Baseball got a Bronx cheer from fans on Nov. 6 when, for the first time in a century, it announced plans to eliminate two teams. Now, Congress is on its case, and caught between the bases is the First Fan himself--former team owner George W. Bush. He is being pressured by friends and donors to punish baseball, protect baseball, or help bring a club to Washington.
As Major League Baseball moves ahead with its controversial contraction, outraged lawmakers are threatening to retaliate by chipping away at its cherished antitrust exemption. While Congress has made such threats before--they were employed to force MLB to add teams in Arizona and Florida--this time, legislators just might have the votes to humble the owners.
For years, baseball has used its political clout to maintain the antitrust waiver that protects the 30 teams from big fines for collusion and allows them to decide which cities get a club and which don't. With a roster of A-list owners and lobbyists, baseball is better positioned in Washington than any other sports league. Its owners include Chiquita Brands Chairman Carl H. Lindner of the Cincinnati Reds, a Bush fund-raiser, and Peter G. Angelos of the Baltimore Orioles, a major Democratic donor. Owners gave candidates more than $3.9 million in the last election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and MLB recently formed a political action committee. Its nearly $1 million lobbying payroll includes Lucy Calautti, wife of Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), and William H. Schweitzer, an attorney for the Republican National Committee.
But the owners, for the first time, might be out of their league. Senator Paul D. Wellstone (D-Minn.), who stands to lose his Minnesota Twins, and House Judiciary Committee ranking member John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) have introduced a bill to allow lawsuits that could block teams from packing up. And the House Judiciary Committee has summoned Baseball Commissioner and Bush pal Bud Selig to appear at hearings in December. "Baseball has never had to worry about Washington in the past, and they're assuming that they won't have to worry about Washington in the future," says sports economist Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College. "But this case is so...extraordinary that if [Congress] is ever going to have a chance, this is it."
D.C. FRANCHISE? Others in Washington don't want revenge, they just want a team. The capital has been baseball-starved since 1972, when the Senators left town. Now, Bush buddies are working behind the scenes to leverage the contraction flap into a Beltway franchise. "The [owners] need to be worried about thumbing their nose at the nation's capital," says key player Frederic V. Malek, a former Northwest Airlines CEO, Bush family friend, and part-owner with George W. of the Texas Rangers.
Across the Potomac, influential Virginians want a team, too. Would-be owner Bill Collins, CEO of wireless company Metrocall, is a major GOP donor who counts among his investors Michael Scanlon, a longtime friend of top Bush adviser Karl Rove. Also in the mix: GOP National Chairman and Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (Va.). All hope the threat of revoking the antitrust waiver will persuade MLB to reconsider contraction and deliver a team to D.C.'s suburbs.
Baseball so far has committed multiple errors in Washington. Among them: targeting the Twins, "home" team of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), and clubs in Florida, where the President's brother Jeb is governor. For now, the First Fan is keeping mum, but it's only the first inning. From the time he traded his reporter's notebook for a congressional seat in 1976, Al Gore has worked in the public sector. Now the former Vice-President is going corporate--and perhaps postponing his Presidential ambitions.
Gore announced on Nov. 19 that he's taking a job at Metropolitan West Financial Inc., a Los Angeles-based financial services firm that manages more than $50 billion in assets. As MetWest's vice-chair, Gore will focus on biotechnology, info tech, and international markets. After a quarter-century as a policy wonk, Gore says he's "eager to learn more about business as an active executive."
Political insiders see Gore's move to the corporate suite as another sign that he is preparing to sit out the 2004 election. Another hint: His campaign manager, William M. Daley, announced one day earlier that he, too, is taking a plum corporate job. Daley is set to become president of San Antonio-based telecom giant SBC Communications (SBC) on Dec. 1. In his new job, he will oversee strategic planning and lobbying.
Recently, Gore has shown signs of backing away from a possible rematch against President Bush, whose popularity has hovered near 90% for two months. Gore has strongly supported the war against terrorism, and he refused to wade into the muck of the Florida election mess after a media consortium released the results of its ballot review on Nov. 12. "The Presidential election of 2000 is over," Gore said on Nov. 12. For the former Veep, the 2004 election may be over, too.