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Berkman: Commissioner 'extorted' Astros, forced move to AL

By Scott Miller | Senior Baseball Columnist
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Lance Berkman is a member in good standing of the Houston Astros' alumni club. But he may not be quite so popular around the Commissioner's Office for awhile.

Before an exhibition game here Tuesday, Berkman, in his second season with the St. Louis Cardinals, blasted the Astros' impending move to the American League.

"I hate it. I feel like, basically, the commissioner extorted Jim Crane into moving the Astros," Berkman said of Houston's new owner during a conversation with CBSSports.com and one other outlet.

He said he has not personally passed that sentiment along to Commissioner Bud Selig, but would do so if given the opportunity.

"If he called me, I would tell him," Berkman said.

Furthermore, Berkman said, he would use that exact word -- "extortion" -- in conversation with Selig.

"Yeah, because I think that's exactly what it was: "We're going to hold the sale of the team up until you guys agree to switch'," Berkman said. "And it just so happens that the Astros were being sold right at the optimal time for that to happen."

Responding to Berkman's charge, Crane said he would use different terminology.

"Lance can say what Lance wants to say," said Crane, who was at Osceola County Stadium along with several investors Tuesday. "He's a good player, been around a long time, he has great ties to the Astros and was a great player there for years. We certainly understand he's opinionated.

"I wouldn't use that strong of a term. I'd say it was just a business deal that got renegotiated."

Crane's purchase of the club from Drayton McLane was a long, arduous process that took more than a year and traveled through several twists and turns.

He agreed to purchase the Astros last May for $680 million. But realignment and playoff expansion were topics during baseball's negotiations for a new labor deal with the players' union and, as that played out, the two sides wanted to even the American and National Leagues at 15 teams each.

Speaking on behalf of Selig on Tuesday, Rob Manfred, major league baseball executive vice-president, pointed to the fact that there was no dissent among the owners on the idea of moving the Astros to the AL.

"The 15-15 allowed us to make a number of changes in the Basic Agreement, and the Basic Agreement was ratified 30-0," said Manfred, the owners' point person in the labor negotiations last year. "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."

The sale of the Astros to Crane finally went through in November, but at a reduced price for Crane: $615 million, instead of $680. That was contingent upon the Astros moving to the American League next season.

In the end, it was a $650 million deal for McLane: Baseball's owners agreed to pay him $35 million to make up for the difference in Crane's price being discounted to $615 million from $680 million.

Said Crane: "They basically sat down with us and said, 'Hey would you go to the American League?' We said we'd consider it, but that's not the deal we signed up for. We signed this deal for this number to be in the National League.

"If that's the new deal, we'd like to renegotiate the deal. [We went] back and forth, a little pushing and pulling, we were able to cut a deal. We agreed to go to the American League for a different price."

Crane added: "I think it was a good deal for baseball, I think it was a good deal for our owners. Would we have preferred to stay in the National League? Probably, yeah."

Part of the reason for the reduced price, Crane said, was because of the extra expense the Astros will incur for employing a designated hitter, as well as travel to more far-flung locales. Playing in the AL West, Houston will visit Seattle, Oakland and Anaheim regularly -- further trips and different time zones than St. Louis, Milwaukee and Chicago.

"I told our guys, 'If we're going to win, we've got to beat everybody'," Crane said. "And the TV guys feel it could be a plus for us, with our new TV deal next year, we'll be playing the Yankees and Boston and it could get a lot more advertising dollars.

"The downside is more money for the DH to us, and a little more travel. We factored that in and came out with a deal we thought was fair."

Berkman, who played in Houston from 1999 through 2010 and remains a popular player in the area, cringes at the way history is about to be re-written.

"It makes a heck of a lot more sense for the Brewers to go back to the American League from a historical standpoint," Berkman said. "Maybe not geographically, but it makes limited sense for the Astros to move from a geographic standpoint because they have the Rangers but then most of their away games are going to be starting at 9:30 p.m. Houston time.

"I just think when you have a franchise that has 50 years as a National League entity, and then you switch over to the American League, I just don't like it. I'm not in favor of it. I don't like the AL style of baseball to begin with. That plus the history element of it makes it ... I don't like it."

The impending change to the AL has been extremely unpopular in Houston. Crane knows Berkman essentially was standing up for the Astros, but said it's time to look forward.

"The fans were disappointed, but I'll be honest with you: Since we made it clear that that was the deal presented to us or we weren't going to own the team, I think we were fortunate enough," Crane said. "They were smart to get the deal done, we were smart enough to hang in there. Because if the team wouldn't have had a buyer, I think it would have been bad for baseball and bad for Drayton.

"I think it worked out well for everybody. Baseball got to even out. And it does make sense, with evening out the schedule, with another wild-card team that's going to create revenue for everybody.

"Looking back on it, it was something we would have preferred not to happen, but I think we're going to make the best of it."
 
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