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As a devoted baseball fan, I've been getting through the winter on rations of Bill James's newly updated Historical Baseball Abstract, a gift I received at Christmas. But in all of that book's accounts of the sometimes malicious, more often weak-willed and sycophantic boobery of the commissioner's office, I have yet to see anything as stupid, as misguided, and as damaging to the sport as Bud Selig's idea of "contraction," of eliminating at least two and perhaps as many as four major-league baseball teams. The only thing that compares is Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis's defense of the color line, the ban on black players that lasted until after he was dead. Yet even that is explicable, given Landis's background and the temper and the prejudice of the times. By contrast, contraction makes no sense whatsoever; it is sheer idiocy.

Why would major-league baseball liquidate franchises worth hundreds of millions of dollars, ponying up $270 million for each one? What possible economic sense can that make? Would any home owner pay twice the market value to raze the house next door, on the theory that this would make his or her home more valuable? The argument that there isn't enough talent is specious. As James has written elsewhere in his statistical studies, talent develops to fill the available spots (except in the National Hockey League, which truly has overexpanded). While the most recent baseball expansion, in 1998, brought about a pitching shortage that inflated hitting statistics, new talent emerged, and last year's return to a proper strike zone brought the sport back into balance. Right now there are probably more hard-throwing pitchers than at any time in baseball history. While I'll grant that it's increasingly difficult for major-league teams to turn a profit--though not as difficult as the owners would have fans believe--for some reason this has made those teams no less valuable. A major-league sports franchise remains one of the nation's most precious corporate commodities. The Boston Red Sox and their TV network were recently sold for more than $600 million--with a $700 million offer left on the table--and the bedraggled owner of the Montreal Expos is simply moving on to buy the Florida Marlins for $160 million. If the owners think they're saving money long-term by buying out the franchises instead of sharing revenues with them, perhaps it's their revenue-sharing system that needs to be readjusted, not the allegiance of fans in Montreal and Minneapolis. The damning truth is that the Minnesota Twins, pegged for destruction along with the Expos, are one of the brightest examples of how a small-market team can rebuild by developing young talent. They're also one of the few teams that baseball's owners, with their shady bookkeeping practices, are willing to admit made a profit last year.

Of course, it doesn't matter that Minnesota owner Carl Pohlad would get more for his team by accepting the $270 million buyout than he would on the open market, that in 1995 he loaned Selig millions of dollars--in direct violation of major-league rules prohibiting conflict-of-interest deals between owners--and that Selig's Milwaukee Brewers (his daughter now "owns" the team, but it's clearly still all in the family) would be the greatest beneficiary of the Twins' liquidation, as they'd no longer compete for fans in northern Wisconsin and would figure to attract much of the fan base in Minnesota.

The worst thing is that even though Selig and the owners can be stopped--indeed, have been stopped, at least for this season, by lawsuits brought in Minnesota and by labor grievances brought by the players' union--the damage has been done. The Expos will be a carcass of a franchise this year, operated by major-league baseball with little hope of improvement through trades and no hope of attracting new fans, as at best the franchise will be sold and moved to Washington, D.C., next year. (It's just an idea, but baseball could make the best of a bad situation by putting Steve Stone in charge of that team; he'd run it on the up-and-up, and he'd be eager to prove himself as a general manager to other teams.) The Twins likewise have been wounded. When Selig henchman Sandy Alderson said recently that the owners could eliminate franchises right up to opening day (a position Selig had to abandon after baseball's most recent losses in the Minnesota courts), season-ticket sales must have suffered in Minnesota, when they should have risen thanks to the Twins' 2001 revival. (Meanwhile, the Twins and baseball use the threat of liquidation as leverage to get the new stadium that the state of Minnesota has thus far been reluctant to finance. It's a typical bit of baseball extortion familiar to any White Sox fan.) So what Selig has done, with his bungling attempt to hurry contraction, is hog-tie one franchise and damage another that even he acknowledges made money.

Anyone who believes Selig and the owners can't be that stupid need only consult baseball history. It was their hard-line bargaining stance during the 1994 strike that led directly to the decline of the Montreal franchise. The Expos were the best team in baseball that year, and if they'd become world champions local interest would surely have increased and more of their team could have been kept together. But the end of the season was canceled, and after that embittered fans stayed away in droves and most of the Expos' best players moved on. The owners gained little in 1994's war of attrition, and the players have won every legal battle since then. The average salary has doubled since 1996 and the players' union is as strong as ever. In contrast with the suck-up sportswriters who have been writing about how "inevitable" contraction is, I'd argue that baseball is the best of all sports because it's the players and not the owners who have the power. The owners want to arrange the rules so that a major-league franchise becomes a license to print money--as it is in the NFL and the NBA. But we've seen how that system encourages mediocrity. A baseball team like the Sox--the Cubs are another matter entirely--has to win to attract fans, and win without breaking the bank, and the Sox and general manager Ken Williams have been exemplary in showing how this might be done.

The Sox have a productive minor-league system, which is the key to everything in the current economic environment. They don't have to overpay for a Paul Assenmacher because they can always bring in a replacement like Kelly Wunsch. At the same time, they are developing some genuinely exciting star-quality players. Over the off-season they've dumped Herbert Perry to clear the way for Joe Crede, while keeping Jose Valentin around as insurance. They took the opposite tack by bringing in Kenny Lofton to play center ahead of Joe Borchard, who's just as promising as Crede, but that deal has other benefits. For one thing, it takes talent from the archrival Cleveland Indians, who have decimated themselves with deals and free-agent losses over the winter. For another, it's for one year, allowing Borchard some extra time in the minors without really blocking his way. If manager Jerry Manuel decides Borchard is the better player and he'd rather have second baseman Ray Durham lead off than Lofton, he can do that. Finally, it's an incentive-laden deal and the incentives are tied to attendance--a no-lose situation for the Sox. If Lofton ignites the team and the fans, and they draw two million, everyone benefits.

This could very well happen, although the Sox will go only as far as their young pitching takes them. That pitching could be very good if Jon Rauch, Jim Parque, and Antonio Osuna return to full strength and Mark Buehrle continues to develop. Young pitchers will break your heart--that's one of baseball's oldest saws. But even so, the Sox can legitimately expect to be very, very good this year and a great team within two years.

The Cubs don't have quite as much promise, but a fan has to appreciate that Andy MacPhail has at least been trying--after years of allowing Ed Lynch to sit on his hands. The Cubs no longer seem content to let the sun come out and the fans walk in, in an expression of self-satisfaction on the part of the Tribune Company ownership that has been the team's greatest albatross for two decades. MacPhail brought the booming bat of Moises Alou to town over the winter--with a lot of money and a little recruiting help from Sammy Sosa--and it gives the Cubs' lineup the explosive middle of Sosa, Fred McGriff, Alou, and a potentially resurgent Todd Hundley. The problem is the Cubs are filling the top of the order on the cheap. Delino DeShields is only a year away from watching his career implode with the Orioles, but he's being counted on as a second baseman and leadoff man after performing well in a platoon role late last year. If DeShields doesn't get on base consistently, it won't matter how much the bats boom behind him. Rookie Bobby Hill, a second baseman with an excellent batting eye, could challenge DeShields after showing progress in the Arizona Instructional League last fall; but it should be noted that, aside from Todd Helton, manager Don Baylor doesn't have the best record of bringing along young talent--especially not here in Chicago, where he's stuck by veterans and openly questioned kids until they proved themselves. If center-field prospect Corey Patterson slips backward, Hill is returned to the minors, and Roosevelt Brown and Julio Zuleta atrophy on the bench, Baylor will be to blame.

The pitching staff is dominated, fortunately, by veterans, but unfortunately by veterans with a grudge to bear after Baylor ran popular pitching coach Oscar Acosta out of town at the end of last season. If Kerry Wood finally returns to his 1998 ace level, Jon Lieber continues to perform, and the suddenly 23-year-old Juan Cruz looks like the 20-year-old rookie of last year, the Cubs could be very good. The bull pen is set. If Tom Gordon fades, Baylor could promote either Jeff Fassero or the far more impressive Kyle Farnsworth to closer--but again, that's if his lack of faith doesn't cause Farnsworth to backslide. In short, Baylor figures to be on the hot seat. The Cubs have the talent to compete, but he has to use it properly.

In fact, both Chicago teams ought to compete. This is the first spring in decades in which there is legitimate reason to hope for a city series. It's a long shot to be sure, but the potential is there. This ought to be a time of excitement for Chicago baseball fans, but Selig's contraction plan, which overshadowed one of the greatest World Series ever last fall and dominated baseball news throughout the winter, has made it a time of dread and trepidation. That's perhaps the worst fallout of all.

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