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Baseball owners may drop 2 teams

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NEW YORK — After 40 years of the expansion era, baseball might find itself reversing course.

Owners appeared set to put off realignment until 2002 when they met Friday, and there was talk they might even discuss getting rid of the Montreal Expos and another team.

When asked the question on national TV recently, Selig said, "I don't want to rule anything out because there's no question that we do have to solve that problem because (disparity) is getting worse by the day."

While contraction may not be on the formal agenda, two owners, speaking on the condition they not be identified, said the idea is being given increased attention by team heads because of Montreal's inability to get a new ballpark. The idea probably will be discussed in the hallways.

"It is being taken more seriously," McMorris said Thursday night. "It's just because of disparity and how do we find our way out of difficult situations."

If baseball ever decides to shrink, its central fund, which gets money from national broadcasting and licensing contracts, could be used to buy back the Expos along with one other team, one of the owners said.

"If we disappear, they're going to have to come up with another club that could produce as many Guerreros and Martinezes and Walkers," Expos manager Felipe Alou said, referring to Valdimir Guerrero, Pedro Martinez and Larry Walker, who became stars in Montreal.

"We've heard all kinds of stuff in the last two years about us and about baseball, so nothing surprises me," Alou said.

While there is no obvious choice for a second team, Florida, Minnesota and Oakland have failed to get new ballparks, and Tampa Bay has seen a large decrease in attendance.

As for realignment, Texas had been pushing hardest in order to get out of the AL West, where it has late TV start times for intradivision road games. But the Chicago White Sox, Kansas City and Minnesota were against the plan to place six teams in the AL Central and just four in the AL East and AL West.

In addition, Arizona objected to the plan, under which it would move from the NL West to the AL West.

Selig, several owners said, does not appear ready to call for a vote on realignment any time soon, effectively putting it off until the 2002 season at the earliest.

"Nothing seriously has been debated in the last few months," Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane said. "I think most likely significant realignment will be put off a year."

The two owners who spoke on the condition of anonymity confirmed McLane's assessment that no realignment would take place for 2001.

The one change owners were to hear Friday is the format for next season's schedule: Teams will play division rivals 18 times each instead of 12 or 13.

And in another new twist, the Astros and Texas Rangers will meet in interleague play for the first time.

"We're the last natural rivals who haven't played yet," McLane said.

On Thursday, owners on the executive council met and discussed Friday's agenda, which includes the report of the "Blue Ribbon Task Force on Baseball Economics," appointed by Selig on Jan. 13, 1999.

The committee's four outside members — former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, former Federal Reserve board chairman Paul Volcker, Yale president Richard Levin and political commentator George Will — were set to appear before owners Friday and then hold a news conference to discuss their findings.

Small market teams have complained in recent months of the increasing disparity. When the Yankees add Denny Neagle to their roster Friday, their payroll will be about $107 million — more than six times Minnesota's payroll of about $16.5 million.

However, the Yankees actually will pay about $100 million. While payrolls reflect the full salaries of Neagle and David Justice, New York will pay just half because they were acquired at midseason.