Sunday, January 20, 2002

SULLIVAN: Yes, Virginia is better alternative for Expos




By Tim Sullivan
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Baseball won't work in Montreal. It's doomed by a weak currency, a bad ballpark and the apathy that accumulates when a franchise is neither competitive nor committed.

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        The Expos make an excellent argument for major-league contraction. They are a better argument, however, for relocation.

        Limiting baseball's losses by liquidating weak franchises might make some sense on an impersonal accounting basis, but that's not the way things work in the real world. Baseball does not exist in a vacuum except, perhaps, when John Rocker is pitching. It remains susceptible to political clout and the leverage of labor.

        Commissioner Bud Selig's attempts to contract the big leagues in time for Opening Day 2002 have been thwarted by judicial intervention, congressional investigation and union intransigence. Now, he's probably looking at 2003 before baseball can liquidate any of its losing ballclubs.

        But late in his most contentious fortnight in office — after allegations of conflict of interest and multiple calls for his resignation — Selig raised a more attractive alternative. He predicted relocation in baseball's “near future” and identified the Washington, D.C./Northern Virginia market as the leading locale.

        If the commissioner had mentioned that Monday, when he called to complain about a line I had written, the conversation could have been a lot more productive.

        In the interests of full disclosure, Northern Virginia is where I grew up. In the best interests of baseball, it's too good to pass up.

        Better to give the Expos a last stand than to give last rites. Better to start a turf battle with Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos than to fight a two-front war against Congress and the Players Association. Better to test an affluent new market than to give up on growth. Better to seek than to surrender.

        Because of complicit ownership and an expiring lease, Minnesota has been the main focus of baseball's contraction controversy. Yet it takes at least two teams (and always an even number) to make the contraction concept fly. If the Expos can be revived in a new locale, efforts to liquidate the Twins inevitably lose steam.

        This would serve to preserve baseball's anti-trust exemption and protect the jobs of all those employed by the endangered franchises. If it damages Baltimore's Angelos and Twins owner Carl Pohlad, who stood to profit from contraction, the cost of making them whole probably would be significantly less than the cost of making baseball smaller.

        The Twins drew 1,766,172 spectators at home last season — more than Montreal, Florida, Kansas City, Tampa Bay and the Chicago White Sox. They finished second in the American League's Central Division, with a better record than the big-market New York Mets or the big-payroll Texas Rangers. They have won two World Series since the Boston Red Sox, Angelos' Orioles or Selig's Milwaukee Brewers last appeared in one.

        It's hard for a baseball franchise to compete in Minneapolis, but that's more a function of baseball's economic imbalance than the limitations of that particular market. Montreal may well be a lost cause, but contraction would seem a last resort when baseball hasn't tried relocation in 30 years.

        Granted, baseball has twice failed in Washington, D.C. (Somewhere, I still have the ticket stub from the last game of the Senators.) Yet when the Senators moved to Texas in 1971, Washington didn't have its subways, and its suburbs barely approached their present sprawl.

        The nation's capital is America's seventh-largest television market and, according to the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority, unsurpassed in household disposable income.

        Compared to contraction, it's a great attraction.

        Contact Tim Sullivan at 768-8456 or e-mail: tsullivan@enquirer.com.
       

       



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