Big Baseball Throws a Curve

As the snow drifts in early January, nothing could be further from most people's minds than baseball. That's not true in Boston, however, where the pending sale of the beloved (sometimes reviled) Red Sox has been raising temperatures.

The specific question - being closely scrutinized by state Attorney General Thomas Reilly - is whether the winning bid for the team was preordained by Major League Baseball itself. Mr. Reilly says this was the case, and that a charitable trust that owns a major share of the team will be shortchanged because a higher bid was rejected.

A broader question is whether this controversy over the Red Sox could reopen debate on pro baseball's 80-year-old exemption from federal anti-trust law. That exemption has allowed the owners of baseball teams to tightly control every aspect of their sport - from team relocations to management of the minor leagues. The only chink in that control came in the mid-1970s, when players won the right of "free agency."

Congress is scheduled to take another look at the exemption this year, spurred by some lawmakers' anger over league plans to eliminate two teams. Critics assert that cities and local fans should have some voice in such decisions. Indeed, the same kind of complaints are heard in Boston, where the prospective new owners, headed by current Florida Marlins owner John Henry, are perceived as outsiders whose commitment to the team and its city is suspect.

Mr. Henry, however, is well-liked by other owners and an ally of commissioner Bud Selig. Hence the attorney general's suspicions.

This is simply the way baseball works. The system has kept the sport stable over the years. But it certainly warrants an occasional hard look.

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