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No Joy in Budville

Baseball: Selig says one team might not be able to make its payroll next week and another is in trouble because of debt.

July 11, 2002|JASON REID | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Commissioner Bud Selig fired another warning shot on the eve of baseball labor negotiations resuming, claiming a team may not be able to make payroll Monday and another could fold during the season because of debt, though he declined to identify the clubs or explain how the situation would be addressed.

Selig raised the issues during an interview Wednesday in Milwaukee with newspaper reporters, following the doomsday theme he first discussed in May with editors and reporters of The Times, saying then that "six to eight [teams] can't exist another year, another year and a half."

Now, Selig says things are even worse, with the total debt of the 30 franchises at about $3.6 billion.

"People want to question our losses," he said in Milwaukee. "Well, when I met with the bankers, none of the people who have seen our numbers question it, believe me."

Selig said 20 of the 30 franchises have reached the limit on the $72-million line of credit the commissioner's office established for each team. It is believed that baseball bailed out the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1998, and the other 29 owners are bankrolling the Montreal Expos this season.

Tampa Bay is believed to be one of the two teams supposedly facing an imminent cash-flow crisis, but there was no way to corroborate Selig's claims in May or now. And going out of business would be the last of many steps for a financially insolvent major sports franchise.

He did say that the identity of one of the teams in trouble "will surprise you."

It is highly unlikely that teams would be eliminated in the second half because of scheduling issues. Moreover, players and owners are awaiting the upcoming contraction ruling from arbitrator Shyam Das on the grievance filed by the Major League Baseball Players Assn.

Das hopes to reach a decision Monday, and either side could be awarded a major bargaining chip for negotiations. Selig put off contraction until after the 2002 season after owners repeatedly were pummeled in the Minnesota courts, which ruled the Twins had to honor their 2002 lease in the Metrodome.

As in May at The Times, Selig strongly reiterated he would no longer prop up struggling franchises. He said his willingness to do so previously prompted internal criticism of him from owners of more stable clubs and his own staff.

"I think it was a mistake on my part," he said in Milwaukee. "Will I do it in the future? I will not. ... Now, if a club can't make it, I have to let it go.

"I'm a traditionalist, and I hate all that. It pains me to do it. I just don't have any more alternatives."

Selig's comments could be construed as a negotiation ploy, coming on the eve of the first full negotiating session with the union since June 27.

Some progress has been made on three core issues: increased revenue sharing among the clubs; a luxury tax on teams with high payrolls; and the format of a worldwide draft. Still, there is little to indicate that an agreement is imminent.

In May, union leader Don Fehr said he had never heard Selig claim six to eight clubs could go under if the system isn't changed and refused to say whether he believed that or not. Attempts to contact Fehr on Wednesday were unsuccessful.

The union's executive board did not set a strike date at a meeting Monday in Chicago, but it requested that players on individual teams give it the authority to set one.

If negotiations continue to lag, players are expected to walk out in August or September. Baseball has had eight previous work stoppages.

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The Chicago Tribune contributed to this story.

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