Low and Away

When it comes to bookkeeping, Major League Baseball sure has a funny way of keeping score.

Epilogue:

It was a glorious season, a season of 73 home runs and 20 straight starts without a loss and 116 wins. It was the season of Ichiro and Barry and the Big Unit. For much of the 162-game schedule, it was the Seattle Mariners’ season. And in the end, it was the season of a remarkable, nail-biter of a World Series.

Three weeks after the World Series, the glorious season officially turned ugly. That’s when the powers that be at Major League Baseball (MLB) voted to eliminate two of the teams that play in the league. Those to be excommunicated before the 2002 season: the Minnesota Twins and the Montreal Expos.

Not surprisingly, MLB’s designs to unilaterally ditch two teams set off a firestorm of controversy among baseball fans. So much heat, in fact, that league commissioner Bud Selig appeared before the House Judiciary committee on December 6 to explain why baseball desperately needed to change its setup.

At the contentious meeting, Selig presented a set of financial records. If accurate, the records would seem to suggest that any attempt to purchase a professional baseball team should automatically trigger a competency hearing.

According to Selig’s math, 25 of the 30 major-league clubs lost money last year. From 1995 to 1999, claimed the commissioner, only three teams turned a profit: the Yankees, the Cleveland Indians, and the Colorado Rockies. All told, claimed Selig, major-league baseball clubs lost a staggering $1 billion in operations from 1995 to 1999.

Escalating player salaries, lamented the commissioner, are turning baseball into a money pit. “Owners struggle,” Selig told the committee. “If they don’t spend money, they’re called ‘El Cheapo.’ If they spend more money, they have problems.”

While many baseball watchers couldn’t fathom why wealthy owners would risk a pillorying by claiming poverty, some believe there was a method to Selig’s madness. At worst, they say, the commissioner stood to gain some sympathy among fans by pointing a guilty finger at multimillionaire ballplayers. At best, he might gain some converts among committee members contemplating ending MLB’s prized antitrust exemption. Either way, some observers believe that Selig thought his testimony would commence a public forum on the economic hardships that come with owning a baseball club.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. Soon after Selig’s appearance before Congress, John Henry, the owner of the Florida Marlins, got into a bidding war to acquire the Boston Red Sox. Even after a $660 million offer from Henry’s group was accepted, spurned suitors kept coming back with higher and higher bids. In Montreal, the distraught owner who seemed only too happy to get out of baseball ended up buying the Marlins from Henry. And in Minnesota, an unlikely white knight — an Alabama businessman — appeared on the scene, offering to purchase the allegedly money-losing team.

All of which raises Tim McCarver’s question: What’s going on here?

The Gory of Their Times

Indeed, as the new season begins, some economists say they’re still having trouble deciphering Major League Baseball’s accounting. “The numbers Selig provided don’t have any relationship to the economic health of baseball,” insists Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College.

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