Major League Baseball has been expanding the number of franchises steadily since the early 1960s, but baseball owners now are pondering the possibility of going in the other direction.
When baseball commissioner Bud Selig reconvenes the postponed September ownership meeting today in Chicago, one of the hottest topics on the agenda will be the controversial concept of contraction - the closing of two struggling franchises to ease the economic strain they place on the rest of the industry.
Proposals to decrease the number of franchises have been passed around for years, even before the last expansion that added the new world champion Arizona Diamondbacks and the struggling Tampa Bay Devil Rays to the equation. Orioles owner Peter Angelos was an early champion of contraction, but that was back when he was at odds with his fellow owners over the game's labor strategy.
Selig only recently warmed up to the idea, leading skeptics to wonder if ownership might be hoping to use the threat of contraction to exact concessions from the Major League Baseball Players Association in the coming round of collective bargaining. But the commissioner's recent statement that "everything is on the table" sent shivers through several organizations and has spawned wide speculation that the Montreal Expos and the Minnesota Twins will soon cease to exist.
If that or any of several relocation scenarios run counter to Selig's long-stated commitment to protect franchises where they currently reside, he appears to be taking a no-pain, no-gain approach to the industry's present predicament.
"It [contraction or relocation] would be very painful, no doubt about it," he said. "My sensitivity to this matter will always be shaped by my own personal experience, but as commissioner, I'm charged with dealing with problems. I understand that some of the possible solutions would be both controversial and painful, but we will deal with them.
"Do I wish a lot of these problems would go away? Sure. But we have to deal with them."
Though Selig tried to downplay the importance of today's meeting during a couple of sessions with the media at the World Series, he would not entirely rule out the possibility that only 28 major-league clubs might exist (instead of 30) when the 2002 season opens in April.
"I'm not going to characterize it [the meeting] in any way," Selig said Sunday night. "This is the rescheduled meeting from Sept. 11. This is a quarterly meeting at which time we'll discuss a lot of different matters."
Baseball owners don't often rush to judgment, so it seems unlikely that they'll announce anything specific in the next day or two, but Selig's non-denial on the subject of immediate contraction has created the notion that a plan for the dispersal of the Twins and Expos is already under serious consideration.
The proposal supposedly being floated would close those two franchises and allow Expos owner Jeffrey Loria to purchase the Florida Marlins. Marlins owner John Henry, in turn, would purchase the Anaheim Angels from the Walt Disney Co. The two owners would be allowed to transfer a limited number of major-league and minor-league players from the closed franchises to their new teams before the rest of the dispossessed players were redistributed to the other 26 franchises in a dispersal draft.
Sounds pretty good for the Marlins and Angels, who would get first shot at the handful of marquee players from each defunct franchise, but it remains highly questionable whether their divisional competitors would vote for a plan that would disproportionately strengthen single teams in the American League West and the National League East.
The Angels have never reached the World Series in their 41 years of existence, but it still might be a hard sell trying to convince the Oakland Athletics and the Seattle Mariners that the franchise needs extra help to compete when it resides in the second-largest metropolitan area in the country.
Selig has been reluctant to comment on any specific proposals to improve the industry's financial picture, except to remind everyone how sensitive he is to fans who fear that they might lose their team.
"My foray into baseball came in 1965, when the Braves left Milwaukee for Atlanta," Selig said. "It broke my heart, but it also broke my heart that nobody outside Milwaukee seemed to care."
Major League Baseball apparently does have the power to reduce the number of franchises without the permission of the players union, but the implementation of any contraction proposal almost certainly would set off a labor confrontation.
Union officials concede that management has the right to determine the number of franchises, but the MLPBA retains the right to bargain over a number of issues that would spring directly from contraction. That's why union director Donald Fehr has indicated that the players would resist any contraction proposal that wasn't negotiated as part of the greater collective bargaining agreement that the union and ownership will try to hammer out over the next several months.
There are other obstacles, too. Baseball could be expected to face a variety of lawsuits from public and private entities that suffer economic harm as a result of contraction. The industry might also face new pressure from federal lawmakers to relinquish its antitrust protection.
The upside is obvious. The remaining franchises would enjoy a larger cut of the sport's television revenues and - in the case of a plan that would eliminate the Twins and Expos - recoup the approximately $20 million a team that annually filters down to those franchises through revenue sharing.
Critics of contraction say that the benefit would work out to about $4 million a team annually and probably would be eaten up by increased payroll expenditures. If so, that would not justify the cost of buying out the two folded franchises, which could cost each of the remaining 28 major-league clubs up to $15 million.
The other option, of course, is relocation. There are ownership groups waiting in Washington for the chance to buy one of the struggling franchises and put it either in a new downtown stadium or in suburban Northern Virginia, but that isn't likely to happen in the very near future.
Selig's opposition to relocation and his desire to keep ownership united for the coming labor negotiations make it unlikely that he'll ignore the opposition of Angelos and water down the Orioles' fan base.