One month after declaring that Major League Baseball would eliminate two franchises before the 2002 season, Commissioner Bud Selig is being hauled up to Congress to sit before the House Judiciary Committee to explain himself. This is a good thing.
The committee is holding hearings on a bill that would remove the 79-year-old anti-trust exemption enjoyed by professional baseball. Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura is also set to testify since the Minnesota Twins are believed by many to be on the chopping block, along with the Montreal Expos.
Commissioner Selig's tone-deafness to the concerns of baseball fans is legendary, and this stunt was no exception. He waited until just two days after the end of the greatest World Series in the game's history to slap fans in the face with the announcement.
It's worth remembering that baseball has expanded twice in recent years, adding two teams each time. Selig zealously pushed expansion, especially into Florida, with a sort of supply-side argument — build it and they will come.
But just two days after one of those expansion teams, the Arizona Diamondbacks, won the World Series, Selig has whipsawed and now says the game has too many teams.
Something dramatic must have happened in that time to make Selig about-face so fast. And indeed it has. "I'll tell you what's changed," Selig has said. "The economic state of the industry has deteriorated, in spite of revenues going up dramatically."
"Dramatically" is an understatement. According to some estimates, baseball revenues have doubled over the last five years. That kind of revenue growth for an established, century-old industry is unheard of.
On Thursday, Selig will open baseball's books to Congress and it will show, he says, $511 million in losses in 2001. But Selig also notified the committee that it could have no data on team's finances before the hearing.
"We had hoped that he would provide us with the financial statements so we could scrutinize them in advance," ranking minority committee member Rep. John Conyers said, "so we could at least have an honest discussion about them."
Conyers might be waiting a long time for an honest discussion with Selig. Selig's own interests have been questioned after his call for contraction. When the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel asked him if he, as a part owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, stood to benefit from Minnesota losing a team, Selig scoffed at the idea, calling it "childish" and "inane."
"St. Louis is closer to Minneapolis than Milwaukee is," he said. The Journal Sentinel and Slate magazine both pointed out that this is patently false — he's off by over 150 miles.
But let's not quibble. Selig's larger point was that Minneapolis is too far away for him to benefit from the Twins' demise. And that, too, stretches credulity. Many teams, such as the Baltimore Orioles, make vigorous efforts to market the teams far outside the metro area. Why? They know that they can encourage people to visit a city in the summer if they sell the team as part of a metro area's attractions. So the Orioles routinely draw vacationing fans from as far away as West Virginia and Ohio. Indeed, some owners tout this strategy as a way of justifying their opposition to revenue sharing, arguing that other owners should also market their teams beyond their metro area.
More importantly, an honest discussion would reveal the laughably flimsy foundation upon which baseball's anti-trust exemption is built. The exemption has been justified for years by owners who argue that the sport is much more than just some grubby business. As "the American pastime," it was a sacred trust, a game that deserved special treatment that would limit its exposure to filthy legal wrangling.
But Selig now justifies all of his gross, clumsy and ham-handed manipulations of the game in strictly business terms. To use his own words, "the economic state of the industry has deteriorated." This is a game we're talking about? He sounds like any other CEO preparing a lousy quarterly report for shareholders and analysts.
But baseball remains exceptional in one way: It is now an exceptionally badly run business. Other industries would be thrilled with doubling their revenue. If the industry is in bad shape, it stands to reason that the people to blame are those who run the industry. Who else but an owner can claim responsibility for Alex Rodriguez' $252 million contract? Ultimately the owners have to accept some responsibility for the "deteriorated" condition baseball is in. But certainly contraction — when there are markets in wealthy places such as Washington, D.C., that are starving for a franchise — is not the solution.
Fortunately for baseball fans, contraction may be on the ropes. It is bogged down with lawsuits and a players' union arbitration demand that will gum up the works. Either way, after the owners' monopolistic effort to impose contraction, Selig and Co. have forfeited their claim to an anti-trust exemption. It's time to revoke it. Maybe then the owners will remember what the "game" is all about.
Nick Schulz is the former politics editor of FoxNews.com and is now the editor of TechCentralStation.com.