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Move Over Major Leaguers, Here Comes the UBL

An upstart challenge to pro baseball aims to restore fan trust starting in 1997

Ex-major league executive Mike Stone is back in baseball, only not in a way he might have imagined. Instead of being president of the Texas Rangers, as he was from 1983 to 1990, he is the chief operating officer of the United Baseball League (UBL), an upstart operation that exists mostly on paper.

That status is scheduled to change in 1997, when the wraps come off the UBL. The new venture will provide Major League Baseball with its first direct competition in more than 80 years - not since the Federal League folded in 1915.

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Mr. Stone says getting the new league's eight franchises up and running is like ''trying to push eight big boulders up eight different hills.''

That's a lot of heavy lifting for a guy who was content to raise and ride cutting horses on his Fort Worth, Texas, ranch.

''The philosophy of this league is what intrigued me,'' he says from the UBL's eight-person, mid-Manhattan offices. He sees the philosophy as nurturing a series of partnerships: ''Baseball should be a partnership among owners, then between owners and players, between franchises and communities, and between franchises and their fans.''

At the top, owners will pool 50 percent of all radio and television income in an attempt to avoid the large market/small market disparity that troubles Major League Baseball. Clubs will share 30 percent of their gate receipts. Players also will be eligible for profit-sharing.

The original business plan for the United Baseball League was developed by Bob Mrazek, a former Long Island (N.Y.) congressman who drafted the American Homecoming Act that reunited Vietnamese children with their American fathers.

Joining him are co-founders Richard Moss, an attorney with a wealth of player-contract experience; Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., who wrote the book ''Baseball & Billions'' (Basic Books, 1992); and Texas congressman John Bryant (D), who co-founded the Texas-Louisiana League, an independent minor league that began in 1994.

The UBL, Stone says, was taking shape before labor-management differences disrupted the 1994 major-league season. And while the league is not a direct response to baseball's current difficulties, he's convinced that the league ''has an opportunity not only to patch up some wounds with fans but to attract a whole new generation of baseball fans.''

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Many aficionados now are flocking to minor-league ballparks, an encouraging sign for the UBL. Mike Veeck, president of the St. Paul (Minn.) Saints, whose team played before near-capacity crowds in the independent Northern League this summer, calls the UBL ''a tremendous idea'' and asserts that there's ''additional room for more baseball.'' He questioned the original timetable, however, which called for a March '96 startup. That has since been delayed a year.

In the view of many observers, Stone says, there are too few viable markets and big league-quality players to create a new major league. On the first point, he and his UBL colleagues say they have identified eight promising markets. The Eastern Division will have teams in central Florida, Puerto Rico, New York, and Washington, D.C. The Western Division will consist of Los Angeles, Portland (Ore.), Vancouver (B.C.), and New Orleans.

Finding 240 quality players with which to stock these franchises could be difficult. Major League Baseball has been diluted by expansion and will add two more teams in 1998. Stone, however, is confident that between major-league free agents and international players a strong talent pool exists.

''It's our intent to sign major-league players,'' Stone says, ''and put clubs on the field that would have been entirely competitive with the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins in their first year [1993].''

Professor Zimbalist, the UBL's resident economist, says, ''I know there is tremendous interest in our league, if for no other reason than it represents an alternative source of employment.''

Stone suspects many major leaguers may be open to a UBL job given baseball's changing economics and the compression of salaries. ''With revenue in our industry down so substantially the last few years, you wonder how many dollars there are to go around,'' says Herk Robinson, the general manager of the Kansas City Royals. The median major-league salary is a lower-than-expected $400,000, Stone says. At that price, the UBL feels it's in the ballpark.

Beyond established major leaguers, the United Baseball League is eyeing overseas talent. In its third year, the UBL plans to expand to the Asia-Pacific Rim. UBL games will be televised regularly by Liberty Sports, with selected games carried overseas in English, Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese.

Finding suitable playing sites is often a challenge to new leagues. Venue problems in New York and Los Angeles, in fact, have delayed the UBL's launch.

Most clubs, Stone says, expect to average 15,000 to 20,000 fans a game, which means enlarging some facilities and cosmetically ''shrinking'' others. In Florida, plans call for expanding the capacity of Osceola County Stadium in Kissimmee from 5,100 seats to 20,000. In New Orleans, on the other hand, the local franchise will try to make the Superdome more intimate.

Zimbalist says the UBL's fan-friendly orientation makes it committed to offering low-cost seats to every game, playing some daytime postseason games, and avoiding acrimonious work stoppages. The season also will be 154 games long instead of 162 (the major-league standard) and umpires will be instructed to keep play moving at a good clip. And finally, the championship will end in September, eliminating any need for long-john baseball.

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