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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

Contraction Motivates Teams, Not Negotiators


Many methods have been used to motivate major league players.

The late Billy Martin once shut his door and smashed everything in his office, from furniture to framed pictures. Players and reporters peeked inside to see the destruction. It gave a whole new meaning to "the manager wants to see you ... in his office."

But now an even better method may have been invented. And by commissioner Bud Selig, no less. He's threatened to contract two entire teams out of existence. Put every man on those deleted clubs out on the cold, cruel open market. Now that's motivation. Whole teams are now "playing for their jobs."

If only Selig could do for the Milwaukee Brewers (7-12), who are owned by his daughter, what he has done for the Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos. By putting out a public hit on both franchises, he has inspired both teams to heroic levels of self-interest. Both clubs are in first place.

You may have heard of the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves--rich, classy big-market teams. Well, they're currently behind "our" Expos, who are 11-8 in the National League East. The Twins (13-6) have the fourth-best record in baseball.

This week, all eyes won't be on the Yankees playing the A's or the Diamondbacks meeting the Braves. Instead, a three-game Bud Bowl began last night with Selig's Brewers visiting the Expos in Montreal, the sport's City of the Damned. Gimme those 'Spos.

Why, just look at the league leaders entering last night's games. Expos catcher Mike Barrett, a career .259 hitter, was second to Barry Bonds in the National League in hitting at .404. Now there's a man who wants a job in the major leagues next season.

There may be no "I" in "team." But there are two in Torii Hunter, the Twins' outfielder with a .264 career average. Suddenly, Torii's looking out for No. 1. He's leading the American League in hitting at .405. The Expos' Vladimir Guerrero is tied for the NL lead in RBI (21), while the Twins' Eddie Guardado leads the AL in saves (eight). Selig may soon replace Tony Robbins on the motivational speaking circuit.

Why didn't somebody think of this before?

Perhaps the big leagues should operate like some European soccer leagues. Send the worst teams of each season down to a lower division for the next year. Send the players, too. Let 'em swap salaries with the guys you bring up.

The Twins and Expos appear to have gotten a rude reality check concerning the life of luxury that they've been living in the big leagues. Their attitude adjustment has been swift.

Now if only a similar method of draconian motivation could be found to force the players' union and baseball's owners to get off the dime in their current labor talks.

The two sides have been meeting this week. They'll chat again early next month. Here's the kind of progress they're achieving. The owners want the percentage of local revenue that's shared among teams to increase from 20 percent to 50 percent. The union's most recent counterproposal has been 22.5 percent.

At this rate, we'll have an agreement by Christmas. Of 2020. Memo to Selig and union boss Don Fehr: You're already halfway to a legacy as the most destructive figure in the history of baseball. Are you trying to complete the job you started in '94?

There's some what-formula-do-we-use spin on that 22.5 percent. But it's mostly just what it looks like. The union is acting tough. The membership got blindsided, to their way of thinking, by Selig's unilateral post-World Series announcement of contraction. So they're flexing their muscles right back.

Months ago, the union knew the sport had enough financial problems, and owners were sufficiently united, that they'd need to go into the 35-percent range on revenue sharing, at the very least.

But, in baseball labor negotiations, nobody can ever get up out of the dirt, brush off his uniform and get on with the game. There always has to be a retaliatory knockdown pitch. That's one reason the sport is eight-for-eight in potential work stoppages--a record no other sport will ever break, because no other sport is wonderful enough to survive such abuse from the people who profit from it.

Everybody has known for a generation that you can't trust the owners when they tell you how much money they are, or aren't, making. Forbes magazine recently valued every team in baseball and, in the process, did a good job of shredding the idea that owning a baseball franchise is a sucker's game. Among other things, a half-dozen clubs report big losses on baseball operations but actually love their cross-ownership of a team and a hugely valuable regional cable-TV network for which the club is the anchor tenant.

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