Strike two


FOR DECADES, Major League Baseball's owners have made a habit of picking the wrong fights - ones they usually lose in a cloud of acrimony that damages the game.

Commissioner Bud Selig's announcement last week that baseball will disband two struggling teams (he didn't say which ones) before next season seems destined to renew that unfortunate tradition.

Mr. Selig's timing could hardly have been worse. Just a few days ago, baseball was basking in the glow of a record-setting season that culminated in one of the most exciting World Series ever. Attendance set records, and TV ratings for the Series were the highest in 10 years. Indeed, at a time of war and tragedy, much of the nation seemed to be embracing the national game in a way it hadn't since before the devastating strike that ruined the 1995 season.

But that was then. Now fans of the Minnesota Twins, Florida Marlins, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Montreal Expos and other franchises that face possible extinction feel angry and betrayed. Fans in Washington and other regions hungry for a local team feel slapped in the face by the commissioner's claim that there are no viable markets to which struggling teams could be relocated.

Baseball's plans will likely land the league in court at the behest of the powerful players union, with which the owners must negotiate to revise or extend the collective bargaining agreement that expired last week. The union says the owners have no right to disband teams without its agreement; the owners disagree. In recent years, though, the players have generally won such disputes.

Mr. Selig is clearly right about one thing: Baseball does have too many weak, under-resourced franchises that can't compete. The enormous gap between the revenues available to glamorous, big-city teams and their smaller-city counterparts (the Yankees took in about $200 million last season; the Expos raised about $54 million) makes it very hard for teams from smaller cities to compete for high-priced talent. No small-market team has won a championship since 1991.

But the contraction plan is a drastic and rare remedy (many franchises have moved, but baseball hasn't disbanded a team since 1899) that will probably just alienate fans and renew labor strife - without solving any problems.

Abolishing a couple teams would leave a bigger chunk of TV revenues for the other franchises and save some revenue-sharing expenses. But it would do little to equalize assets or address the needs of the remaining smaller-market teams.

A better way to improve the game's competitive balance would be to do what better-run leagues such as the NFL and the NBA have already done: Find cooperative ways to restrain salary growth and share revenues more equitably.

Such an approach could give teams from cities across the nation a chance to compete for championships and draw enthusiastic crowds. Anything less is unworthy of a game that, however tarnished, still likes to think of itself as our national pastime.

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