Baseball's new morality

The folks who bring you Las Vegas (and by that we mean Mayor Oscar Goodman and the other Sin City big shots, not the four women in the limo who laugh for some bizarre reason in the commercials) are haunting the halls in Anaheim this week, looking to see if the Florida Marlins would like to become the second most inappropriately named team in professional sports.

Behind, of course, the Utah Jazz.

This is, in and of itself, not big news. Baseball has been looking for a civic stalking horse since they foolishly allowed Tampa Bay to have a team back in 1997; before that, the owners used Tampa mostly as a threat to existing cities, from Chicago to San Francisco.

What is interesting, though, is the timing, coming as it does so closely to the fun-filled BALCO scandal. I mean, how many ways do you want to test the audience here?

Now we know the basics. Miami won't give the Marlins a stadium for the perfectly sensible reason that cities never get their money back when they give it to baseball owners, a truth that the poor buggers of Washington, D.C., are about to learn to their detriment.

And Jeffrey Loria, the man who helped bury baseball in Montreal, will cheerfully bury baseball in South Florida for anyone waving money at him. If you don't know who Loria is, any picture from the winter meetings that includes a man with a long black robe and a scythe -- that's Jeff Loria.

But Vegas is a dodgy sell right now, not just because of the logistical issues (small population and TV market, no stadium, competition from the casinos, etc.) but because baseball is having one of its periodic crises of faith -- this one, because of performance-enhancing drugs and how they are impacting the game's biggest names.
Bud Selig, who is currently trying to look like a cross between a drug czar and the State Farm man, doesn't mind having a team in Las Vegas, because Las Vegas has money and is in a mood to throw it around (a reversal of the typical Vegas/customer relationship). He also doesn't mind the drug scandal all that much because it allows him to look like a moral crusader even though he and his 29 partners made their money off every syringe, smear of cream and drop under the tongue.

But both drugs and Vegas? Well, that takes some fancy dancing, and Bud's not as spry as he used to be.

In fact, it could be even worse if Sen. John McCain, who has seized the high ground on the steroid debate, thinks that baseball in an adjoining state built on gambling and quartz is a bad idea.

Which is why we suspect that Selig has done his due reconnaissance on that. Selig is the quintessential vote-counter, a man who could put Senate whips to shame. He knows where McCain is on this, or has a pretty good idea.

He just has to sell it to a public which is already in no mood to be trifled with, and that's where Bud does slightly less well. Those who know him say he a fine fellow, and an earnest back-slapper extraordinaire. Those who know him only from watching him on TV or in congressional hearings think he could not sell free money.

In other words, while we know that the public likes baseball, the public loves gambling, and we know that the public likes home runs (even the skanky ones), we also suspect that the public is not so sold on having to accept all three pushed together in such a short period of time.

So Oscar Goodman and all his rhinestone-bedecked associate wizards will have to learn patience. They will sell Loria on the town easily enough, because Loria would chase a $10 bill across a Houston freeway, but they also will have to learn that baseball runs at a different current.

I mean, they're still trying to get the Expos' deal done, for God's sake.

But it is an interesting test -- selling the public on a two-time (and possibly deliberate) loser moving his team to the gambling capital of the galaxy at a time when the game's most visible figures are Scott Boras, Barry Bonds and Victor Conte, and Boras has the best word-of-mouth.

If nothing else, you have to admire the way the keepers of the game continue asking for trouble, like a boxer who just took one in the kisser yelling at his opponent to hit him again, while remembering that most of the time the opponent does just that.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com