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01/15/09 8:51 PM EST

Selig cautions owners about economy

PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. -- After spending one-third of a four-hour owners' meeting on Thursday talking about baseball economics and economics in general, Commissioner Bud Selig came out to meet with a group of reporters.

His message was that though baseball's economics are strong, the sport certainly is susceptible to outside forces.

"We're not inconsistent with the world," Selig said. "I used to console myself that baseball was really essentially recession proof, but you can see that this is something different from what we've ever gone through. What that means I don't know and I don't think there's anybody in that room that knows."

Selig has certainly preached caution. Leaning on an instant cash machine that read "OUT OF SERVICE" on its screen, he quipped: "Out of service. Some owner needed money and took all the money out of it."

The one-liner got plenty of laughs, considering the reality of it. The collective owners have spent about $1 billion to sign free agents this offseason -- with the Yankees accounting for more than 40 percent of it -- during a 13-month recession that is one of the worst in U.S. history.

Selig has been fretting about the global economy since the postseason ended in October and has been counseling the owners about it. At the last joint session in New York this past November, he brought in former Fed chairman Paul Volcker for a lecture. On Thursday it was eminent conservative author George Will, who happened to be in town for another appearance.

"He was fascinating," Selig said about Will's presentation. "George is so bright. He gave us a lot of economic history going back to the Great Depression and he actually had a lot of baseball stuff. But he really talked about the world and the world credit markets. It was really an update. [Will and Volcker] have different styles and messages.

"But as I've said to all of you, we're living in unprecedented times. Many of us are just trying to understand what it means."

Owners this week have pointed to positive signs. Despite the recession, Major League Baseball launched its new Network on Jan. 1 with much fanfare to a potential of 50 million basic digital cable subscribers. Cubs chairman Crane Kenney said the waiting list for Cubs season tickets has now passed 100,000 applicants. A's owner Lew Wolff said season ticket sales in Oakland are off only 10 percent since the team traded for Matt Holliday and brought back fan favorite Jason Giambi as a free agent.

Even the Pirates are financially stable after 16 consecutive losing seasons.

"The Pirates are in a good position now because we did put a plan in place two years ago when I got more involved with the team." said Bob Nutting, the Bucs' chairman. "We put a plan in place to make sure we had enough financial room in our budgets and in our structure to make sure that we could make good baseball decisions in a small market in Pittsburgh. We haven't seen anything in the economy that changes that system, or changes that approach."

On the downside, despite the billion-dollar investment in free agents, an unprecedented 113 were still on the market as of late Wednesday night, including such big names as Manny Ramirez, Bobby Abreu and Ken Griffey Jr. And that's with less than a month to go before pitchers and catchers involved in the World Baseball Classic are mandated to report to Spring Training.

Selig said it was way too early to speculate about how the economic downtown might affect the sport.

"We talked a fair amount about that today and I don't think a lot of clubs can tell yet," he said. "There's just uncertainty and there's uncertainty everywhere in life today."

Selig added that he gains solace from the fact that baseball is coming off a season in which gross revenues were a record $6.5 billion, average player salaries were about $3 million and attendance was off less than 1-percent to 78.6 million.

Whether those numbers remain stable is anyone's guess, he said, although it seems to be pointing in the right direction.

"It's very difficult right now," Selig said. "We've made a lot of projections. There are a lot of different variables. I'm optimistic. Our sport is very strong. It's very popular with all the things that we've done on and off the field. We've gotten off to a great start with the Network. There's MLB.com and everything else.

"The core economics are very sound, but we shall see. That's all I can tell you."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.