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Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Lance Berkman rips Bud Selig

By Jerry Crasnick
ESPN.com

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Lance Berkman said Tuesday that Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig "extorted" new Houston Astros owner Jim Crane into changing leagues as a precondition of the sale of the franchise in November.

Berkman, an Astros fan favorite for 12 seasons before his departure two years ago, called it a "travesty" four months ago when the team agreed to move to the American League in 2013 as part of baseball's new realignment plan. The Astros have played in the National League since their inception as the Houston Colt .45's in 1962.

Berkman raised the stakes before a Grapefruit League game between the Cardinals and Astros in Kissimmee, telling ESPN.com and a reporter from another outlet, "I feel basically like the commissioner extorted Jim Crane into moving the Astros."

Berkman didn't back down when asked if he has conveyed those sentiments directly to Selig. He said he would be comfortable using the word "extort" if he talks to the commissioner.

"If he called me, I would tell him," Berkman said. "I think that's exactly what it was. To tell [Crane], 'We're going to hold the sale of the team up until you guys agreed to switch'? It just happened that the Astros were being sold at an optimal time for that to happen."

Crane, a Houston businessman, signed a deal to buy the Astros for $680 million in May 2011, but asked to renegotiate the terms after the players' association and the commissioner's office agreed on a realignment plan as part of the game's new labor agreement. Baseball is switching from its current format of 16 NL teams and 14 AL clubs to a 15-15 configuration in 2013 in an effort to improve travel conditions and make for a fairer schedule, and the Astros were deemed the best choice to change leagues.

Rob Manfred, MLB's executive vice president of labor relations and human resources, responded to Berkman's comments for the commissioner's office.

"The 15-15 allowed us to make a number of changes in the Basic Agreement, and the Basic Agreement was ratified 30-0," Manfred said. "It got ratified 30-0 due to the efforts of Commissioner Selig, and it got ratified 30-0 even though there were individual issues that the owners may not have agreed on. In the end, they fully supported the deal."

Crane, who was at Osceola County Stadium for Tuesday's game, confirmed he received a price reduction to $615 million, with former Astros owner Drayton McLane Jr. and the 29 other MLB clubs combining to make up the $65 million difference. Crane said the Astros will have increased costs in the American League because of greater West Coast travel and the presence of the designated hitter rule.

"I think it was a good deal for baseball," Crane said. "I think it was a good deal for our owners. Would we have preferred to stay in the National League? Probably, yeah. But that wasn't the deal that was presented to us."

When asked about Berkman's comments, Crane chose to take a more diplomatic route.

"Lance can say what Lance wants to say," Crane said. "He has great ties to the Astros and was a great player there for years. We certainly understand that he's opinionated, but I wouldn't use that strong a term. I think it was just a business deal that got renegotiated."

Berkman cited several factors in objecting to the Astros' move. Houston should get a bump in interest from playing in the same division with the Texas Rangers. But the Astros' home games against AL West opponents Seattle, Oakland and the Los Angeles Angels will air on television at 9:30 p.m. local time.

Berkman also objected to the move because of its impact on franchise tradition. Although the Astros have fallen on hard times recently, they made the playoffs six times in a nine-year span behind Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Berkman -- who were known as the "Killer B's."

"When you have a franchise that has 50 years as a National League entity and then switches over to the American League, I just don't like it," Berkman said. "I'm not in favor of it."

This isn't the first time that Berkman has been critical of Selig in the media. In September 2008, he was quick to make his feelings known when MLB shifted an Astros-Cubs series to Milwaukee in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike.

"Major League Baseball has always valued the dollar more than they do the individual, the players and their families," Berkman said at the time.

Selig responded by taking out a two-page ad in the Sunday Houston Chronicle to explain the decision to Astros fans.