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THE HOT CORNER: Major future might fly, parks won't

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THE HOT CORNER: Major future might fly, parks won't

by Jim Allen (Jun 19, 2008)

It's no longer any secret that Major League Baseball would love to have its own teams in Asia. Although Asia's leagues are still incompatible with those in the majors, the day will come when both sides make the leap.

There are two principle scenarios as to how this international baseball conspiracy might manifest itself.

The first is the isolation plan, which would set up a third MLB league here, the Asian League, out of existing leagues and structures. In this scenario, Asian teams would not travel across the Pacific except to take part in the playoffs and potentially the World Series. This would require little modification but is far less intriguing than option No. 2, the integration scenario.

In this plan, teams from Asia and North America would take turns flying across the Pacific on extended road trips.

This latter scenario is controversial because of questions about the travel. It would be a change similar to the National League's westward relocation in 1958 and the American League's expansion to Los Angeles in 1961. The need to fly to California changed the business.

Although air travel was already becoming common by the mid-1950s, teams in California meant there would be no way for players to avoid planes. In 1959, star Boston Red Sox outfielder Jackie Jensen quit because of his fear of flying.

Because baseball trips to Asia are still more or less reserved for big-budget events, the thought of MLB teams taking that long flight to spend three weeks playing Asian opponents still seems fantastic.

But it is just a matter of what you're used to.

Teams can get used to it, largely because it will be a massive money maker. If two North American squads swing through Asia at one time, while one team from Japan and one from either Taiwan or South Korea visit North America, the television revenues will make the trips worthwhile.

Milwaukee fans will want to see the Brewers playing at Tokyo Dome, while much of Japan might tune in to see the Yomiuri Giants play the San Francisco Giants in a meaningful game.

One wouldn't want two Japanese teams to go at the same time, because that would dilute the interest. Let's say the Asian League consisted of eight Japanese squads, two South Korean clubs and two Taiwan teams or some combination that permits teams in Shanghai and Beijing.

By keeping two teams from the same nation traveling in the States at the same time, there would only be one Japanese team on the air in the morning. If the Hanshin Tigers were playing in Seattle while the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks were in St. Louis, it would shrink the market for both games.

The biggest problem with the integration scenario, however, is not jet lag but ballpark lag. Most Asian ballparks simply aren't posh enough to host the kind of trans-Pacific competition that would make an Asian League fly.

A big part of MLB's business, as well as that of the NFL and NBA, is based on getting local taxpayers to subsidize the monopolists. The NFL refused to put a team in the United States' second biggest media market, Los Angeles, because California lawmakers refused to foot more of the bill.

Every time an NBA or NFL or MLB executive says his team has a right to operate just like any other normal business and move where it likes, remember that. Big sports teams largely profit by blackmailing local taxpayers. When that doesn't work they blame the customers.

What is normal about that?

That explains why most American teams don't pay fair market rent for their state-of-the-art stadiums--but still take in amazing profits. Because Asian owners don't blackmail local governments, they have to spend their own money on stadium upgrades, while major league owners turn extortion swag into higher payrolls that Asian clubs can't match.

Integration requires this issue be solved. If Asian teams are to attract a larger share of the world's best talent, they'll need better ballparks. Of course, MLB could come in and give NPB lessons in extortion, but nobody wants to see that.

Unless this park problem is fixed, it won't matter how easy the air travel is, because the basic idea won't fly.

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