So much for the Nationals' pastime

Updated: December 16, 2004, 3:19 PM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

And now, direct from the basement office of Cynics Inc., today's sporting question: How hard will Major League Baseball even try?

How hard will MLB try to keep the Washington Nationals alive as a going concern? What do the other franchise owners, who after all "own" the Expos/Nationals, see as the realistic upside to a new round of frenetic activity?

If it isn't worth it to the District of Columbia to come up with one financing plan and then stick with it, how much are MLB's ruling czars required to care?

And most of all, what if -- what if -- they simply can do better all the way around by shuttering the Nationals before they've even played a D.C. game, and eventually circular-filing a second faltering franchise with them?

Right: It gets spooky around the corners of this particular basement. But you don't have to be armed with the Mel Gibson monologue from "Conspiracy Theory" to understand that, for the other owners, the better financial path might be the one that ultimately leads to the obliteration of two teams currently in operation.

Baseball has the authority to do it, too. It's right there in the current collective bargaining agreement with the players union. As ESPN.com's Darren Rovell has noted, MLB has the latitude to eliminate two franchises after the 2006 season without interference from the players association.

Not only that, but several consultants have suggested that the owners would come out on the fat end financially by doing exactly that -- and that's even assuming that MLB would have to continue footing the bill for the Expos/Nationals for the next two years of almost certain losses.

You follow baseball. You know a little about the owners of your favorite team, or the one in your area, or the Yankees, or whomever. Is it really such a stretch to consider that perhaps this august body of gentlemen doesn't, in the end, give a significant damn whether Washington gets its financing picture cleared up?

Shuttering the Nationals may be good business, albeit perhaps a soulless one. It could reshape into larger sizes each franchise's piece of the TV and revenue-sharing pie -- perhaps as much as an extra $50 million. Per team. Per year.

And once the owners had that extra cash flowing into their vaults, they could collectively pony up whatever it would take to buy out the owner of a second non-producing franchise -- pick the weakest one you can think of, and you're probably warm -- and emerge in the 2007 season with the same amount of TV contract money pouring into the coffers.

Given all that, is it so difficult to comprehend MLB's ice-cold official position on this week's D.C. Comics routine? While the District plays its entertaining game of "We Didn't Mean It That Last Time, But We Do Now," the boys in the Bud Selig band are fully prepared to stop playing notes. They've already suspended business operations of the Nationals and offered refunds to anyone who has committed to a season ticket. Does that sound like a let's-work-this-thing-out scenario to you?

There are those in baseball circles who believe that ownership had intended all along to follow through with a double-contraction plan in '06, but were willing to forego it if Washington really did put up a new baseball stadium entirely with public funds. When the new amendment from the D.C. Council called for half of the construction cost of the ballpark to be privately funded, it changed the rubric entirely. Because the uncertainty over the financing issue might significantly lower the price MLB could charge a prospective buyer to take the Nationals off its hands.

When in doubt, follow the money. It tells so much of the story. It almost always does.

Are the owners wearing the devil's horns here? That's one view, sure. One view holds that the greed-blind owners will stand back and allow the District to devour itself politically, then sweep in and cynically blow out a franchise that has been begging for a home -- not to mention some decent ownership -- for years and years.

But it isn't necessary to demonize MLB to grasp the larger dynamic at play. Consider instead the possibility that the owners collectively are merely taking a bloodless look at their business.

They see more franchises than are really necessary, or even perhaps healthy. They see cities like Portland and Las Vegas and Monterrey, Mexico, putting forth plans that are likely more functional than actually inspiring. Perhaps they just don't see the point of continuing to shuffle around a franchise -- or two franchises -- that haven't done well and can't even attract serious ownership bids.

Now approaches the Great Window of 2006, with the chance for the owners to reduce their fraternity by two while stuffing more money into their pockets. That's either brutal callousness or clear-eyed business. Either way, it suggests that no one should be surprised if the big men of MLB do absolutely nothing about Washington's ballpark blues between now and Dec. 31.

Looks like the District is on its own.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at mkreidler@sacbee.com.

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