning that way. Perhaps the threat of contraction may prove more potent than contraction itself.

        Already, politicians and activists in Minnesota are trying to rally support for a new ballpark, one that could provide the Twins a wider financial base and reduce the team's reliance on revenue-sharing. Many stadium advocates are the same stubborn Minnesotans who instinctively rejected more tax-subsidized stadia while the rest of the nation was on a panic building binge.

        Those who would bring baseball back to Washington, D.C., see several scenarios that would get them back in the game. The easiest would entail moving the Expos, but many suspect Loria's move to Florida is only temporary; that his real designs are on the nation's capital or its Virginia suburbs. Assuming, of course, that he can't get a ballpark built in Miami.

        If Selig succeeds in getting new ballparks built in Minnesota, South Florida and/or Washington, the threat of contraction will ultimately be seen as shrewd strategy. If it leads to any concessions from the Players Association ... no, that's too much to ask.

        Contact Tim Sullivan at 768-8456; e-mail: tsullivan@enquirer.com.

       



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