Usually, no news is not good news when the topic is baseball expansion. Today, however, was an exception to that rule.
Baseball's owners met all day and did what they do best: talk a lot and decide nothing. But, in this case, talk was a meaningful step.
Why? Because for the first time all 26 owners -- not just a committee -- debated expansion. More than that, the connected issues of expansion and relocation (of exisiting franchises) dominated the entire day's agenda.
Until now, the addition of new teams has been the lonesome pet project of two commissioners, Bowie Kuhn and Peter Ueberroth. Both have been well-meaning drum majors without a parade.
Today, expansion finally came up on the owners' radar screen.
Their eyes focused. Their lips moved. And a collective murmur was heard: "Oh . . . yes . . . expansion. Guess that must be next."
Historically, baseball moguls are only capable of focusing their attention on one subject at a time. Once they finally figure out their next order of business, they plod slowly, but inexorably, toward that one goal until they reach it.
Firing Kuhn took a year. But they nailed him. Getting a replacement took almost two. But they came up with Ueberroth. Deciding to force a strike (in '81) took a year, but it came. Orchestrating a collusive backroom agreement to restrain free-agent trade required a decade, but, as we speak, it is being done; no team, except Detroit, has offered Kirk Gibson a cent -- the definition of prima facie evidence.
Now, thanks largely to Ueberroth, baseball's 26-headed behemoth has been beaten about the brainpan with the idea of expanding. "Tens of millions in franchise fees . . . new TV markets . . . gold in them there hills," he's whispering.
"Expansion was by far the most extensive presentation today," said Ueberroth. "There were lengthy, detailed discussions of every city. The whole idea . . . combining relocation and expansion and, perhaps, realignment, was discussed . . . How many teams in each league? Who plays who? There are a hundred factors. But they are addressing the question seriously."
Ueberroth probably wanted to add, "Finally."
He knows he's been out on a skinny public relations limb and could saw himself off. It's hazardous to your health to tantalize a dozen cities, then jilt them all.
Pressed by a Pheonix reporter about why the owners set no timetable for expansion decisions, Ueberroth said, "You can get as angry as you want. I'm not going to address it. They decided not to decide that . . . I understand (your annoyance) . . . If I was on your side, I'd want to be looking at timetables, too."
According to one National League owner, Ueberroth is at his best when shaping the complex expansion debate. "He's great at it." Herding, it's called. Like a good sheepdog, Ueberroth gently helps the owners reach his conclusions. Asked his role in expansion, Ueberroth said, "I'm trying to keep their attention on the subject . . .
"The cities seem to be falling into three categories," Ueberroth said. "Those that are a real distance off and don't seem organized. Those which are (legitimately) interested, but are further off. And the ones on the front burner."
Asked if anything negative had been said about Washington, one owner on the expansion committee said, "Oh, no. Washington is definitely in the top group."
Several tangled and fascinating factors weigh on baseball decisions in this area. Will the Giants end up in a new stadium in San Francisco, or move to Denver? That's a three-volume novel in itself. Will St. Petersburg take Ueberroth's strong hints and kindly butt out of the picture so its richer cross-bay rival, Tampa, can have a clean shot at a team?
Once again today, Ueberroth talked about the billion-dollar network TV contract that runs out after 1988, emphasizing that no such windfall deal is likely in the future. Obviously, $100 million or so in expansion fees at about that date could soften the blow of decreased revenues.
Also, if expansion comes in 1988 or 1989 (not 1987 as many had hoped over the past two years) might baseball suddenly leap to 30 teams? Then, baseball could be realigned into three 10-team leagues -- East, West and Central, like the NFL. That would provide four financial benefits: better regional rivalries, more games within each league, greatly reduced travel expenses and (perhaps) some form of regular-season interleague play.
All this fascinates commissioners, who like to imprint their grand designs on entire sports. And all this scares owners who hate thinking big while the profits are still arriving on a regular basis with the old system.
The hard news of this winter meeting is that baseball didn't really do anything.
The evolutionary development here -- and it sometimes seems that baseball moves with such geological slowness that it should be chronicled by paleontologists -- is that expansion was finally taken seriously as the next major change in the game's direction.
So, how long will it take baseball to make up its mind?
You can be certain that Ueberroth, a man who epitomizes can-do impatience, hopes he didn't get a hint of the truth this afternoon.
"I took the issue of the designated hitter to the owners, hoping they would tackle this long-standing problem," said Ueberroth, his narrow mouth twisted as though he were gnawing on a persimmon.
"Their decision was not to."
What's your hurry, Pete? That one's only been on the table for 12 years.