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Oakland, Tampa Bay on cusp of contraction? Not so fast

Tampa Bay RaysForbes Magazine continues to beat the drum for the possible of contraction of the Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays by 2015, but Mike Ozanian may be proving to be a useful idiot for Major League Baseball, as baseball pulls out a familiar tool to push municipalities for new ballparks.

In this video and this blog posting, Forbes talks about contraction as if it’s a given: “From what I am hearing, I doubt there will be any baseball at Tropicana Field after 2014 even though the team’s lease runs to 2027,” Ozanian writes. From what we’re hearing from our MLB friends, contraction is not even close to a given, much less an active matter of discussion. To better understand what’s going on, it’s useful to look at who has axes to grind: owners from big markets who are tired of sharing revenues with small-market clubs and MLB commissioners who want to see new ballparks.

Ozanian admits his information is coming from big-market owners. Let’s be honest: it’s no secret the Yankees and the Red Sox and other big-market teams have owners who absolutely loathe sharing revenues with small-market teams, particularly with small-market teams who are competitive in the American League East. (You don’t hear them complaining too much about sharing revenues with the Pittsburgh Pirates.) It’s important to distinguish between wishful thinking and an actual plan for action.

Plus, MLB has a record of bringing out the contraction threat in markets where a new ballpark is needed. The last time contraction was seriously discussed, the Minnesota Twins were mired in the Metrodome and the Montreal Expos trapped in Olympic Stadium, though a move to Washington was on the horizon. In both cases the threat of contraction certainly was a factor in getting new-ballpark deals done with Nationals Park and Target Field. The market size didn’t matter — indeed, it would have made even more sense to contract the Rays and A’s instead of the Twins seven or eight years ago — but the ballpark circumstance did.

Today there are two teams in sore need of a new ballpark: the Oakland A’s and the Tampa Bay Rays. And, amazingly, there’s new talk of contraction in the air. Now, the commissioner’s office tends to bring out the same tools time and time again; Bud Selig is actually a pretty predictable guy. Contraction worked well as a bargaining chip in the past. Why not bring it out again?

Another reason why it is highly unlikely: Contraction is a lot more complicated than just shutting down an office or two. First, the same Tropicana Field lease that’s a hindrance to new-ballpark efforts would also be a hindrance to a shutdown of the Rays. Second, there are some definite ripple effects to MLB contraction in the minors; we assume we’d be looking at the shutdown of 10 or so minor-league teams as well, as well as spring-training and workout facilities. Tell the folks in Port Charlotte who paid for a renovated Tampa Bay facility with new bonding that the team won’t be back after 2014.

Now, there are some complicating circumstances that could actually lead to contraction. First, it’s no secret that the Mets are in bad financial shape, and it’s no secret that the Tampa Bay ownership (led by Stuart Sternberg) have expressed an interest in buying the Mets. Right now the Wilpons are talking with investors on buying into the team. But if they need to sell, the Rays ownership would certainly be in line to take over a flagship franchise. An ownerless team in Tampa Bay would be easier to contract than would a winning franchise led by Sternberg.

All of this makes for interesting barstool GM talk, and we’re guessing there are fans out there already plotting out divisional and league alignments with 28 teams. And we’re guessing there are folks in San Jose, Oakland, St. Petersburg and Tampa realizing that there are some unanticipated real-world consequences to their ballpark opposition. Still, unless we hear Bud Selig come right out and say contraction of the A’s and Rays in an option, we’ll attribute the chatter to folks with axes to grind, not to wield.


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