A three-league solution for the MLB

AJ Contributor
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The Major League Baseball season will be opening up shortly, and for baseball backers who follow the Pittsburgh Pirates or the Kansas City Royals, it figures to be yet another long season.

It’s been many years since Kansas City and Pittsburgh boosters have had something to cheer about in October, but at one time in the 1970s and 1980s, Kansas City had playoff teams and Pittsburgh had contenders in the early 1990s.

Pittsburgh lost Barry Bonds because the franchise simply did not have the money to keep him. Bonds ended up signing with the San Francisco Giants after the 1992 season when he received a six-year, $43.75 million offer from the Bay Area team. Kansas City’s failures stem more from not developing good players after the team’s championship run ended in 1985, although Kansas City still had some good teams into the 1990s because then-owner Ewing Kauffman opened his checkbook. After Kauffman died in 1993, the baseball team’s fortunes sunk with him.

Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, who himself was the owner of a struggling baseball team until he heard a higher call and took over as the owners’ top man, decided to ask some of the best minds in his industry to come up with plans to level the playing field.

The problem seems to be that the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox can just sign really good players to contracts that look more like telephone numbers, or they can bid for big-time Japanese players. New York and Boston have spent a lot of money and have been great teams; Boston has two championships in the past ten years; Philadelphia, is the best team (in theory) in the National League.

But the big money signings ruining the competitive balance argument has some flaws. Fred Wilpon’s New York Mets baseball club was awful in 2009 despite having a huge payroll, and Peter Angelos’ Baltimore Orioles won nothing in the past despite Angelos writing big checks to players.

Money is not the root of all evil in baseball, even if you believe the Red Sox CEO and President Larry Lucchino that the New York Yankees franchise is the “evil empire”.

Lucchino should not have spoken so quickly about his business partner. One of the Boston Red Sox’s properties is the Fenway Sports Group, and one of FSG’s clients is Dunkin’ Donuts. Guess which ad agency arranged a deal that featured Yankees pitcher Jaba Chamberlain in a Dunkin Donuts promotion?

Major League Baseball cannot split up the Yankees-Red Sox or there might be a whole new “Curse of the Bambino” on the industry.The Red Sox-Yankees rivalry is good for New York and Boston, for FOX, Turner Sports and ESPN. It is not good for people outside the northeast I-95 corridor, and that is something Selig wants to address.

Major League Baseball has had bad teams and bad franchises in the game since the start of the professional era in 1869. For some reason, neither the National nor the American League moved franchises around from 1903 to 1953. Team owners built their own stadiums.

The paradigm changed in March 1953, when Boston Braves owner Lou Perini moved his team to Milwaukee. Perini got a sweetheart deal from Milwaukee elected officials, who in 1950 decided to build a municipally funded baseball-football field to attract a Major League Baseball team and keep a portion of the Green Bay Packers home schedule in Milwaukee. Perini paid $1,000 in rent and got to keep concessions money, which got Walter O’Malley thinking about the future of his Brooklyn Dodgers. O’Malley felt the financially strong Dodgers franchise was going to fall behind Milwaukee, of all places, if he did not get a new stadium in Brooklyn.

O’Malley tested the waters in Jersey City, and his Dodgers played a handful of games west of the Hudson River hoping to get New York’s Mayor Robert Wagner and Robert Moses to listen to his plight. O’Malley took a deal in Los Angeles in 1957.

Financially struggling franchises followed Perini’s lead. O’Malley’s New York rival, Horace Stoneham, took his Giants to San Francisco in 1957 after taking a long look at Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Following the Tax Act of 1986, Major League Baseball found Fool’s Gold. The 1986 federal tax reform had a loophole that put a ceiling on how much revenue generated inside a municipally funded stadium or arena at eight percent, which meant owners could negotiate sweetheart contracts and pay players. New stadiums quickly came online and added revenues into the pockets of the owners but there was a problem.

It was a temporary fix for small market teams. The big boy would also get shiny new stadiums to increase revenue and baseball’s revenue sharing policies were not good to struggling owners in the 1990s. Cable TV became prominent and teams like the Yankees an Red Sox ended up owning the regional network cable TV stations that gave them even more money.

The big market owners who had astute decision-makers who could pay top dollar for talent became dominant. Small market teams with limited money for payroll or signing young talent could succeed on occasion, but the success would be short lived. Once a player got to his sixth year, he could leave. Many did.

Exhibit A is the Florida Marlins franchise. Champions one year, rebuilding the next because the team could not afford to pay high prices for established talent.

One of the ideas floating around has teams shifting divisions. If Cleveland builds a good enough team to win the American League Central and get to the World Series (and that happened in 1997), Cleveland could stay in that division.

But if Cleveland is rotten and ownership is looking for extra home games against the Yankees, ownership can apply to switch divisions or trade places with, say, Toronto or Baltimore or Tampa Bay. Any one of those teams could pursue a switch if ownership feels that their team might be good enough to win the Central.

Central teams can move east or west, but movements are limited to just a two hour switch in time zones, which might be a problem for Detroit if Mike Ilitch wants to move his Tigers into the American League or National League West. Detroit, despite being a Central team, is on the eastern time zone clock.

Perhaps it is time for Major League Baseball to split into three leagues, the American League, National League and the Continental League with eight teams in the American League, eight in the National League and the other 14 in the Continental League. “Turn back the clock day” has been a good Major League promotion, so this one could be a good idea. In fact, it almost came to pass in 1960.

The Continental League of Professional Baseball Clubs was a brainchild of long time Baseball executive Branch Rickey. The man who signed Jackie Robinson to a contract with Brooklyn in 1946 and developed the farm system wanted to build a third major league after the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants relocated to California after the 1957 season.  The plan in 1961 was for the Continental League to open the season with eight teams, Atlanta, Buffalo, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Denver, Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York and Toronto. The league would eventually claim Major League status while building baseball squads. The league folded in August 1960 after baseball’s National League decided to expand into New York and Houston.

The American League would house eight financially viable markets that have major government support (publicly supported stadiums or stadiums that give owners land and substantial tax breaks and incentives) along with big cable TV dollars and large corporate support. The AL would have the Yankees and Red Sox along with the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim as permanent members, sort of like the United Nations’ security council. Those four teams would stay in the AL unless they finish next to last or last.

Seattle has been profitable lately and would qualify for the league; Baltimore has a great TV deal and a sweetheart lease at Camden Yards, so it’s possible that Baltimore could be franchise number 6. Toronto with a huge market, Rogers Communications funding the enterprise and with Bay Street, the Canadian version of Wall Street, nearby should be franchise seven. Number eight is a toss-up between Detroit and Cleveland, with possibly the Texas Rangers because of the Dallas-Fort Worth or the Minnesota Twins, representing Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Six teams would be banished to the Continental League. Kansas City, Oakland, Tampa Bay are keepers. Cleveland or Detroit or Minnesota or Texas would be the fourth, fifth or sixth franchises.

Retaining a position in the American League would require that a team finishes better than sixth with the last two teams in the standings dropping to the Continental League and two former American League teams joining the league by qualifying for the CL playoffs. The 14-team CL would be split into two divisions, the American Conference and the National Conference.

The National League would also house eight financially viable markets with the same set of qualifications stemming from government backing, cable TV support and corporate financing. The NL would have the New York Mets, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and the Chicago Cubs as permanent members. St. Louis would be the fifth team; San Francisco would the sixth club. It is extremely hard to find the seventh and eighth teams to fill out the league although cases could be made for Washington and perhaps Denver.

The National Conference of the Continental League could include Arizona, Cincinnati, Colorado, Florida, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, San Diego and Washington. The same rules would apply; the two top finishers in the National Conference would replace the two bottom feeders in the National League.

The result would be better baseball. Even though all 30 teams would get the same amount of national and international TV monies, the Continental League teams would be competing against similar sized markets and there would be incentive to win for the owners, the chance to return to the American and National League and a chance to play in the World Series. For the eight teams in the American and National League, being banished to the Continental League would be embarrassing so there is more incentive to win to stay in the big market leagues because only American and National league teams can play in the World Series.

There would be a Continental League championship and that would give fans in cities like Kansas City and Pittsburgh some hope for their baseball teams. The Continental League idea is just an idea and perhaps as valid of teams trading divisions.

Selig wants changes but baseball history suggests there will be always bad teams with financial problems. It’s just the way it is.

Evan Weiner is a radio-TV commentator, author and a lecturer on “The Politics of Sports Business.”