The other day, the baseball commissioner, Peter Ueberroth, and his associate, National League President A. Bartlett Giamatti, announced they were grappling anew with the idea of expansion franchises. To placate Washington, D.C., and the other impatient cities seeking teams, Ueberroth chose the metaphor, "the train has left the station."
This is supposed to indicate that expansion is now on track and that there has been some movement. But any analysis of additional comment by Ueberroth and Giamatti exposes it as an exercise in empty promise, monumental guff and, in fact, a massive con job that seems to leave expansion more distant than ever.
The supplicant cities can take no comfort in their explanations on the status of expansion. Ueberroth: "We are moving toward a goal but there are different approaches." Interpretation: "Different approaches" -- 26 strong- minded club owners haven't agreed on anything yet, and a notably adamant National League has been ducking expansion talk for 18 years.
Also from Ueberroth: "There are a couple of hurdles," and he cited that organized baseball must first put its house in order by coping with the prospect of reduced TV income when the present contract ends in December 1989, a time when the Basic Agreement with the players association also expires and could be a problem. Can't be bothered with expansion until then.
So, expanding either the National or the American League must wait, at least two years. But that it will occur immediately after that, or if ever, invites high skepticism.
Neither Ueberroth nor any club owner has ever mentioned the true, solid reason for the resistance to expansion: the reluctance of the team owners to take in new members who would share the gorgeous loot, the many millions each club gains from the TV contract. Business is business.
What has impeded expansion is the bottom line. Businessmen who have seen the value of their franchises zoom from $3 million (the cost of the Washington franchise in 1961) to nearly $100 million in today's market don't want any more partners. They've never been honest about admitting that.
The expansion-seeking cities should be no less than affronted by some of the remarks by Ueberroth and Giamatti, who offer the lamest excuses for the delay in adding teams. Although Ueberroth says, "I never heard a single club owner say they were against it," neither did he state that he knew of any club owner who was in favor of it, or name that individual.
Oh, they say they are in favor of expansion, Ueberroth and Giamatti. Hooray, bully for them. But the fact is, neither of them has a vote; when it comes to playing with the owners' money, to deciding on things like admitting more teams, the owners reserve such important decisions for themselves.
It is significant that all the expansion talk has come from Ueberroth and only lately from Giamatti and hardly at all from any club owner. If any owner has ever come out for expansion, solidly or otherwise, it does not seem to have been reported. On that subject they are a faceless group. The owners have been very shy about expansion, and thus they cannot be accused of reneging on any promise if expansion does not come about.
In another century, the poet Robert Browning could have been describing the club owners' attitude when he wrote: "If we promise them naught, let us keep our promise."
The NL president is pointing out that his league has now voted to discuss expansion by agreeing to merge the expansion committees of the two leagues into one group of eight members plus the two league presidents. "There is no time schedule, except to meet in the next couple of months. A whole series of meetings will be held."
Big deal. Now they have a joint committee of the two leagues to take up the subject, the same two leagues that for years have been unable to agree on the designated hitter rule, or the imbalance of 12 clubs in one league and 14 in the other. From this, Washington, Denver, St. Petersburg-Tampa, Phoenix, Miami, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Buffalo and other applicant cities are supposed to take comfort. What piffle.
It used to be that either league could vote to expand. Now, to make the prospect more murky, the other league has been hauled into the act. Previously, the NL could expand by a three-fourths "yes" vote, but now it is dependent on the approval of the AL before it can take any such action. Baseball appears devoted to throwing up these kinds of "hurdles" against taking in new partners.
Giamatti spoke of "an additional problem," which he cited as the city of San Francisco's refusal to vote a new stadium for its Giants. "So the team has a relocation issue, and it's equally important to protect the rights of an existing franchise to relocate." Humph. Mr. Giamatti didn't bother to point out the true state of the urgency, that the Giants' relocation problem wouldn't be a problem for seven years, after their Candlestick Park lease ends.
Today, Commissioner Ueberroth is in Washington to meet with a group from the Senate and House to discuss expansion. Mostly they represent applicant cities, and Ueberroth will assure them he is for expansion, exactly as predecessor Bowie Kuhn used to do during the many years he was commissioner.
Ueberroth is now only 482 shy of Kuhn's record for congressional visits and the interested people in Congress are now wooing another baseball commissioner who, like Kuhn, doesn't have a vote. The process has been going on a long time. From the people in baseball, Congress has much to learn in the art of filibuster.