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BASEBALL EXTRA | BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN

Releaguing Hits Colossal Snag in Land of Giants

September 14, 1997|ROSS NEWHAN

As owners prepare for a three-day meeting in Atlanta starting Tuesday, the radical realignment plan in which 15 teams would switch leagues is gone with the wind.

Modified versions in which nine to 11 teams switch leagues are still possible, but opinions are so varied among owners, who tend to bend with that wind, that it's not even certain a vote will be taken in Atlanta.

It's also not clear which plan will survive, and it's conceivable that owners will revert to a Band-Aid approach, switching only a few teams.

San Diego Padre President Larry Lucchino, a member of the realignment committee, is somewhat exasperated with the time-consuming scenario.

He thinks a decision will be reached in Atlanta.

"Fortunately and mercifully," he said. "We need to move on to the schedule. We need a [1998] schedule and we need some decisions.

"The world isn't waiting for a perfect decision. It's just waiting for a decision."

Peter Magowan, the San Francisco Giants' owner, is waiting intently.

Magowan, in a phone interview, said he is considering legal action if baseball tries to put the Oakland Athletics into the National League.

In the plan deemed to have the best chance, every Pacific and Mountain time zone team will be in the NL.

The Giants will remain in a division with the Dodgers, Padres and Colorado Rockies. The A's will be with the Angels, Seattle Mariners and Arizona Diamondbacks.

Realignment requires only majority approval, but any club asked to switch leagues has veto rights.

The Giants don't have a veto because they're not switching leagues, but Magowan said, "We were given exclusive National League rights to the Bay Area when we bought the team, so I definitely think we have a legal position.

"I don't see how you can give veto rights to [the Diamondbacks], who have never played a game and aren't switching leagues, and tell us we don't have a veto. I've talked to [acting Commissioner Bud] Selig about this and he may have a different view of our rights, but I don't see how baseball would think it in its best interest to have a fight."

And Magowan said he is prepared to fight.

Unlike Southern California, where the Dodgers and Angels have differing demographics amid a sprawling population base and both basically support the plan that would unite them in the NL (although the Dodgers are reserving final judgment until they examine the proposed schedule), the Bay Area's ability to sustain two teams has always been questioned.

"We have a smaller population base and a smaller distance between the teams," Magowan said. ". . . We're not interested in sharing the advantage of National League baseball with a competitor.

"In addition, by moving the A's out of the American League, you're depriving Bay Area fans of a chance to see both leagues. Both the Cubs and Mets protested when they were going to be moved into the American League [in the radical plan], and now they're going to stay in the National League.

"If [that separation in two team markets] is a good thing for New York and Chicago, why isn't it a good thing in the Bay Area?"

Interleague play will remain, meaning Bay Area fans would still see AL teams. Plus, under the anticipated change to an unbalanced schedule in which teams play more games within their division, the A's would maintain a rivalry with the Angels and Mariners, two current AL foes.

How far Magowan is willing to carry his objection is uncertain.

"I just think we're trying to do too much too soon," he said. "I'm not saying that some form of radical realignment might not be right down the line, but let's wait and do it right rather than hurry into it and throw away 115 years of history and tradition. I'm in favor of the Band-Aid approach for now."

One problem: It isn't any easier to apply a Band-Aid.

Tampa Bay, inexplicably put in the AL West initially as Selig catered to Arizona's desire to be in the NL, could move to the AL East, with Detroit moving to the AL Central, but Kansas City has resisted overtures to move from the Central to the West. That also would leave each league with 15 teams, and Selig and others insist the best schedule requires 16-14 so that an interleague game doesn't have to be played every night and there's more travel flexibility.

The modified plan--nine teams would switch leagues--with widest support is this:

NATIONAL LEAGUE (16 TEAMS)

West: Dodgers, San Francisco, San Diego, Colorado.

Pacific: Angels, Oakland, Seattle, Arizona.

East: Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and the Mets.

Central: Milwaukee, St. Louis, Kansas City and the Cubs.

AMERICAN LEAGUE (14 TEAMS)

East: Florida, Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia and the New York Yankees.

Central: Houston, Texas, Minnesota and the Chicago White Sox.

Combination: Montreal, Cleveland, Toronto, Detroit and Tampa Bay.

"This isn't Bud Selig or [anyone else] throwing hand grenades," Selig said. "Tradition is important, but we can't be hostages to it.

"We can't live with the status quo. When you take a 162-game schedule and add interleague, expansion and the three-division/wild-card format, the current structure just doesn't work. Fifteen-fifteen doesn't work. We talk about growing revenue. . . . Well, the best way to do that is with a schedule that works."

Maximize rivalries and minimize travel. There is a Sept. 30 deadline for getting it to the union for approval, but the larger imperative is getting the '98 schedule to the clubs as they begin winter operations.

"We need to get it done, but we need to do it right," Selig said of the possibility that a vote will be delayed. "I've never put a timetable on it and I'm not going to now."

One reason: too many opinions and too much opposition. You can start with Peter Magowan.

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