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Expansionist Destiny

Philip Burrowes

When the Arizona Diamondbacks defeated the New York Yankees on Sunday to win the World Series, they did more than attest to their own value as a team; they reaffirmed the validity of Major League Baseball’s expansion policy. As a team five years removed from its inception, Arizona’s success runs counter to the critique that baseball had manufactured its own sort of landed aristocracy which dominated the sport. Instead, an upstart franchise had overturned the tyranny of Steinbrenner’s purse and the Yankee mystique.

Expansionism, then, did not lead to an overall dilution of competition -- with the expansion teams getting the short end of the stick -- but in fact contributed to a better distribution of talent. Yet the MLB has decided to go in the opposite direction and contract the league. Closer observation of expansionism reveals this is not as contradictory as it seems.

The year 1985 brought the announcement that the National League would expand by two teams. As a result, the Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies began playing in 1993. Colorado reached the playoffs only two years later, the fastest showing of any expansion team. Florida would win the 1997 World Series. That championship team, however, would be largely dismantled due to the financial expense of keeping it together, with even their general manager jumping ship (coincidentally joining the Rockies).

Herein lies the quirk of expansion teams; while the players are placed into a new situation, the owners are very likely more experienced. Jerry Colangelo, for example, has operated the National Basketball Association’s Phoenix Suns for decades before his role with the Diamondbacks. Expansionism is not, then, the spontaneous generation of a new entity within the sport, but the exercise of external, already established interests. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the Diamondbacks’ expansion companion, were created by the two-decade-long lobbying effort of area interests.

Colangelo’s NBA experience will tell him that “expansion” in other arenas still has this element of outside influence. Since the late 80s brought some half-dozen new teams to the league, each has been rocked by the institutional breakdown generated by the lure of relatively superior markets elsewhere. Penny Hardaway came to Colangelo’s Suns after his partnership with Shaquille O’Neal in Orlando was shattered by O’Neal’s flight to the bright lights of Los Angeles and the Lakers. At the point on the same Suns, Stephon Marbury had once adamantly sought to come in from the cold of Minnesota and the Timberwolves. Memphis -- nÉe Vancouver -- experienced the same cold shoulder from Steve Francis, who demanded a trade which brought him closer to the border and into a Houston uniform.

Even the gleaming metropolis of Toronto could not showcase the rising star of Tracy McGrady to his liking, ironically bringing him to the same Orlando which not long ago had lost its NBA Finals nucleus to the same wanderlust. Vancouver lost the Grizzlies to Memphis precisely because the latter city was believed more appealing, and that amounted to a “contraction” of the NBA’s expansion into Canada.

Sports are not the only topical forum which highlights these limitations on expansion. Not two weeks hence, Microsoft will enter the game console market, knowing it has the financial resources to maintain the venture, much as Sony did during the infancy of the Playstation. Dreamcast and Virtual Boy’s failures, however, revealed the difficulties that internal forces -- the respective video game giants of Sega and Nintendo -- have in creating a larger market. Their ultimate financial failure is another “contraction,” this time of the video game business’ independent capability.

Voting provides perhaps the most robust (if sadly less relevant to our gaming-obsessed student body) example of an internal market’s inability to manifest change. Currently, the United States has institutionalized the two-party system. When citizens are voting under this system, they cannot make a true choice to act outside of it; no matter how many people write-in votes for some imagined Remington Steele independent, Steele will not become real. Once outside of the voting booth, however, citizens are free to organize themselves under Steele’s banner, promote someone as fulfiller of this role, and attempt to get him on the ballot. Should he lack support, and his proponents no longer feel inclined to pretend otherwise, then comes an understandable contraction in the number of parties. Further questions of people’s inability to realize they have a choice are another matter entirely.

All this is to say that neither limitations on expansion nor the corollary contractions are inherently bad things. One more example should serve to affirm this. The most prominent educational institutions in this nation tend to be those with the longest history, i.e. those least like expansion teams. If there were no problems with internal expansion, these institutions would invariably be the best at all forms of learning. Yalies would not just be among the best philosophers or jurists, but they would also overshadow the technicians and scientists of our own Institute. This, however, is not the case because Yale’s reputation would experience “contraction” if Yale expanded into technical fields for which it didn’t provide anything substantially better.

Many other examples exist, from television networks to the National Football League (there are always more sports metaphors). Suffice to say, expansion is not inherently bad, and neither is its opposite. Perhaps it is unfortunate that either act would transpire, but that is no more remarkable than saying it is unfortunate we are not all perfect.