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Small-market success bad for Selig

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 29, 2001

He is in charge of the weaklings. It is his eyes they look to for comfort. His arms they run to for support.

He is the crusader for small-market baseball teams. The man who wants to bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots.

So on this day, in late June, with the payroll-poor Phillies and the poorer-still Twins battling to stay in contention as the season's first half prepares to give way to the second, Bud Selig can wish for only one outcome.

The Phillies and Twins must fall. Must fall with swiftness and pain. And heaven help Selig because he knows this is his truth.

Baseball is preparing for a war. A war that seems to come every few years because players and owners cannot see far enough past their financial gains to understand they are bludgeoning their game.

This is why the commissioner cannot afford to wrap himself in the warmth of a feel-good story. To appreciate the joy that is unique to discovering beauty where it had not been seen before.

In a little more than four months, Selig must walk into a room and convince owners of 30 teams, along with leaders of the players association, that baseball's small markets are nearing financial extinction.

That message might ring a little hollow if the Twins or Phillies are ordering World Series rings of their own.

So this is tough love. This is a parent biting a tongue while a child wastes a month's allowance on a worthless whim, knowing the bargain is in the lesson. Better now than blowing a life's savings down the road.

And as much as Selig might appreciate fans in Minnesota or Milwaukee getting their just reward after years of disappointment, he must consider the implications down the road.

When asked recently what the success of the Twins might mean in labor negotiations, Selig initially sidestepped the question.

"They're only a half-game apart," Selig said. "So why don't we see what happens?"

When pressed, the commissioner provided a hint of how the point will be argued in a conference room in November.

"The system is clearly what the blue ribbon report said it was. And anybody who lets aberrations get in the way of what we're really trying to do, doesn't understand the problem," Selig said. "The bottom two quadrants (in payroll) have won three playoff games in the last 183. I don't think you need too much more data than that."

Selig, it should be noted, needs all the data he can get. His war is not only being fought in the wide open spaces before him but also from the rear.

He first must persuade players to introduce themselves to salary sanity, and then he must sell owners on a new financial landscape.

As difficult as it will be to convince the players a new system is needed ("Pay cuts for everyone! And, hey, the beer's on me."), it could be an equally hard sell for the owners.

Imagine yourself as managing general partner of the Indians. From 1997-99 you were fifth in the majors in the amount of payroll taxes paid to subsidize low-revenue teams. The Twins were among those receiving welfare. Now, in 2001, the Twins are challenging the Indians in the American League Central.

That's Bolshevik, man.

And here sits Bud Selig in the middle. Wondering if the players will agree to needed concessions, wondering if the owners will agree to needed equality.

All the while, this summer is supposedly what baseball has needed. Fresh stories. Fresher faces. For a change, would you rather see Doug Mientkiewicz playing first base in a World Series instead of Tino Martinez?

Yet as enticing as it might seem to get an underpaid, underdog of a team in the post-season, the timing is not right. Not now. Not during labor negotiations. Not when the viability of smaller markets is at stake.

Selig understands this.

He has the finances in front of him.

And he knows baseball cannot afford it.

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