Baseball dogged by selfishness and greed

Letter From Washington
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Not for the first time, I find myself contemplating the great paradox of baseball. How can this beautiful game, so graceful yet so explosive, so romanticised by its fans, so wrapped in tradition and history, be run by such a bunch of grasping, selfish morons?

This weekend, part one of that paradox is on full display. Across the United States, baseball junkies are experiencing a tingle of anticipation. Major league pitchers and catchers, the papers report, are assembling at their clubs' spring training-camps in Florida and Arizona to prepare for the coming season.

Nothing – not even the first blaze of azaleas and dogwoods, or the first April evening when it is warm enough to cook outside – conjures up more perfectly than spring training the promise of summer ahead. Grown men, who should know better, blow their entire annual holiday entitlement in March for a few weeks in the sun, watching friendly games in the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues.

This year, though, the return to normality has never been more welcome. Last November, you may recall, produced one of the greatest World Series in history. Hardly had the last cheer faded after the Arizona Diamondbacks' game seven, bottom-of-the-ninth victory over the mighty New York Yankees, than baseball's owners, led by the ineffably cackhanded Bud Selig, set about wrecking everything.

Baseball was on a rare high. It was not merely a sport but comforter of the national soul after the horrors of 11 September. Then Commissioner Selig entered the fray. Baseball might never have been more popular. But, instead of expanding, Selig announced, the major leagues intended to contract, by folding two teams.

Too much money was being lost, teams were playing in markets that could not support them. The only solution was to shut down a couple of teams; most likely the Montreal Expos (one of only two franchises in Canada) and the Minnesota Twins, whose misfortune was that the Minneapolis city fathers, unlike most other places which host baseball teams, would not bow to Major League Baseball's insistence that they bankroll a brand new stadium for the Twins.

Selig was hauled before Congress to explain himself. There, in the lugubrious tones of a small-town undertaker, he unfurled his figures of despair: in 2001, the 30 franchises lost $344m (£230m) between them, only five made a profit of any kind. Of course, he made no mention that these losses reflect the sport's grotesque salaries (the average major league player makes $2m a year) blithely shelled out by those same owners.

It's enough to make you cry. I then read a few days later that just one franchise, the Boston Red Sox, changed hands for a record $660m (and that wasn't even the highest bidder – another consortium offered $750m, but were deemed unsuitable by MLB).

In the end, overwhelmed by lawsuits, strike threats by the players and general public outcry, the owners relented. The Expos and the Twins will live one more season at least.

By now, however, you will be wondering: how is it that 30 owners should hold a collective veto over who buys and sells their teams, where they play, and who lives and who dies – just like that? The answer is that in the land of free-markets and deregulation, professional baseball is America's one legalised cartel. Back in the 1920s, Congress granted it exemption from the anti-trust laws.

Thus, Major League Baseball has total control of a $3.5bn industry, accountable to no one but itself. Had it made a good job of this, no one would be complaining. Instead, the owners have contrived to upset the fans, the players' union and Congress.

Yet again, the spectre of a strike or lock-out (depending on whether the union or the owners pull the plug first) is looming. Baseball enters the new season without an agreed labour contract and, if precedent is any guide, with an odds-on chance of a work stoppage before the season's end. Remember 1994, when a similar dispute wiped out the World Series? Of course, part of the responsibility in this millionaires vs billionaires war, long since unfathomable to ordinary mortals, rests with the players, who have learnt by bitter experience that in baseball negotiations, victory goes to the most selfish. But the lion's share rests with the owners, of whom Selig is the unprotesting mouthpiece.

Baseball's true weakness is the ever-growing gulf between rich and poor franchises. The answer lies in greater revenue sharing and an opening up of baseball to new teams and new places. But the rich clubs like the Yankees have had enough of revenue sharing, while the obvious solution for the Expos – a move to the affluent, baseball starved Washington DC area – has thus far been ruled out. Why? Because the Baltimore Orioles, 40 miles away would lose their regional monopoly. So the squabbling goes on. But, mercifully, spring training has come round again. Play Ball!