Call our major league baseball team the Titanic

If the financial sleight-of-hand artists succeed in bringing major league baseball to Portland soon, I have the perfect name for the team: The Portland Titanic. If somebody else has already clamed that name, my alternative would be the Portland Enrons.

I base my names for Portland on baseball’s current financial disarray. Bud Selig, commissioner of Major League Baseball, revealed this last month. Like the doomed ocean liner, the Portland Titanic sets sail bravely. Many make glowing predictions about future success. Suddenly, it hits a financial iceberg. Fatal rips appear in the hull. The Titanic wobbles along for a while. Then it begins to sink. Abruptly, it heads for the bottom. Everybody involved rushes for the lifeboats.

Oregon and Portland already face huge financial deficits. Still, we’re getting these fantasies about voodoo financing to bring a major league baseball franchise. These would-be wizards would spend public money to help install a major league team in Portland. The Jan. 9 issue of Willamette Week showed this illusion still thrives.

The Portland Oregon Sports Authority, the outfit that took over management of PGE Park when the Marshall Glickman crew flunked out, made a brave announcement. All persons who buy season tickets to Portland Beaver minor league baseball games will get priority for a future major league baseball franchise.

The paper quotes Lynn Lashbrook, a longtime booster for a major league team, as saying with some glee, “Marshall law is over.” Ashbrook was cited for this optimism even as Selig was saying the majors might have to shrink by a couple of teams, and quickly.

Selig was summoned in December to testify before the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee. He was called to explain why he wants to eliminate two teams this season. He stated baseball’s operating loss for 2001 was $232 million, with the worst performer, the Toronto Blue Jays, losing $52.9 million.

Selig stated that revenues continue to grow but so do losses. The Arizona Diamondbacks, who won the World Series, registered an operating loss of $32.2 million. This was the third highest loss in baseball, behind only Toronto and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Major league baseball has survived financially only by revenue sharing. Eleven of the 30 teams had operating profits before being required to share their revenue with the losing teams. The New York Yankees, to nobody’s surprise, led the profit parade with $40.9 million. Seattle came second with $34.5 million, followed by San Francisco with $19 million and Milwaukee with $14.4 million.

After revenue sharing distributed money from the high-revenue teams to low-revenue teams, nine showed an operating profit. By the time interest got factored in, that was cut to five teams in the black.

As the Portland boosters have frequently pointed out, major league baseball’s most likely candidates for elimination or relocation are the Montreal Expos and the Minnesota Twins. Montreal had an operating loss of $38.5 million, cut to $10 million after revenue sharing. This club collected a miserable $6.4 million in gate receipts. Minnesota showed an operating profit of $536,000 following profit sharing after its home figures totaled an $18.5 million operating loss. The world-champion Arizona Diamondbacks came in second worst in gate receipts at just $16.5 million and Minnesota came third worst with $17.6 million.

So, how are the successful teams winding up in the profit column? To a large degree, they do so through local broadcasting money. The Yankees counted $56.75 million in this, followed by the New York Mets with $46.25 million and Seattle at $37.9 million. The connection should be obvious. Your team’s chances for good broadcast revenue come when your larger market contains many millions of people. Portland doesn’t have that. Our possibilities for local broadcast money remain substantially lower than New York or even Seattle. In Seattle’s case, if Portland gets a team, the Mariners would likely suffer a downturn in broadcast revenue.

A warning sign of the importance of broadcast money appears in Montreal’s condition, which rated last with only a little more than a half million dollars in local broadcast revenue. Minnesota did manage to struggle in at 27th out of 30 teams, with $7.2 million, which would be about as much as Portland could expect.

The financial troubles of smaller market teams have been evident in major league baseball since the 1994-95 strike. From then through 1999 only three teams were profitable, the New York Yankees, Cleveland and Colorado. Obviously, if Portland acquires one of the faltering teams, be it Montreal or Minnesota, we can expect a losing proposition. The baseball enthusiasts say, “So what?” Major league baseball needs some weak teams in order to provide enough competition to fill out the season, as well as a few easy pigeons to fatten the won-lost statistics of the strong teams.

Critics of Selig, including the players’ union, say all this doom and gloom stuff is just the owners trying to strike a more favorable contract with the players. Yet a supposedly neutral panel of experts predicted a couple of years ago that revenue sharing would have to be vastly increased and some franchises would need to be moved. The panel frowned on eliminating any teams at that time. The experts suggested it might help baseball financially to move teams to large markets such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. They didn’t advocate medium-small markets like Portland.

At the moment, baseball has not eliminated any teams. Discussions to do so have gotten nowhere in meetings between management and the union. Don Fehr, head of the union, said his group could not accept two new demands of management: that owners could potentially switch which clubs could be disbanded if there was no contraction in the number of clubs by 2003 and that some items of the settlement remain secret.

Although the union absolutely opposes any salary cap for players, both sides seem to acknowledge that higher and higher player salaries take responsibility for much of the loss problem. What no one seems to recognize is that this is a consequence of having too many teams for the amount of genuine major league talent available. In any sport, there are always a limited number of really top-flight performers. The more teams you have to fill the more you have to reach down into the second and third line players. Only the most grizzled old-timers remember when major league baseball consisted of 16 teams. But they were great teams. When the Yankees came to bat, any one of them could have knocked it out of the park.

At the select level, players are made of stronger stuff. Pitchers in those old days didn’t even consider pitching less than nine innings. Today the standard remains at only about 100 pitches for the starter. Then switch to the setup man. Finish with the closer, who may be good for only one inning.

Until recent years, pitchers worked on a four-day rotation, whereas now it’s five days. Nine-inning pitchers are so rare that Arizona’s Randy Johnson announced on television that pitching the whole nine innings remains a matter of pride to him. Contrast that with a Seattle starting pitcher named Abbott, who is normally penciled in for five innings at most.

When there’s a shortage of genuine major league talent and no salary cap, even second and third raters command heavy salaries. The average major league salary in 1980 was $143,756. In 2001, the average was about $2.15 million. Players who in an earlier era spent their careers toiling in the AAA or AA minor leagues are in the majors now and becoming millionaires. If Portland does get a team, it will get more than its fair share of these marginal players, guaranteeing a loser.

I don’t see where Portland today fits into this picture. Am I opposed to a major league team in Portland? Absolutely not. I’d love to see one here, with two provisos. 1.Private money builds the necessary ballpark. 2.Private interests absorb the financial losses.

Sure, give the club some tax breaks and zoning changes if they need ’em. But no public money to float their boat or keep it chugging along. No tricky financing like taking the income tax from the players’ salaries away from the state’s general fund and applying it to maintain a baseball franchise. Play it straight or don’t play at all.