Congress is considering changing the law in a way that will either bring big-league baseball to cities such as Buffalo -- or destroy the minor leagues.
That seemed to be the conclusion of Thursday's meeting of the Congressional Minor League Baseball Caucus and three minor-league presidents.
Two of the congressmen at the meeting argued that Congress should repeal baseball's exemption from antitrust laws in an effort to force the sport to expand again. But the minor league presidents said the end of baseball's special treatment could doom baseball in cities such as Niagara Falls, Batavia and Jamestown.
Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert, R-Utica, organized the Minor League Baseball Caucus to examine how the antitrust repeal -- which could reach a vote in the Senate early next year -- would affect the minors. Boehlert opposes the repeal, but several of his colleagues used the meeting to argue for it.
Without its current protection against competition, major-league baseball would be forced to expand or else risk finding itself in competition with a new league, advocates of the repeal say.
"I would say you could make a good argument for eight or nine cities" that deserve a team, said Rep. John Bryant, D-Texas.
Rep. Michael Bilirakis, a Republican who represents the Tampa, Fla., suburbs, agreed. He didn't mention his hometown's failed efforts to land a team, but he did say: "The team in Buffalo draws 1 million fans a year. If the fans of Buffalo have not earned a shot at major league baseball, who the hell has? "
The minor-league presidents on the panel did not comment on how the repeal would affect the majors. Instead, they stressed how it could affect them.
"We are very concerned that the ax will fall on us and leagues like ours," said Robert Julian, president of the New York-Penn League, which has teams in Niagara Falls, Batavia and Jamestown. "If the exemption is repealed without an economic impact analysis, I guarantee that you're going to have the mayors of 100 minor-league cities all over you."
Branch Rickey, president of the American Association, said that league -- which includes the Buffalo Bisons -- would survive because its teams are in the best markets. But the repeal could pose a special problem for the lower-level minor leagues.
Without the antitrust exemption, Rickey said, major-league teams no longer could lock in their prospects as their property for seven years. As a result, teams would tend to treat the minors as a Turkish bazaar rather than a long-term investment, signing the most promising players but forcing the minor-league teams to pay the salaries of the less-promising ones.
That would dramatically increase the cost of operating minor-league teams, and could well drive some leagues out of business, Rickey said.
Then again, it also would be more fair to the players, said John Polasek, a former pitcher for the Jamestown Expos, who spent last summer playing for the Frederick (Md.) Keys. He is currently an intern with Rep. Richard K. Armey, R-Texas.
"Minor-league baseball is wonderful, and it's great what it does for communities," Polasek said. "But being locked into a deal for seven years is not good for me."