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Committee, Gov. Ventura have hard words for Selig

WASHINGTON -- Commissioner Bud Selig's plan to eliminate two
baseball teams was met with skepticism and hostile questions at a
congressional hearing where he railed against high player salaries.

Selig repeatedly told the House Judiciary Committee hearing
Thursday that his sport's financial problems were caused by a
"system that is badly flawed."

He claimed baseball owners sustained a $232 million operating
loss this year -- $519 million with interest payments and
depreciation added in -- and placed the blame on salaries that have
skyrocketed in the quarter-century of free agency and salary
arbitration.

Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, also testifying before the
committee and seated next to Selig, doubted the claims of large
losses.

"I have a hard time believing it, Mr. Selig, that they're
losing that kind of money and still paying the salaries they're
paying," Ventura said. "That's asinine. These people did not get
the wealth that they have by being stupid."

Ventura blamed unfettered spending on players, citing the deal
free-agent Barry Bonds is likely to receive.

"Mr. Bonds is going to get over $100 million, no doubt. Mr.
Jason Giambi, they've said he'll go well over $100 million,"
Ventura said. "The problem out there is they're paying their
employees too much money."

Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., who introduced legislation to
repeal baseball's 79-year-old antitrust exemption as it applies to
franchise moves and elimination, also was skeptical of Selig's
figures.

"The summary information they have turned over to us is
meaningless in the absence of learning details concerning related
party transactions, salaries and fees received by the owners and
their families, and the impact of stadium acquisition loans by
stadiums," he said. "In essence, what they have told us is, `We
lose money, but we can't trust you with the details.' "

Still, it was the most detailed release of baseball's financial
information since professional leagues began in 1871. Just four
teams -- Toronto ($52.9 million), Los Angeles ($45.3 million),
Montreal ($38.5 million) and Arizona ($32.2 million) accounted for
more than half the industry's operating losses. Operating losses
exclude items such as interest and depreciation.

"Owners struggle," Selig said. "If they don't spend money,
they're called `El Cheapo.' If they spend more money, they have
problems."

Ventura doubted the need for a new stadium for the Minnesota
Twins, who along with the Montreal Expos are the leading candidates
for elimination. Selig claims the Twins need a new ballpark to
survive, but Minnesota lawmakers have failed to support public
financing.

Some congressmen appeared dumbfounded by Selig's vague answers.

When Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., asked Selig to say whether the
Florida Marlins would survive for several more years, Selig
responded, "We're there now and let's hope it all works out."

Wexler didn't know what to say and was asked by committee
chairman F. James Sensenbrenner if he was speechless.

"With all due respect, if fans are going to get those kinds of
nebulous responses from the commissioner of baseball, there's
almost a compelling reason from the whole lot of us to support the
legislation so we can get some direct answers," Wexler said.

Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York City took a swipe at the
Milwaukee Brewers, the team owned by the commissioner's family.

"I've been particularly impressed with your management of the
Brewers, because it's always a good weekend when the Brewers come
to town," Weiner said.

Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Wisconsin, drew laughs when
defended the team by saying: "Those words will be stricken from
the record."

The hearing was called after baseball owners voted Nov. 6 in
favor of eliminating two teams, a plan stalled by Minnesota courts.
The Senate said it will hold a similar hearing next year.

Selig kept his focus on the money battle between owners and
players, and talks for a labor contract to replace the one that
expired Nov. 7.

"The bottom line is the system needs to be fixed," he said.
"Cincinnati is the prototype of why we need to change the system.
If baseball is to succeed, it needs to succeed in middle America.
The fight is here, to be very candid with you, for the Cincinnatis
of the world."

In Texas, union head Donald Fehr said baseball has not provided
enough information for it to be analyzed

"Simple numbers don't tell you much," Fehr said after the
union's executive board meeting. "To examine figures on a
sophisticated basis, you can't look at lump sum numbers."

Players didn't believe Selig.

"Do I think there is as doom and gloom as some on the other
side would make it seem? Absolutely not," Arizona pitcher Brian
Anderson said. "The numbers can't possibly even add up to support
those claims."

During the three-hour hearing, Selig promised Rep. Jeff Flake,
R-Ariz., that the World Series champion Diamondbacks will stay in
the National League next season.

Steve Fehr, the brother of the union leader, testified that "on
Sept. 19, the clubs' chief negotiator indicated to us contraction
was highly unlikely for 2002."

He later said those words came from Paul Beeston, baseball's
chief operating officer. While many of Selig's top aides sat behind
him at the hearing, Beeston was noticeably absent.

Steve Fehr also said the union and management had 24 meetings
from March through June, and the union gave owners a new
revenue-sharing proposal June 26. He said owners never responded
and broke off the informal talks.

Some congressmen used the hearing to criticize baseball for not
making enough progress in increasing minorities hired by teams.

Lawmakers from Minnesota threatened baseball with changing tax
laws that enable controlling owners to deduct 50 percent of the
purchase price over the first five years after they take control --
a provision that "depreciates" player contracts the same way
farmers depreciate tractors.

Rep. Gil Gutknecht, D-Minn., said if the Twins were eliminated,
the tax laws would be re-examined.

"You can go ahead with this, but I submit there will be a very
heavy price," he said.

Maxine Waters, D-Calif., got into a particularly contentious
clash with Selig, who refused a request from the union to lift a
confidentiality agreement covering some financial information.

"You have all the statements, all the numbers," Selig told
her.

"Mr. Selig, let me remind you, you are under oath," she said
sternly.