Baseball using strong-arm tactics

By Jack Todd/The Gazette

Major League Baseball plays a lot of games, and baseball itself is rather far down the list.

The game it's best at is strong-arming cities. The multi-millionaires who own the various franchises have shown amazing skill over the years at milking new ball parks out of cities that are understandably reluctant to allocate hundreds of millions in public funds to help the filthy rich build a park where the filthy rich play baseball.

It's a simple game, really. You have a franchise (or in this case, a half-dozen franchises) that is not drawing well in its current location. You have a location (for years, the favourite was Tampa Bay) that you tout as a logical candidate for a baseball team. You have various levels of government, usually state and city, whose distaste for being blackmailed is exceeded only by their lust for money and power.

When shove comes to push, you stare the reluctant mayors and governors in the eye and growl "Tampa Bay" or "Northern Virginia." The politicians, who know how fickle voters can be, consider their alternatives:

1) They can ante up the cash, knowing that within six months (if not six minutes) the average voter will have forgotten his anger over tax money being used to subsidize millionaires.

2) They can call baseball's bluff, knowing that in the next election and the election after that and on and on unto the 10th generation, voters will remember that this is the government that let the Podunk Pillows move to Poughkeepsie.

When it comes to lost sports franchises, people have long memories - there are people in New York, for instance, who have still not forgiven the Dodgers and Giants for leaving town.

Trouble is, baseball's version of three-card monte has been around too long. Some of the rubes are getting hip to the scam. It is no longer enough for some lizard with more money than the deity to groan that he needs a new ball park; even politicians sometimes know enough to point out that at least a dozen teams have threatened to relocate over the past three decades and that every last one of them has stayed put, usually after extorting that elusive new ball park out of the locals.

The danger now is that someone might have the sense to pronounce the one sentence baseball dreads more than any other: "But, uh, you clowns finally put a new franchise in Tampa Bay and, um, it's a freaking disaster."

Now, baseball understands that to make the old scam work, it needs better window-dressing. So they trot out some old windbags of exalted pedigree, put them on a committee with some inflated title, and ask them to give the whole dubious enterprise a bit of legitimacy.

The windbags in this case are George Volcker, Exalted Former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, and George Mitchell, Exalted Former Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate. Like Mortimer Snerd and Charlie McCarthy, Volcker and Mitchell say the words baseball wants you to hear.

"If an area doesn't want to support a team, that answers itself," Volcker said yesterday.

Said Mitchell: "Clubs that have little likelihood of securing a new ball park or other revenue- enhancing activities should have the opportunity to relocate."

Funny. Jeffrey Loria couldn't have said it better himself. You would almost think that Bud Selig Jr. and Loria had a little side deal going long before Loria came to Montreal.

"OK, Jeffrey," Bud whispers. "You go up to Montreal and really cheese everybody off. Make the radio and TV stations so mad they won't deal with you, then whine about your broadcast revenue. Make the fans so mad at you, they won't come to the games, then whine about your attendance. Then we'll trot out a couple of big-name bozos to make it all right, and you can move your team to - well, fill in the blank."

Of course, baseball can't fill in the blank. Baseball fans know this, but not Volcker, Mitchell & Co.

The troublesome aspect - if indeed all these high and exalted muckey-mucks have the Expos in mind when they open their mouths - is that Montreal is being blamed for the sins of New York. It is not entirely the fault of this city that the Big Apple shipped a couple of bad apples our way in the form of Loria and Samson, two individuals who are utterly disinterested in working with the locals to keep baseball alive in Montreal.

An Associated Press report earlier this week mentioned Montreal as a city that has refused to build a new baseball stadium for the Expos, a statement that could not be farther from the truth. The provincial support promised for a new downtown ball park in Montreal far exceeds that available in Florida - which has turned a flat thumbs-down on state support for a new park for the Marlins - and Minnesota, which has repeatedly said nyet to the Twins.

No, the Lords of Baseball can spin this however they want. They can wave that dizzy Virginia governor in our faces, with his promise to build a new ball park for anyone who wants to pack and move. It's still a bluff until Peter Angelos says it isn't, and if this one works out like Tampa Bay did, well - look out.

We can't speak for the Marlins or the A's or the Twins or the Royals. But the problem in Montreal is and has been Loria, Samson and Claude Brochu - not the baseball fans of this city. The threat to move is a con, and we're not falling for it.

Give us good ownership, M. Selig, and this ball park thing can happen. This will be a franchise to make you proud.

On the other hand, if you want a disaster on your hands, let Loria and Samson take their act to Virginia and see how it plays. Ever heard of the Civil War, Bud? North vs. South?

That should give you some idea what to expect.

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