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Two teams too close

AS EARLY AS next month, the lords of Major League Baseball may finally announce their decision on where they'll move the failed Montreal Expos franchise. Washington, out of the game since 1971, is trying to get back in with two proposals, one from the district itself and the other from Northern Virginia. Its market is larger and more prosperous than the other five competitors, and many believe its case is the most compelling.

That is, unless you care about the future of one of the game's premier franchises, the Baltimore Orioles, and the competitive imbalances already crippling the entire game.

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To put the Expos in Washington or Northern Virginia, you'd have to be willing to gamble that having two major-league teams as close as just 40 miles apart wouldn't doom at least one of the clubs, probably the Orioles, to small-market financial troubles.

Yes, as outlined in reports Sunday and yesterday in The Sun, knowledgeable opinions are somewhat split on whether that would happen - with some analysts arguing that a National League club so close to Baltimore would set up a rabid rivalry and force both clubs to efficiently shepherd their resources.

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Even in some quarters of Baltimore - where the O's are showing some improvement after a frustrating tailspin and where attendance has been dropping since the late 1990s - this line of logic may have some appeal by dovetailing with fan unhappiness with the teams that owner Peter G. Angelos has been putting on the field.

However, the thrust of the argument is not whether the Orioles would take a financial hit from moving the Expos to Washington or Northern Virginia, but whether the damage would be extensive.

At best, it's a gamble - one that baseball shouldn't take.

Why risk salvaging one bankrupt ballclub, the Expos, by dividing the Baltimore-Washington market - potentially relegating the Orioles to second fiddle? Does baseball need another team in the position of the Oakland Athletics? Sure, the A's have done well given their limited resources (see the recent best-seller Moneyball), but there's a reason that Miguel Tejada now plays for the O's: the A's limited budget.

Major-league baseball's great problem is that its competitive balance is out of whack. And that's because without sufficient revenue sharing, the game's smaller-market clubs generally can't compete in bidding for its more accomplished (and costly) players. Some seasons there are exceptions, of course, but they only reinforce the rule.

The overall good of baseball isn't well served by risking turning a financially healthy team into one more club struggling to get by in a limited market. If the game's overseers want to whittle down the fan base of any club, let's downsize the Yankees - and their $180-million-plus payroll, more than three times that of the O's - by sticking a new team in northern New Jersey. At least that would diminish the game's central problem of competitive imbalance.


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