Leave the Kleenex at home

Posted: Thursday, November 29, 2001

Bud Selig is going to Capitol Hill next week to plead poverty.

''I think the story is so compelling,'' he said, ''that it needs to be told.''

Leave the Kleenex in a drawer. The over-under on how long it will take some august member of the House Judiciary Committee to shed the first tear is never.

The baseball commissioner represents 30 individuals and companies that own teams, each with a net worth that would shame a small nation. According to his books, 25 of them lost money this year -- $500 million in all.

But Selig is not expected to ask Congress to hold a bake sale. Instead, he'll respectfully ask the legislators to butt out of his business, to leave baseball's 79-year-old antitrust exemption intact.

''Some of the political people who've gotten involved in one place or another keep talking about what we should do,'' he said. ''The problem is that we have to do it in a legal and a collective bargained way.''

Selig and his down-at-the-heels cohorts want to be able to continue deciding among themselves who owns a franchise and where -- even if that means crossing several off the map.

Since he can't stop the owners from overpaying players, or force the players to accept less, Selig's latest solution for the game's economic woes is to have fewer players. For that stroke of genius, the owners rewarded him Tuesday with a three-year extension and a raise.

''I know they get blamed for a lot of things,'' he said. ''But there's no group I'd rather be associated with.''

Selig's original contraction plan called for two teams to disappear by Dec. 15. But that was before a Minnesota judge issued an injunction, the players union filed a grievance and the judiciary committee suggested the commissioner visit Washington and bring baseball's books along.

Selig practically jumped at the invitation to show the nation what bad businessmen the owners have become.

''When you have an industry that loses over $500 million and 25 of your clubs are in the red, that is a business profile that's not only unacceptable, it's stunningly bad,'' he said.

''People always blame the owners for that. It's the system. I have an 8-year-old granddaughter who could tell you that. But we're the ones losing money. Our constituents want us to show that we're serious about solving our problems. This loss stunned everybody. The debt is even more worrisome to all the people we do business with.

''The consequence of this, if not dealt with, could be incredibly severe,'' Selig added, ''far more than what we're talking about today.''

The implicit threat, of course, is that baseball will have to whack more than just two teams, something Selig hinted at three weeks ago when he said a majority of the owners wanted to get rid of four.

''Actually,'' he reiterated Tuesday, ''there hasn't been a voice of dissension on the issue in the last five meetings.''

Selig refused one more time to identify which teams are on the short list. But few people would argue with closing down sad-sack operations like Montreal and both Florida teams, even though their failure has more to do with mismanagement than fan apathy, which could still doom Oakland. Eliminating the Twins, however, is another matter.

Attendance in Minnesota climbed by three-quarters of a million this season with the emergence of a competitive team for the first time in nearly a decade. The real problem is that the locals keep refusing to help fund a stadium for billionaire owner Carl Pohlad, and his fellow owners' greatest fear is that the trend will catch on.

By whacking the Twins, baseball gets to make an example of the fans and give Pohlad a going-away present of approximately $250 million, twice what the franchise would bring on the opening market. All that proves is that the owners know how to take care of their own.

The sad part about the fiasco in Minnesota is that the owners might still get what they want. A group of fans calling itself Keep the Twins at Home handed over 110,000 signatures on petitions to change Selig's mind and has collected some influential local backers to make another run at a new stadium, new ownership or both.

A few minutes after his latest gloom-and-doom presentation, Selig, Pohlad and Twins president Jerry Bell met briefly with the group's organizers. Nobody was making any promises about the future, but apparently the get-together wasn't a total waste of time.

''We have a list of 100,000 potential (ticket) buyers,'' Bell said.

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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