Commentary

Lawmakers Strike Out By Strong-Arming Baseball

This article originally appeared in USA Today on December 31, 2001.

With cuts more vicious than the ‘27 Yankees, Capitol Hill legislators are taking their hacks at Major League Baseball’s decision to disband two economically failing teams.

“I will do everything in my power to see that this ill-considered decision does not stand,” declared Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), one of several lawmakers threatening government action to stop the move. “I don’t much care what you do, but don’t you try to shut down the baseball team in Minnesota or you’re going to have a huge problem with me,” Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) warned baseball commissioner Bud Selig.

Forget the war on terrorism. Forget the financial crises of Social Security and Medicare that threaten the economic futures of everyone under age 40. Federal lawmakers now have an issue for which they’re willing to step to the plate: stopping baseball team owners from acting to improve the game’s shaky financial health.

That health is jeopardized by several teams’ poor attendance and spiraling debt. The Montreal Expos – the team ripest for elimination – averaged only 7,500 fans per home game last year, more than 20,000 below the league average. Other teams, including the Minnesota Twins, Florida Marlins, and Tampa Bay Devil Rays, have lost millions of dollars a year for several years and have little hope of rising above the financial Mendoza Line. Even the world champion Arizona Diamondbacks are struggling with debt more intimidating than Curt Schilling’s splitter. The owners believe that, by eliminating two struggling franchises, they will alter baseball economics so the remaining teams can better compete on the field and in the accounting ledger.

That belief is open to dispute, and congressmen, like all baseball fans, have the right to criticize baseball management. But Conyers and his colleagues want to do more than that: They want to usurp the owners’ right to make a private business decision. That’s what politicians do best, mess with other people’s business.

For now, lawmakers are unable to stop baseball from trying to improve its economic health. According to a 1922 Supreme Court ruling, the federal government has no authority to regulate baseball’s business decisions. In a sad commentary on the degree to which Washington now intrudes into citizens’ private economic choices, that ruling is referred to as baseball’s “special exemption.”

But Congress is trying to pitch around the Supreme Court. Minnesota Democratic Sens. Paul Wellstone and Mark Dayton, whose home-state Twins are another prime candidate for contraction, are joining with Conyers to push legislation that would void the ruling. According to Wellstone, the legislation is “a message to owners: You might get people angry enough and lose the exemption.”

Financial losses likely do not concern federal lawmakers who, with a simple “aye,” raise and spend more than a trillion dollars each year. Their inability to trim or cut ineffective and expensive government programs suggests that they cannot comprehend difficult business decisions, let alone basic economics. But baseball and other private businesses balk at multimillion-dollar losses. And baseball owners, like all private businessmen, should be able to undertake any legal action that can restore their financial footing. So, perhaps Congress should worry about its own problems and leave baseball to worry about baseball’s.

Thomas A. Firey is managing editor of Regulation, the quarterly review of business and government published by the Cato Institute.