CHICAGO -- Baseball owners extended commissioner Bud Selig's contract through 2006 but did not take any action Tuesday on the game's most debated issue -- eliminating two teams before next season.
The unanimous vote of confidence for Selig came at a time when the sport faces economic stress and possible labor problems. He said baseball had lost more than $500 million this year and was under pressure to stem losses.
Owners left the elimination of two teams -- widely believed to be the Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos -- on hold as the issue winds its way through the courts.
''Baseball will contract,'' Selig said. ''I can't give you a precise timetable today because in some parts it's out of our hands.''
Robert DuPuy, baseball's chief legal officer, told owners there was a chance contraction would not take place before the 2002 season, according to a person in the meeting who spoke on the condition he not be identified. Owners also were told by their lawyers that the players' association may file an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board.
Selig said 25 of the 30 teams lost money this year, said $165 million was transferred this year from the six teams with the highest revenue to the six lowest, and said baseball will release specifics Dec. 6, the date tentatively set by the House Judiciary Committee for a hearing on the sport's 79-year-old antitrust exemption.
He said the commissioner's office had guaranteed loans to an unspecified number of teams to get through this year.
''We've had to help clubs, quite frankly, to stay afloat,'' he said. ''We're doing something now we should have done years and years ago: We're addressing our problems. We had an option to do something and we just didn't do it.''
Selig had Gregory R.D. Nash of FleetBoston Financial Corp. and James Nash of Bank of America Corp. in Charlotte, N.C., address owners at the meeting. The bankers told owners that with the current recession, loans will be examined more closely in the future.
Selig said the $500 million loss came on revenue of $3.5 billion.
''The loss stunned everybody,'' Selig said. ''The debt is even more worrisome to people we do business with.''
The public proclamation of losses points to yet another confrontation with the players' association, which has resisted change since the current system of free agency and salary arbitration came into effect in 1976. In that time, the average salary has climbed from $51,000 to about $2.15 million.
There have been eight work stoppages since 1972, and baseball's latest labor contract expired Nov. 7.
''There's nothing I can say now. We'll see what happens,'' union head Donald Fehr said.
Selig gave hope there would be a 2002 season, saying a potential lockout of players was ''not on the radar screen.''
The only concrete action taken was the decision to extend the term of Selig, who is thought to make about $3 million annually. He became acting commissioner in September 1992, when he helped lead a revolt that forced Fay Vincent's resignation. When Selig was elected on July 8, 1998, owners said he had a five-year term starting that Aug. 1.
However, baseball said Tuesday his term actually was set to expire on Dec. 31, 2003, and that the new term runs through 2006.
New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, the owner who has clashed with Selig most often in public, made the announcement.
''He's a leader and will take baseball where we have to go,'' Steinbrenner said.
The Mets' Fred Wilpon, Kansas City's David Glass, Seattle's John Ellis and Houston's Drayton McLane followed with praise of Selig, whose family has controlled the Milwaukee Brewers since 1970.
Selig has wide support among teams because he befriended many owners when he ran the Brewers. As commissioner, he has rarely punished teams for violating rules.
After owners met on Nov. 6, Selig announced the decision to eliminate two teams without specifying which ones. At the time, he said he was confident it could be accomplished before next season. But he was less definite Tuesday.
A Minnesota judge issued a temporary injunction Nov. 16, and it is unclear if an appeal will be heard this year. The Twins and baseball have asked the Minnesota Supreme Court for a speedy review of their request to lift the injunction, asking for a hearing no later than Dec. 7. The Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, which operates the Metrodome, must file its response by Wednesday.
In addition, the players' association filed a grievance, claiming the elimination of teams violated provisions of the expired labor contract. Lawyers for players and owners are to meet Wednesday in New York with arbitrator Shyam Das, who is expected to set the hearing dates on the grievance.
Because of the delays, Dave St. Peter, the Twins' executive vice president of business affairs, said the team will start mailing renewal applications for season tickets next week. If the Twins are eliminated, the money will be refunded.
Paul Ridgeway, part of a group trying to save the Twins, gave petitions with 110,000 signatures to Selig, Twins president Jerry Bell and team owner Carl Pohlad.
''We have a list of 100,000 potential (ticket) buyers,'' Bell said later.
The Twins, however, will keep the process of finding a new manager on hold, Bell said.
Expos executive vice president David Samson said his team has permission to start selling tickets but will wait until ''I can stand up and guarantee people when opening day is.''
''When that is,'' Samson added, ''I don't know.''
Montreal averaged just 7,648 fans at Olympic Stadium this year. Minnesota raised its average attendance from 13,083 last year to 22,287 this season, but Pohlad has been frustrated at the Minnesota government's refusal to help fund a new ballpark.
Pohlad also is extremely close to Selig. When the petitions were presented by the fans, Selig and Pohlad embraced, according to Frank Quilici, a former player who is an organizer of Keep the Twins at Home.
At a news conference, Selig also shot down many rumors circulating through baseball in recent weeks. He said Florida Marlins owner John Henry does not have a deal to sell his team, and that the commissioner's office doesn't intend to operate the Expos next season.
The threat to the Twins has prompted legislation to be introduced in Congress to strip baseball of its antitrust exemption. No team has relocated since the expansion Washington Senators became the Texas Rangers after the 1971 season.
''If you take the antitrust exemption away, people can move to wherever they want to move,'' Selig said. ''How does that serve the public good?''
Dena Graziano, a spokesman for the ranking Democrat on the committee, John Conyers Jr., said the witness list will not be finalized until later this week and there was a chance the date could change. Selig, Fehr and Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura are possible witnesses.
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