By Michael Bamberger
Oh, this baseball commissioner is a political smoothie. For the grand opening of his daughter's new ballpark in Milwaukee in April, Bud Selig invited President Bush to throw out the first pitch, but the former Texas Rangers owner ended up throwing out the second first pitch. The Budman reserved the first first pitch for himself. Smooth. Then late last month, as the Florida legislature was preparing to vote on a tax bill to fund a new ballpark for the Marlins, Selig wrote a letter to State Senator Alex Villalobos of Miami, warning that the Marlins "cannot and will not survive in South Florida without a new stadium." Selig predicted one of two dire outcomes should the bill fail: The Marlins would move or fold.
Can't you just see all those big ol' Florida pols holding out their bourbons and cigars with stiff arms as they let loose a big ol' shudder? What makes Selig think any sane taxpayer would be willing to bail out a baseball team these days? Particularly a mediocre one with a history of mercurial ownership, playing in a sweltering climate ill-suited to the summer game? Selig's threat was emptier than the Marlins' upper deck. Last Friday the Florida senate adjourned without voting on the stadium plan, effectively letting it die.
During the labor battles of the early 1990s, Selig and the other Lords of Baseball, suffering acutely from NBA envy, kept talking about the importance of "growing the game." Of course, there was no widespread public clamoring to grow the game. The owners didn't care. Hundreds of millions of dollars were to be made in expansion franchise fees. As a result there are two pointless teams in Florida, another in Arizona.
Along the way, baseball's symmetry was trashed. Now we -- we, who pay for it all -- have four five-team divisions, one six-team division and one four-team division. We had balanced schedules; now we have unbalanced schedules. We have wild-card teams. We have a first-round playoff called ... what is that round called again? Baseball stole a page from the NBA business plan, all right. Before we knew it, baseball's long season had been demeaned.
Now Selig threatens to close down "franchises" for the health of his "industry." He talks about "contraction." He may have arrived at his first good idea -- unwittingly, of course. The real debate is whether baseball was better with 24 teams or 16. With fewer clubs and fewer players and better pitching, ordinary fans might actually want to follow a baseball season again. They might actually care.
Issue date: May 14, 2001
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