Contraction rears its ugly head

Bud Selig used the “C” word again. And we’re thinking — with a liberal interpretation of Mr. Commissioner’s own rules — that he should have to pay for adding the contraction concept to the obligatory relocation threat in the Florida Marlins’ ongoing attempt to get a new stadium.

“Relocation of Clubs and contraction of the number of Clubs in Major League Baseball are two options that are in fact being actively reviewed as part of a global plan of economic reorganization,” Selig wrote in a letter sent this week to Florida state Sen. Alex Villalobos.

My friends, that’s Clubs with a capital “C” and don’t you forget it — or show the misguided capitalization to your high school English teacher, for that matter. I guess we’re supposed to get the idea those Clubs are mighty gosh darned important. Well, that is a big ol’ club Bud is swinging over the heads of not only the politicians and taxpayers of South Florida but all of baseball, too. It is important. And it’s what leads us to think Bud ought to pay up. Follow along, if you will.

Unless you’ve recently — or are about to — become a parent, you probably don’t draw much of a link between the words contraction and labor. Think again, baseball fan. The contraction idea, folding a couple of teams with the intent of improving the economic health of the game, has been floated by several owners and Selig for the past couple of years.

A realistic possibility? Certainly anything is possible but it remains an unlikely scenario as long as any franchise on this continent could be sold tomorrow at a tidy profit. A useful strategy? Oh, yes. Most definitely, yes. At least, so Selig and some owners seem to think.

Contraction is a Club the players and their union are supposed to fear. It’s a wonderful threat to toss onto the bargaining table, whether you’re serious or not. And a wonderful threat to pull off the table — in exchange for some concession.

I wish I knew if Don Fehr is yawning or laughing at this point. No issue is more important to his players association that jobs. That’s true for any union, no matter what kind of salaries its members pull down. And it’s the real motivation for this contraction talk. Tell the union it could lose 50 jobs. Scare the players.

The logic is sound — to a point. The union does care about every one of its jobs. So much so that if its legal and economic people thought for a minute that any of those lucrative jobs were in serious jeopardy, the union leadership would be hunkered down with Bud and the owners right now figuring out how to fix the problem. That’s not happening.

Let’s allow the union’s experts to be the barometer here. They’re good. We know they’re good because — in legal-arena terms — they Club the owners’ guys into submission every time.

So, back to Selig and his contractions. When you cut through all the fancy stationery and pompous rhetoric, isn’t this really another shot across the bow of the union? Didn’t Selig threaten to fine owners for talking about labor? Yes, I know he said only he could speak for his side. But he said the reason was to keep the talks civil and out of the public view. Well, this court of public opinion — a court certainly as valid as the one-commissioner, one-vote process — says Selig violated the spirit of his own mandate. Gavel down, pay up, case closed.

Make it a hefty fine. Make it an owners-level six- or seven-figure fine. And, just for fun, throw it into the pot to build this new stadium Selig says, in his letter to Villalobos, “provides an opportunity for the long-term stability and success of the Florida Marlins.”

You know, for the good of the game and all that wonderful stuff Mr. Commissioner speaks for.

Convoluted logic? No more so than all the back-door politicking from the commissioner’s office.

That campaign has been underway for awhile. Over the long, ugly history of baseball’s labor relations, the only area in which the owners have held a distinct advantage is in public relations. The union acts as if it still thinks “spin” is merely something you try to pick up on a breaking ball. MLB long ago learned it’s a method of tilting, if not controlling, public opinion. Its PR machine knows where its media friends are. It knows how to get out the “word” about the various threats to the well-being of baseball. Like revealing the huge amounts of money committed to player salaries for years to come. without having to answer the obvious question of what level of revenue is projected over the same period.

Make no mistake, baseball has a lot of economic concerns. On the other side of Florida, the Devil Rays look more and more like a mistake, though we might never be sure unless they put a decent product on the field. On the other side of the country, the Diamondbacks are scrambling to keep a viable cash flow going. Clubs all over the nation are learning new ballparks are no guarantee of stability if you don’t do a good job assembling your baseball team.

But it’s a game off the field, too. A high-stakes game. And in the end, who’s going to pay? Don’t expect to see Bud Selig raising his hand.

Chatter: You don’t have to go far into the boxscores of Thursday’s games to find some significant signs for several teams. No further than leadoff batters. Johnny Damon had three hits — including a couple of doubles — and scored three times for Oakland. Steve Finley drove in five runs with a homer, triple nad single for Arizona. And Chuck Knoblauch kept pushing his average up — .323 now — for the Yankees. These are three crucial players for three legitimate playoff contenders.

Damon, a notorious slow starter, needs to pick it up more quickly than is his norm because of Oakland’s excruciatingly slow start. Ten games behind Seattle is serious stuff, even if they do meet 13 more times. Damon had an 8-for-20 stretch last week but followed it with three hitless games. Is he coming out of it or not? It’s a crucial question for the A’s.

Finley is leading off only because Tony Womack left to attend his father’s funeral. But it might be the trick to snap him out of a horrendous start that included an 0-for-30 stretch and had his average at .073 a week ago. Finley actually is on an eight-game hitting streak since then but Thursday’s game was his first in that stretch with more than one hit. Finley driving in runs further down in the order make the Diamondbacks batting order much more formidable.

And Knoblauch is just plain on fire, so much so that maybe defense — in left field, at second base, anywhere — will become a non-issue. Credit Joe Torre and Knoblauch for doing the right thing — finding a way to make the Yankees leadoff hitter comfortable on the field again. After two weeks of feeling his way around American League left fields, Knoblauch was batting .211. In the nine games since, he’s had seven multi-hit games — and managed a single in each of the other two games — and hit .476. Remember, Knoblauch hasn’t hit better than .292 in the three years since he came to New York. But he averaged .321 the previous three seasons. This finally could be the player the Yankees traded for in the year this aging roster needs him most.

… Any time a pitcher turns in a strong outing at Coors Field it’s noteworthy. But when Jon Lieber of the Cubs allowed just two runs in seven innings Thursday, it also marked the first time in 37 games at Coors that the Cubs did not allow the Rockies to hit a home run. … Angels outfielder Darin Erstad left Thursday’s game with back spasms and is day-to-day. That’s also the identical situation for Colorado third baseman Jeff Cirillo. … Eric Chavez’s 500-foot home run, his second homer of the game, is the longest hit at new Comiskey Park. It cleared the concourse behind the bleachers and topped the previous long shot, Dan Pasqua’s 484-footer in 1991. “Everybody in the dugout went, ‘Whoa,’ ” said Oakland manager Art Howe. “But I can’t see that far anymore.”

Below the radar: Luis Gonzalez is deservedly getting the attention for tying the major league record with 13 home runs in April. But Cardinals wunderkind Albert Pujols has seven, just one short the major league rookie record for April, held by Kent Hrbek (1982) and Carlos Delgado (1994). Pujols already has the NL record. … Consider the Cincinnati Reds a real threat in the mediocre NL Central. The Reds are just a game behind the division leading and Cubs and Ken Griffey doesn’t have a hit yet. Limited to pinch-hitting by his injured hamstring, Griffey struck out with the bases loaded against the Giants Thursday. He’s 0-for-10. Entering this season, Griffey had just 17 pinch-hit at-bats in his 12 major league seasons, with six hits including three homers. … One of the questions about apparently hitter-friendly Miller Park in Milwaukee is how it will play with the retractable roof open. Thursday’s game with the Mets was the second open-air game there. After the 12-8 Brewers victory, those two games have produced 32 runs and 12 homers.