Baseball owners give tentative approval to some big league changes As owners ponder changes, action heats up on antitrust exemption


PHOENIX -- Major league baseball owners gave "preliminary approval" yesterday to three-division realignment within the National and American leagues, interleague play and expansion of the playoffs from four to eight teams, beginning with the 1995 season.

Milwaukee Brewer owner Bud Selig, the commissioner pro-tem, said the "sentiment was overwhelming in favor" at a meeting of all 28 clubs of adding four teams and an extra week to the postseason. Asked if there was much opposition, Mr. Selig replied: "There were no cases of cardiac arrest."

A "limited" interleague schedule of 10 to 20 games for each team also is likely. While the straw vote taken during a joint session of owners is not binding, it indicates the likelihood these revolutionary changes will be approved when put to a formal vote in a few months.

The changes also must be approved by the Players Association and could be tied to a change in the collective bargaining agreement.

"I would hope, for once in their lives, the owners would try to develop something with us from square one. Or, if we're past square one, from square two," said Donald Fehr, the union's executive director.

While the owners concluded their regularly scheduled quarterly meeting here, U.S. Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, introduced legislation in Washington that would repeal baseball's antitrust exemption. A companion bill is before the U.S. House of Representatives.

Mr. Metzenbaum, chairman of the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Monopolies and Business Rights, insists baseball should be stripped of its antitrust immunity so "more games would be available on free television," expansion possibilities would be enhanced and the formation of a third major league would be encouraged.

Mr. Metzenbaum had said during December hearings that hTC baseball also must replace the fired Fay Vincent with "a strong and independent commissioner" to protect the fans' interests.

Mr. Selig, in his news conference here, responded that Mr. Metzenbaum was off base in his belief the public would be better served if the exemption, in effect since 1922, was lifted.

Baseball was granted its immunity as a sport with intrastate business outside the jurisdiction of antitrust laws. That ruling by the Supreme Court reasoned the game had to be protected for the fans. The owners once believed the ruling would protect them in their financial dealings with players, but when the players negotiated for free agency, the antitrust exemption no longer applied.

Owners now say that because baseball operates outside the antitrust purview, it is much more difficult for a franchise, financially troubled or otherwise, to relocate and thus abandon fans in cities with existing teams.

"We just saw that happen in San Francisco," Mr. Selig said. "Once we found local buyers, we were able to prevent the Giants from moving to Florida. Also, Senator Metzenbaum has forgotten that if not for our exemption, he would have lost his Cleveland Indians years ago to a potentially more lucrative market."

The other three major professional sports -- football, basketball and hockey -- do not have the antitrust exemption and have had eight franchise moves since 1980. Baseball hasn't had any since 1972.

In Mr. Selig's realignment announcement, each league, which now has two seven-team divisions, would have three divisions beginning in 1995 -- two with five teams, one with four.

Under this arrangement, the three divisional champions in each league would advance to the playoffs, along with a "wild-card" team that has the best winning percentage among the second-place clubs. If the current 162-game schedule is not shortened, the season would be extended an additional week.

By comparison, 12 of 28 teams make the National Football League playoffs, 16 of 27 make the National Basketball Association playoffs and 16 of 24 make the National Hockey League playoffs.

"I think eight teams out of 28 advancing to the playoffs is not an excessive number," Mr. Selig said. "And if anybody thinks

otherwise, they are not arithmetically correct."

Mr. Selig also revealed two polls baseball has taken: the first for expanded playoffs without interleague play, the second with interleague play. He said the vote was almost identical, "overwhelming in favor, with little opposition."

Boston Red Sox representative John Harrington said the survey of about 11,000 season-ticket holders showed 55 percent were in favor of expanded playoffs.

Because two schedules are under consideration, the final decision isn't likely for at least five months. Because of the significance of the changes, disputes among the clubs can be expected.

"It remains to be seen whether a schedule can be made," White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said. "That's a big if in everybody's mind. They want to see the schedule."

Still, it is widely predicted that, by the 21st century, a complete interleague schedule will be in place.


League activity

Owners tentatively approve a three-division alignment, interleague play and expanded playoffs.

Congressional activity

Legislation has been introduced that would repeal baseball's antitrust exemption.

Fan activity

A poll shows "overwhelming" support for expanded playoffs.

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