28 November 2006

Happy trails, Bud

You could see it on his face. He really didn’t want to be there. As commissioner, Bud Selig’s appearance at the A’s-Cisco announcement was perfunctory. His presence was needed to give the event that extra bit of gravitas, though he certainly didn’t lend a ton of charm to the proceedings. Soon, Bud Selig won’t have to fly cross-country to do these events. It’ll be someone else’s job.

It was thought that Selig would retire by the time his current tenure as commish expires at the end of 2007. Recently, he has given hints that he wants to stay on a little longer. With a new CBA in place and record attendance figures year after year, you’d think that he’d want to go out on top, or at least until he really has to face the steroids demon in earnest.

The only reason Selig would conceivably stay on would be that he thought his job wasn’t finished. That’s hard to believe, since Selig navigated MLB through 3 CBA negotiations, while presiding over the opening of 15 new ballparks (with 5 more on the way), and the expansion of the league by 4 teams. He’s also overseen the introduction of the wildcard, interleague play, and revenue sharing. In Andrew Zimbalist’s book In the Best Interests of Baseball? he refers to Selig as the sport’s first CEO.

It would appear that Selig does have some unfinished business as the game’s CEO. Chief among his concerns has to be the Florida Marlins’ situation. By inserting the league office directly into negotiations with local governments in the Miami area, Selig has bypassed the source of much consternation, Marlins’ ownership. The election of former minor league baseball lawyer, Charlie Crist, to the governorship of Florida has given MLB officials renewed hope for a deal. Kansas City was considered a problem area as well, but in April voters passed a package of renovations for Kauffman Stadium and its neighbor in the Truman Sports Complex, Arrowhead Stadium. The Mets and Yankees have broken ground on their new homes, and the Nats are well along on construction of their new ballpark, even if some of the other details are still being fleshed out. The A's still have a long way to go before groundbreaking, let alone opening day.

So what’s next? National TV deals are set through 2013. Should Florida pan out, there would be one stadium deal nearing expiration: the Angels lease at the Big A. With the home market being LA, it would be in Arte Moreno’s best interest to get something done there, while not completely alienating the existing fanbase. He’s not going to maintain his franchise’s impressive growth in value by moving out of LA.

Perhaps it’s time that MLB truly starts to consider expansion again. Before you start complaining about the watering down of the talent pool, let’s remember that foreign talent has been extremely rich over the last several years and has shown no signs of slowing down, especially in Asia. There will always be marginal players or players of questionable value. Right now, some of them get 5-year, $50 million deals. If you're really concerned about dilution of talent, turn the 25-man roster into a 24-man roster.

There are numerous ways expansion would help:
  • Having 32 teams makes realignment and scheduling easy. Again, let’s look to the NFL. They have a symmetrical dream system for scheduling, with even numbers of teams per division and conference. They have a fair number of intraconference and interconference games. Plus they kept great divisional rivalries intact. Take a look at this hypothetical MLB realignment scenario:

    The four-team division allows for great flexibility. Teams can devote all of April and September to divisional races since an odd fifth team won't be left out. And by instituting the unbalanced-but-fair scenario in green above, every team will be guaranteed an equitable number of series with each intraleague opponent. Sometimes it'll be 6 series (division), 4 series (intraleague "A"), or 2 series (intraleague "B"). No more of that weird home-away-home stuff. The awkwardness that comes from pairing a 4-team division (AL West) with a 6-team division (NL Central) will cease. 2-game series would be mostly limited to divisional play, lessening travel hardships. There are some historical rivalry issues to work out such as Royals-Cards, but that could be accommodated within this revamped framework.
  • Major league baseball should have a team in a primarily Spanish-speaking market. Options include Monterrey and San Juan, or perhaps Mexico City, Havana (post-communism), or an economically stronger Santo Domingo, DR. Frankly, this is long overdue. It's likely that a team south of the border will require revenue-sharing for its first decade of operation. That's fine. Take part of the expansion franchise fee and put it into a fund for the team. It would be well worth the goodwill it will bring to MLB. The NBA and NFL are aggressively marketing in Asia and Europe. Why should MLB keep neglecting its fertile backyard?
  • Increasing the number of jobs could push average salaries downwards. The union will love the increase in ML jobs (50). The owners will automatically have some amount of depression in average pay, since more players will be fighting for a slightly larger salary pie. The NFL’s system works largely because over double the players of MLB yet have only slightly larger annual revenues. There’s little chance that MLB will increase active rosters to more than 25 men. It’s possible that adding two more teams could make teams compete more for that fourth outfielder or starting pitcher, but I’d rather have the market play that out.
  • Holding a city for ransom doesn't work. We've seen this already play in Miami, where the city called the team's bluff, knowing how crucial a market it is to MLB. The Marlins remain in South Florida, and with MLB heading the negotiations, a ballpark deal could be made. I personally am not a fan of the public funding being considered, but I don't live in Florida. It's up to Florida residents to decide the merits of the deal. Once ransom is off the table due to zero relocation candidates, then Portland, Las Vegas, and San Antonio can cease being stalking horses. If they're interested, they can bid on the other expansion team. We'll know which city has all of the pieces in place: site, financing, ownership group, economics. All three of those markets are somewhat small right now, but in a decade all three could be excellent medium-sized baseball markets. San Antonio could even be a fallback option if a south-of-the-border city is not feasible.
  • It's almost time. Expansion wouldn't occur until well into the next decade, perhaps 2015 or so - after the current stadium boom era has officially come to a close. That's plenty of time between the last round of expansion (1998) and the next. This time, the owners wouldn't be motivated by collusion or legal difficulties. They'd be focused on actually growing the sport. Rather novel idea, no?
What do you think about expansion?