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Contraction a pipe dream that shouldn't be realized

by | CBSSports.com Columnist
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Hank Steinbrenner wants fewer teams to share with, and less sharing among the survivors. So do the richest NFL owners. So does LeBron James.

And they are all messing with forces they do not understand, at the worst possible time. Caltech just broke a 310-game basketball losing streak, and those students are not in the mood for such a lecture. And they have the theoretical physics knowledge to make it stop, and to shut up those who want it.

Hank Steinbrenner can be all for contraction, until the bill ends up on his table. (AP)  
Hank Steinbrenner can be all for contraction, until the bill ends up on his table. (AP)  
But we'll get to that in a minute.

We're havin' a major-league shrinkfest love affair right now, all as part of the nation's make-less-with-less fetish. Steinbrenner's is the latest lashout, hitting a third rail so hard that Bud Selig essentially told Hal Steinbrenner, the more circumspect of George's sons, to muzzle Hank.

And when Bud wants an owner to belt up, clearly something's up, and what it is, is this.

The next labor/management fight in baseball, like the one that's coming in the NFL, is going to be owner-on-owner, and Selig was properly horrified when Steinbrenner opened the bidding at let-them-eat-cake.

With an eye toward let-them-eat-gravel.

Of course, the beauty of contraction arguments is that they never make any sense. No league has the money to pay off owners to disappear -- that's how Selig's early 2000s suggestion about contraction died so quickly.

You may remember that one. Barely hours after the Diamondbacks' thrilling World Series victory over the Yankees, Selig came out and said baseball's financial structure may force contraction, and Minnesota owner Carl Pohlad leaped up and said, "Great! Me first! Give me $250 million and you'll never see me again!"

And that's when $250 million was worth, say, about $175 million. Now teams cost twice that, and in some cases four and five times that. And the biggest problem sports business has is not too many teams, but too few billionaires to chase the existing teams and jack up franchise values.

Thus, it's easy to declare which teams you don't find fashionable. But when it comes time to make them disappear ... well, there you go, shutting up because you don't know how these things happen. The owners of the contracted teams would be in court tomorrow, and they would win financial relief for being contracted. Lots and lots of financial relief.

Are there struggling markets in all four major leagues? Of course there are. But there always have been. The era in which every team in sports had a Hall of Famer is now 50 years old.

Plus, expansion (and rival league absorption in football, basketball and hockey) has always fueled teams financially in leaner times than these. It's how baseball went from 16 to 30 teams in 48 years, and football from 12 to 32 in 45, and hockey from six to 30 in 35 years, and basketball from eight to 30 in 40.

Contraction talk is really about a more pernicious cultural wave in America, which can be encapsulated thusly:

"I'm not interested in that, so it should no longer exist."

NOT "I'm not interested in that, so I'll ignore it." OR "I'm not interested in that, but maybe you are, so let a thousand flowers bloom." No, it's, "I don't like it, and I don't care whether you do or not. I want what I want because I want it."

On such clod Jesuitical logic have a million tavern fights been born.

Now the solution may be found at Caltech, where the Beavers only last night broke a 310-game losing streak in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Association by beating Occidental. As prime contraction targets (they also broke a 270-game losing streak four years ago), they would tackle this problem with a vengeance, and you don't want to cross a guy who can make planets melt with a single mathematical formula.

These are the brightest of the bright, the kind of guys and gals who create fantasy leagues and not only can keep scores in their heads, but influence future events through brain wave concentration, molecular manipulation and just plan staring at stuff.

You contraction fans, on the other hand, are offended and even agitated by the existence of the Memphis Grizzlies, Atlanta Thrashers and Pittsburgh Pirates. Now guess which guys most folks would rather stay on good terms with -- you, or the people who understand the laws of nature.

So let's sum up:

Contraction is a fad, spurred by whiny owners who don't like sharing, and juiced by media and fans who don't understand the process involved.

Caltech just won a game and stormed its first court in perhaps forever, and Caltech students understand contracting universes. Contracting leagues they do over lunch. And maybe they decide not to like the Lakers, Yankees, Cowboys or Maple Leafs, just on a whim. These are people not to be screwed with on any level, trust me.

So shut up about contraction. It's a conversational fad, spurred by a Steinbrenner with a free-range yap. The teams can't afford it, the abandoned markets would no longer contribute to the financial care and feeding of the leagues, and as an ethical matter, you don't get to make stuff disappear just because you're not interested in it.

Oh, and one other thing. What happens the day the Caltech kids decide not to care about you?

Ex-actly.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.com.

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