Contraction’s not the answer for MLB

Fans of the Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays need not worry. But don’t be surprised if the “C” word — contraction — returns to the baseball lexicon soon.

I’m already hearing rumblings that certain big-market teams want to drop the A’s and Rays, even though the idea stands little chance of actually becoming reality.

The players union, sources say, would regard any proposal to eliminate 50 major-league jobs as an act of war. Which, at this moment, is about the last thing the game needs.

Baseball’s labor outlook is not nearly as gloomy as those of the other major professional sports in the U.S. In fact, virtually no one in the game envisions a work stoppage when the current agreement expires Dec. 11.

Still, a major battle is brewing over revenue sharing, baseball’s method of rich teams helping the poor. Contraction would be an extreme solution, but one that addresses the big-market concern: Why keep struggling clubs afloat?

“At some point, if you don’t want to worry about teams in minor markets, don’t put teams in minor markets or leave teams in minor markets,” New York Yankees co-chairman Hank Steinbrenner told reporters Sunday.

While Steinbrenner did not explicitly say the “C” word, he was either talking about contraction or relocating teams such as the A’s and Rays to larger markets. I’m guessing that putting a third club in the New York metropolitan area is not what he had in mind.

Steinbrenner might be the Yankees’ crazy uncle, not to be taken seriously, but he is hardly alone in his complaints. A far more respected executive, Boston Red Sox president Larry Lucchino, also called for reforms to the current revenue-sharing plan this week, with no mention of contraction.

The Yankees contributed about $130 million between revenue sharing and luxury tax last season, the Red Sox about $86.8 million. Eliminating the Rays and A’s, both of whom face severe ballpark concerns, would remove two leading revenue-sharing recipients, reducing the burden on the big-money teams.

And the plan would not necessarily end there. The New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers, two of the game’s marquee franchises, soon might require new owners. It’s only speculation, but connect the dots: the Athletics’ Lew Wolff could use his buyout money to purchase the Dodgers. The Rays’ Stuart Sternberg could do the same to acquire the Mets.

The A’s issued a statement last month saying Wolff had “no interest whatsoever” in buying the Dodgers. However, the game of ownership musical chairs would be right out of Commissioner Bud Selig’s playbook. In 2001, John Henry sold the Florida Marlins to buy the Red Sox, Jeffrey Loria sold the Montreal Expos to buy the Marlins and MLB took over the Expos.

Those transactions stemmed from the sport’s first attempt at contraction, the elimination of the Expos and Minnesota Twins. A court ruling in Minnesota foiled the plan, and both franchises eventually grew much more robust — the Twins at Target Field, the Expos in Washington, D.C. as the Nationals.

The A’s are not in as dire a position as those teams were. A move to a proposed new ballpark in San Jose would rescue the franchise, if only baseball would get its act together and cut a deal with the Giants to relinquish their territorial rights to the area.

The Rays, on the other hand, have nowhere to go — no new ballpark, no new market where they clearly would be better off. Making matters more difficult: Bob Dupuy, the former baseball executive who excelled at resolving ballpark and ownership issues, resigned last September.

The whole thing is a shame.

The Rays, unlike, say, the Pirates, are proof that the system works for low-revenue clubs that are managed properly. The team is coming off two postseason berths in three years despite playing in baseball’s toughest division, the AL East. Yet, its attendance at Tropicana Field last season ranked only 22nd in the majors.

A threat of contraction probably would not rally the community to build the Rays a new publicly financed ballpark; the economy remains too unstable, the franchise’s popularity too limited.

Such a threat would, however, change the tenor of the upcoming labor negotiations, raising the tension considerably. Yes, the owners always could pull back to extract other concessions, but if the A’s can be saved, why risk a work stoppage to eliminate one troubled franchise?

The answer is to get the A’s to San Jose and help the Rays find some better alternative — be it in Tampa or Orlando, San Antonio or Charlotte, whatever market makes the most sense. Healthy franchises are in the best interests of all parties, generating greater revenues, leaving fewer teams to subsidize, raising player salaries.

A third team in New York and/or second team in New England actually would be the best pure economic solution, undercutting the spending power of the Yankees, Mets and Red Sox, but each of those clubs would balk at increased competition within its market.

I don’t know how to salvage the Rays. I don’t know how to fix revenue sharing. But I do know this — the “C” word is a fighting word in labor negotiations.

Baseball should think twice before going there.

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