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Significant Shrinkage

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Posted: Tuesday October 30, 2001 6:05 PM

Significant Shrinkage  

No one knows what to make of the rumors that some big league teams will disappear

By Stephen Cannella

Sports Illustrated Bored with those ultrarealistic video games that let couch potatoes swing Barry Bonds's bat? Weary of intense fantasy leagues that let aspiring general managers sit in Brian Cashman's chair? We offer you baseball's newest parlor game, Franchise Fiddling, in which the fan with the most outlandish plan for eliminating a few major league teams wins.

Here's why the game is fun: Anyone can present as credible a contraction scenario as the commissioner's office has. For more than a year Bud Selig has intoned that to cure the game's economic ills, he's considering all options, including eliminating financially strapped teams. The idea bubbled under the surface all season until last week's report in Ontario's Windsor Star citing an anonymous baseball executive who said the Expos and Marlins would be disbanded after the World Series, a rumor the teams denied and the commissioner danced around.

In reality Selig has yet to suggest a concrete plan for how teams might be folded. Would baseball buy out Montreal owner Jeffrey Loria and Florida owner John Henry? For how much? Where would that cash come from? How would the affected players be dispersed?

Forget the details. The big picture is still as blurry as a late-period Monet. That's why Montreal, Florida and the other supposed contraction candidates have a better chance of winning the World Series in 2002 than of being disbanded this winter. For one thing, Selig hasn't demonstrated he has the authority to dump franchises without cooperation from the players' union. Some owners insist privately that the players have little say in the matter. Union chief Donald Fehr disagrees, contending that contraction would have to be negotiated between owners and players.

There are also the sticky legal matters of extricating teams from stadium leases and vendor contracts, and of disbanding minor league systems. "It's an issue that will be answered in the courts," says sports economist Andrew Zimbalist. "If baseball attempts to contract, it will be sued by everybody up the wazoo. The challenges will be long, varied and very expensive to litigate."

Unless the owners and players decide to roll over the current bargaining agreement for one more year, baseball faces a potentially long and messy labor fight this off-season. The topic of contraction will only complicate those negotiations. Meanwhile, as the rumors swirl, teams like the Expos and the Marlins sit in limbo. If Selig is serious about contraction, he should clue everyone in on his plans and explain how they might be carried out. If this is nothing more than a negotiating ploy, he should end the charade and concentrate on making the coming labor negotiations less murky, not more.

Issue date: November 5, 2001

For more Scorecard see this week's issue of Sports Illustrated, on newsstands Wednesday, October 31. Click here to subscribe to SI.

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