September 24, 2004

Let the Carping Begin!

Today's Musical Selection: "Take Me Out to the Ballgame"

Hi, everyone! Well, it looks like Major League Baseball is grinding toward the logical, obvious conclusion: moving the Expos to Washington D.C. Bud Selig took the temperature of the Executive Council, and found no significant opposition (with one obvious exception; more on him below), and as a result is planning an announcement for next week that baseball will bloom with the cherry blossoms again next April.

Of course, any veteran Washington baseball observer knows better than to take a "done deal" for granted. And there are indeed a few roadblocks to clear before I can start daydreaming about President Kerry throwing out the first ball at RFK in a few months. (Hey, if I'm already daydreaming, why not dream all the way?) The stadium financing plan needs to pass the DC City Council, but the prospects there look good as long as the legislation is introduced soon. There's the issue of the racketeering lawsuit filed by the Expos' former partners, a nettlesome issue but one in which baseball, it's agreed, has a strong case. The lawsuit might slow down the works, but it's not likely to prevent the move from happening.

So what's holding back my daydream? The obvious exception I referenced a couple paragraphs north. The 800-pound litigious elephant in the corner of the room. The Asbestos King himself, "Havana Pete" Angelos, owner and operator of the Eastern Seaboard Orioles baseball club. As we all well know by now, Peter Antichrist feels that a team in Washington would cripple his team's ability to rake in obscene profits, er, I mean cripple their ability to compete. Of course, many baseball fans would point out that the Orioles' personnel decisions have done more to cripple their ability to compete than the loss of Washington ever could, but let us not cavil.

Inside observers report that Angelos is the primary obstacle to Washington's baseball dream. He thought that Commissioner Selig and the other owners had his back, but in the end they sold him out for the best interests of the game. (Hey, what a novel switch!) Having tried and failed to develop a realistic alternative to Washington, Selig cleverly put the squeeze on Angelos, assuring him everything would be fine while rounding up support for Washington behind Havana Pete's back. And by the time Angelos realized that Selig kept standing so close in order to apply a knife to his back, it was too late. The deal was all but done.

But Angelos did not become a highly successful attorney and prominent man-about-town by admitting defeat just because he is beaten. No, he's determined to fight back. Rather than negotiating a fat compensation payment, Angelos is steadfastly refusing all offers thrown his way. He's making noises about suing, which is after all his day job. He's determined not to go quietly and gracefully into that good night.

And behind him all the way is the house organ of the Angelos Establishment, the Baltimore Sun, which is out to prove that, as Stuart Smalley liked to say, "de Nile" isn't just a river in Egypt. Despite the overwhelming evidence that baseball in DC is good for the game and that MLB is going to find a way to get the Expos here, the Sun is determined to defend Havana Pete's turf. No one is more adamant about this than Laura "Riding My Last Name Farther Than Anyone Since Dubya" Vecsey, who wrote a column this morning that is so simple-minded and ignorant that it ought to have run in the Weekly World News. The thrust of Vecsey's argument is that MLB's attempt to compensate Angelos is proof that they know a Washington franchise would cause him ruin.

If Major League Baseball agrees to pay Peter Angelos millions to make up for losses the Orioles will suffer upon the relocation of the Expos to Washington, that's a win-win for Angelos.

But it's not a win-win the way it first appears.

With the promise of a cash bailout, the master litigator, Angelos, may find he has extracted exactly the kind of evidence it would take to bring a lawsuit against baseball. If they fork over money, Bud Selig and Co. all but admit they are inflicting harm on the Orioles by putting the Expos 35 miles to the south.

In some lines of work, it's called "hush money."

And in some lines of work, that passage is called "nonsense." Vecsey acts as though compensatory payments are some sort of new thing in sports, when in fact they're as old as the hills. For instance, when the NBA and ABA merged in 1976, the New York Knicks received a compensatory payment of $3 million from the ABA's Nets for moving in on their territory. And yes, Laura, the Senators got a compensatory payment from the Orioles when they took roost in Bal'mer back in 1954. A fact that she might have known had she done something we like to call "research." But as we'll see, research is not a particular strong point of Vecsey's, unless by "research" you mean printing out an e-mail containing Peter Antichrist's talking points.

No one's arguing that the Orioles would suffer no harm whatsoever from having a DC team in their backyard. Hence, the compensatory payment. The reason Selig and the MLB owners are willing to make this payment is that the good of the game outweighs the cost of recompensing Angelos. (By the way, Laura, expect baseball to make this argument if Angelos tries to prove that the so-called "hush money" proves harm: "But look at the size of these payments that Mr. Angelos turned down. In our estimation, the value to the game of a Washington franchise would be larger than that." MLB has some smart lawyers on its side too, you know.)

Vecsey then goes to say that no, the incompetent way the Orioles have been run has nothing to do with how well the team is supported. Oh, no. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

Yes, Angelos has meddled and therefore mismanaged his precious asset. For that, he deserves criticism and blame. Pat Gillick should have never left. Nor Davey Johnson. Nor Frank Wren. On it goes.

The Orioles are still trying to climb out from under their non-competitive rock, which only partly explains the misery of a franchise that has not produced its own "franchise player" since Cal Ripken.

The talk is the Orioles' scouting department will undergo an overhaul this winter, now that reconstruction of the minor league system has begun. Lee Mazzilli has not exactly earned the confidence of anyone and where the Orioles find pitching to hang with Boston and New York remains a mystery.

But as difficult as this task seems, separate the mismanagement of the Orioles over the past 12 years with Angelos' right to operate the business as it was designated, via the franchise's territorial reach into D.C. and beyond...

Territory is where it's at, which is why when you sit in your Williamsburg, Va., hotel room on a weekend jaunt away from Towson, you can catch Miguel Tejada and Melvin Mora doing that flappin' handshake.

From York County, Pa., down past the Potomac toward the Outer Banks, the Orioles have had free rein. Until now.

Don't you get it, Laura? You can't separate the Orioles' mismanagement from the Washington case, because the O's incompetence is what fueled the desire for DC baseball. After the Senators left, Washington's desire for a major-league team of its own tended to fluctuate along with the Orioles' fortunes. The better the O's were, the more DC was willing to adopt them. (At least until Peter Antichrist came along and pissed in our faces and told us to go to hell.)

The O's declining fortunes have helped relight the DC flame, and so has Angelos. Suppose the Orioles had, sometime in the '80s or early '90s, started playing a handful of games at RFK. Maybe put together a few DC-friendly ticket packages and marketed themselves as a team the Capital Region could love. Do you think the Expos would be so close to moving here? I don't. The Orioles had a chance to make themselves a Baltimore-Washington outfit. Not everyone would have loved it, but enough people would have been happy enough that MLB wouldn't have wanted to rock the boat.

Instead, here comes Angelos, arrogantly insisting that the Orioles are Washington's team while making no real attempt to reach out, at the same time his on-field product was going down the crapper. You can believe (if you wish) that this was a coincidence, but to DC fans it looked as though Angelos was flipping us the bird (so to speak). "Ha! You want a team of your own? You'll take my fourth-place club and like it!" I'm sure it's hard to imagine why this was an ineffective sales pitch.

So territory's where it's at, huh? Imagine that. Problem is, Laura, nowhere in baseball's governing documents does it say that any team has a God-given right to a 500-mile stretch of the mid-Atlantic. (In fact, what baseball's governing documents do say about territorial rights will become important later on in this argument.) And as a matter of fact, there's this other thing in baseball's governing documents called the "antitrust exemption." Perhaps you've heard of it. And one element of that exemption states that the league's owners have the right to move teams where they wish without having to explain in court. You know how I found that out? It's that miracle process called "research" again. It's a good word, Laura. Write it down.

Now, at this point Vecsey hits the part of the argument that actually makes sense. Of course, it's buried in a mountain of horse dung, so you might just skate on by it.

There will be damage to the Orioles if that territory is compromised, which is not what the owner of a team attempting to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox wants to deliberate.

That the Yankees and Red Sox are bigger problems for Angelos and the Orioles than the D.C. Expos isn't the point, either.

Whether it's 13 percent or 33 percent or somewhere in between that Camden Yards attendance draws from the D.C./Virginia area, it makes little difference. The fact is, there will be some impact, particularly with broadcasting rights. Television and radio and merchandise marketing are primary sources of income.

Ask the Yankees why they have the biggest payroll in baseball. It's the cable revenues, stupid.

Here we have it. If the Orioles were in the AL Central, no one would care about his arguments, or at least they'd care a lot less. But the Orioles need all the territory they can steal because they need to compete with the Yanks and Sox, right?

See, baseball's economics have undergone a startling change while no one was paying much attention. About a decade or so ago, baseball was famously divided into the haves and have-nots. There were about eight or ten rich teams, and the peasant class. The peasant class, however, could join the elite by getting a spiffy new stadium (like Cleveland, Colorado and, ahem, Baltimore).

Nowadays, most of the peasants have new stadia. And the "Moneyball" model has permitted lower-revenue clubs to compete even with outmoded facilities. So the peasant class has become limited to small-revenue clubs with bad management. Everyone else has a decent shot.

Except for those who have to compete with the Yanks and Sox. Their astronomically high payrolls (and, to be fair, the relatively smart use of it) make it almost impossible for smart management to carry the day. (Or so the theory goes. The fact that baseball, like all businesses, runs in cycles doesn't seem to occur to anyone.) The Yankees and Red Sox are creating a two-team duopoly atop the AL East, and the rest of the division is SOL.

I agree that this is a problem. But doesn't it occur to anyone that bringing in DC might highlight the problem? After all, MLB has kind of shrugged off the Sox/Yanks ascendancy, because the only apparent victims are the Blue Jays and Devil Rays, a weird Canadian team and of the league's dregs, and no one cares about them. But if the Orioles are added to the list of perceived victims, perhaps the league will finally take action.

Wait, I have it! I've got the solution. Tell you what, Mr. Angelos: let's swap leagues. We'll join the AL East, and you can go join the NL East, where you'd have a much easier time competing. Do we have a deal? No? What's that? You don't want to give up the revenue of the games against the Yanks and Sox? Hmmm. Very interesting.

Just in case you thought Laura was all complaint and no solution, she does have a solution. Unfortunately, it's on a par with the rest of her argument.

Maybe baseball's owners should have pressed harder to find a solution in northern New Jersey. No owner in his right mind would be talking anonymously about compensating George Steinbrenner for moving the Expos to the Meadowlands, which is not as far from Yankee Stadium as D.C. is from Camden Yards.

That New Jersey Expos scenario is not as far-fetched as it seems. It's not a pie-in-the-sky diversion drummed up just to prove a point. Negotiations to move the Expos to northern New Jersey were the idea of Stan Kasten.

The former general manager of the Atlanta Braves was, up until the All-Star break, covertly attempting to mediate discussions that would put the Expos in the one market where no one could argue they would cause irreparable harm.

Yankees, Mets, Expos.

Just like the old days of Yankees, Giants, Dodgers.

New York can handle it. New York probably needs it. New York/New Jersey would have been baseball's answer to two questions: where to put the Expos and how to rein in the Yankees.

If you rein in the Yankees, it effectively puts a drag on payrolls for all major league clubs. The Red Sox could take a chill. The Mets would stop thinking they have to imitate every move the Yankees make. The trickle-down effect of competitive balance would result from such a move.

It would help the Orioles compete. It would help everyone compete.

And you know what? I agree with her that baseball needs to put a team in Jersey. It would be good for the long-term balance of the game. Let's work together to bring baseball to north Jersey, okay? There's just this eensy-weensy little problem.

Remember that mention of "territorial rights" I made a while back? Here's where it gets important. See, each team has a zone of exclusivity in a 25-mile radius around its city. Get out a compass and draw a 25-mile radius around Baltimore, and you'll notice that the circle stops shy of DC. Now do the same with the Bronx and Flushing, and you'll notice that the circles encompass all the key parts of north Jersey. (Try it!) By rule, the Yanks' and Mets' territory in Jersey is considered to include Bergen, Hudson, Union and Essex counties. The O's territory consists of four counties in Maryland. (More of that pesky "research" again, Laura.) Theoretically, the team could go somewhere like Morristown, which is to the New York metro area what Loudoun County is to the Baltimore-Washington megaplex. Or they could try, say, Trenton. But if you want to put the team somewhere that New York metro area residents will actuallly go, that's against the rules.

And even if MLB went the Morristown or Trenton route, the idea that the Yankees, Mets and Phillies will just shrug and smile and say okay is insane. And you may scoff at the idea of someone offering compensation to Steinbrenner, why is it okay to grab a chunk of his alleged turf and not okay with taking some from Angelos? Hmmm. I think I just heard the sound of the air rushing out of Vecsey's argument.

The truth? Angelos has to know he can't win a lawsuit. He's too knowledgeable not to understand that. Furthermore, just filing a lawsuit would make him a pariah among the other owners, and must lead to Congressional scrutiny of the antitrust exception, which would be destructive for all the owners, Angelos included. A lawsuit against MLB is like a nuclear weapon; the collateral damage is too high for it to be useful except as a deterrent.

What Angelos wants to buy with a lawsuit -- or the threat of one -- is time. Time is his friend. A delay might cause DC's stadium funding to fall apart when the new Council is seated. A delay might allow another city to put together a good proposal. A delay is Angelos' only real hope. Unfortunately for him, DC -- and MLB -- are prepared to wait him out.

Boy, you just can't make people happy. I thought yesterday's column cleared up any lingering arguments from the day before, but it turns out my friend Frinklin is still pissed. He agrees with me on my definition of "hero," then bashes my loose use of another term:

Fred does, however, commit something that just irritates the living hell out of me. It's the misuse of a word, one that has become so bastardized the true meaning is known only by a few dozen drama majors and grumpy cretins such as myself. That word is "tragedy". A tragedy, for those who don't know, is a literary work, involving the ruination of a main character, who's ill-fortunes stem from an internal flaw, moral weakness, or inability to cope with a difficult situation. Nowadays though, "tragedy" is slapped onto every single bad event in modern life, from as big as 9/11 to everyday occurrences like kidnappings and murders. These things are horrific events, but they aren't tragedies. A tragedy would be me ruining my family's fortunes due to my rapturous lust for the delicious snack food Poppycock.

The word, obviously has had it's meaning replaced. I think I know why. We, as a people need a big word to describe such things. Calling 9/11 a horrible event doesn't get to the reality of it. So we've grabbed tragedy. And only grumps and drama majors don't like it.

And you know what? He's completely right. And I knew it. I actually debated whether or not to use the word "tragedy," precisely for the reason that Frinklin articulates. It's an imprecise use of the term. And here I am railing against "lingusitic imprecision!" For shame.

But, as Frinklin says, what else to call it? "Tragedy" is one of the few words that evokes an emotion similar to that of 9/11. So we've appropriated it. I'd prefer to have another word too. Shall we lobby to create one, Frinklin? I'm open to suggestion.

Thanks for busting my chops, buddy. I deserved it. Grumps unite!

That's all for me this week. See you Monday!

Posted by Fred at September 24, 2004 10:19 PM

Well, hell, if we're going to get even stricter than the dictionary, which includes "disastrous event" as a meaning for tragedy, let's restrict its use solely to the original Greek: tragos (goat) + oide (song) = tragedy is a goat song.

And speaking of events improperly characterized as tragedies, hear ye the goat song of the Man Who Sold Babe.

Posted by: PG at September 25, 2004 03:42 AM

Goat song? haven't heard that one before. And yeah, I wouldn't consider Harry Frazee or the Red Sox tragic figures either.

And I'm really sorry that you have to deal with the inanities of Laura Vecsey. She came to Baltimore from the Seattle P-I and I can honestly say that people sad to see her leave numbered almost in the dozens.

Posted by: frinklin at September 26, 2004 04:04 AM
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