Baseball commissioner Bud Selig did something last week that might go down as his most remarkable achievement: He made people care about the Expos and the Twins. That's right, the same folks who used Montreal and Minnesota as examples of what's wrong with baseball suddenly turned weepy over Youppi, the Expos' mascot, and were enraptured by the euphony of Mientkiewicz, the Twins' first baseman.
Selig rallied baseball's owners on Nov. 6 to authorize the dissolution of two teams. The leading death-row candidates are Montreal, which was outdrawn by half a dozen minor league teams this year, and Minnesota, a club with the richest owner in baseball but the least local revenue this side of the Expos.
A large chunk of the sporting public was aghast at the announcement, as if the Twins' nice little three-month run this year or their 1991 World Series title guaranteed them major league status in perpetuity. Here's a bulletin: Because the players' union will never accept a salary cap and the owners will never accept NFL-style revenue sharing, you better play in a lucrative market or a sweetheart stadium if you want to sit at the baccarat table that is major league baseball. Minnesotans can pat themselves on the back for not having given in to billionaire owner Carl Pohlad's desire for a publicly funded ballpark, as long as they understand that the stance puts their club at a competitive disadvantage.
Sound cold? Business is hell. "Fifteen years ago you would have been talking about [dissolving] the Indians, Mariners and Braves," says American League player rep Rick Helling. Instead, new stadiums helped turn those teams into cash cows. Montreal and Minnesota, however, failed to take advantage of the new-stadium bubble before it burst. From 1995 to '99 the average team boosted its local revenue by 75%. Only the Twins (18% decrease) and Expos (40% decline) saw their local revenue drop significantly.
Selig said he wants contraction done within the next four weeks. Good luck. The concept, though, is right for these times and for a sport that overexpanded in the 1990s. Critics have challenged the owners for years to improve the health of the industry and the quality of the game. Contraction does just that. It reduces the number of weak sisters to prop up and of players who don't belong. No wonder several owners wanted to whack not only two but also four teams. The logic of contraction is so obvious that even Scott Strickland, a Montreal pitcher, said last week, "It's good for the game."