MINNEAPOLIS, MN — Bob Nightengale of USA Today has a front pager in today’s USA Today about the Twins long road back to prosperity since the dark days of 2001-02. And he’s absolutely right about the prosperity part. As I noted earlier, Target Field is a gem. The Twins draw pretty well even when they’re not winning. Just walking around this city you see people with Twins gear on everywhere and pass by bars where you know people watch a lot of games when they’re on. It just feels like a baseball town, even without the All-Star trappings everywhere.
But, Nightengale notes, there was a time when things were much darker:
Franchises were losing money in baseball, and owners were ready to downsize. The two that appeared doomed were the Twins and Montreal Expos. The Expos weren’t being supported in Quebec, and Pohlad was frustrated he couldn’t get public funding for a new ballpark, stuck in the Teflon-roof covered Metrodome.
“The owners really wanted contraction,” Selig told USA TODAY Sports, “but for different reasons. The economics of the sport was brutal at the time. They looked at (contraction) at the time as one of the better solutions to it.
“Did I necessarily agree? No. But I understood the logic.”
That people are still under the impression that contraction was a viable option back in 2002 is a testament to the b.s. machine that Major League Baseball is capable of being when it wants to be and the lack of critical thinking most folks, baseball writers included, tend to apply to the business of baseball. It’s just accepted now that two teams could be contracted even though such a scenario would have been and remains nuts.
“The economics were brutal at the time,” Selig says. Well, certainly the arguing about economics was. Baseball’s Collective Bargaining Agreement was up for renewal in the summer of 2002 and it was a knock down, drag out fight between MLB and the MLBPA. It went to the 11th hour and a strike/lockout was just narrowly avoided. It was the last time there was serious labor strife in baseball and, yes, people were talking about extreme solutions and strategies to solve the crisis.
But that crisis was mostly over player salaries and the owners’ last vain grasp at imposing a salary cap. Which means that what they were seriously wanting was a way to contain costs on the order of millions or, perhaps, tens of millions. A player making $20 million was insane to them and they wanted a structure in place where, at most, they could maybe pay one $15 million, say? That was the level of economic argument. It was important to contain costs on that relatively micro level.
So, contraction was an option? Ha!
Owners of any teams that would be contracted would have to be bought out. these days franchises are valued at $500 million. Back in 2002, let’s say it was half that. And of course you’d have to contract two teams in order to keep a sane schedule. That would put the cost at half a billion, simply to make the contracted owners give up their property.
But then you have to figure in all of the contracts between the contracted teams and their business partners, sponsors and media affiliates that would have to be bought out and torn up. And the subsequent litigation that many would mount in order to keep it from happening. Then you get the political problems: you think local politicians, governors and members of Congress are gonna sit by while the local nine are contracted? There will be hearings and ugliness for months if not years if someone seriously attempted to contract a team.
Then, remember the context: all of this was happening during a fierce labor battle. If you think the union was putting up a stink about small changes to the CBA, wait and see what the MLBA — back when it had Don Fehr waging battle, not the relatively toothless version it is becoming now — would have done. The union would have considered contraction to be an assault on membership, because some 50 major league jobs would go bye-bye and the salaries for the remaining players would go down as more guys compete for fewer roster spots. The owners blinked at the thought of a work stoppage that the MLBPA may or may not have mounted in 2002. If contraction was actually on the table the players would have struck in a heartbeat. So add tons of lost revenue to that pile.
Baseball owners totally love throwing, say, a billion dollars into a toilet, so they’d totally make that happen right?
Or how about this: contraction was a ploy. A ploy by Major League Baseball to get the Twins a new publicly financed stadium in Minnesota and several other cities which, thus far, had been loathe to pony up for one. And to pressure Peter Angelos into letting a team get moved down to Washington. And guess what? It worked. The Twins got their new ballpark and several other teams did too in the past 12 years.
And based on the things that are written about that time in baseball history, the ploy is still working. Even today.