Inside Baseball

The Twins deal: It's gotten more interesting, but it hasn't gotten any better.

WHATEVER ELSE IT proves to be, the pending deal between the Twins and the state of Minnesota is one of the more fascinating chapters in the sordid history of the business of baseball. Is the Pohlad proposal a good deal for the state economically? Not at all. A week ago Carl Pohlad and his boys told a press conference that the state would reap half the profits while assuming no risk of loss; the details of the deal, as revealed in Pat Sweeney and Jim McCartney's excellent St. Paul Pioneer Press package on Sunday, make it clear that the opposite is closer to the truth. If and when the Pohlads dispose of their controlling share, the state would be obliged to cover their entire investment in the club, including accumulated operating losses and the $82 million "contribution" they have so generously pledged toward a new stadium. So the agreement as it stands would amount to paying about three times what the team is worth for the privilege of sharing profits that may or may not materialize while assuming all of the risk for safeguarding the Pohlad family's past and future investment. That could nearly double a $200 million-plus stadium investment.

It would serve to assure that the team stays in Minnesota for some time to come, and there lies the real quid pro quo: that assurance in exchange for the Pohlads' guarantee of recouping all their moneys regardless of baseball's future economic health. As one analyst told the Pi Press, "This is a political deal masquerading as a set of economic opportunities." And it's not a very smart political deal: It's unlikely that the Pohlads or any subsequent buyer would move the team once a new and more lucrative stadium had been built for them, so why underwrite the Pohlads' investment just to get a legal stipulation to that effect?

All the talk about the minutiae of the package this week has served to obscure a more basic issue. It's highly doubtful whether Major League Baseball is going to approve any deal that involves public ownership. In the past it's come up at least three times. In 1985, the city of Pittsburgh looked to invest $15 million in the financially strapped Pirates for a piece of equity. In 1989, Joan Kroc proposed to give the Padres to San Diego, along with a $100 million operating endowment. And at one point George Steinbrenner floated the idea of doing a public stock issue on the Yankees. Each time, baseball said no.

The other public ownership deals cited in press reports, you will note, are in other professional sports. Baseball has a unique history of labor troubles in which the owners' position has always been predicated on pleading poverty while refusing to let anyone into their books. Public ownership would mean a public window on baseball's real money picture. And it's hard to see why the owners, having just concluded a bloody three-year contretemps with the players' union, would choose to do something that might weaken their position in future fights.

Nor is that the only sticking point. Last Friday I rang up Marvin Miller, the man who created and for years led the Major League Baseball Players Association. It's no stretch to say that Miller knows more about negotiating with the lords of baseball than anyone else alive. "In a very real sense," he said, "control is the issue here. Guarding their books is part of it, but that's not all. In the era when Walter O'Malley ran baseball, he did so because he overmatched the other owners. He could not overmatch a city or a state. In fact, the Dodgers left New York because he could not overmatch New York City; he couldn't get what he wanted from them, so he moved. Then, too, these owners' meetings get pretty frank, and it would be hard to sit in one of those rooms with representatives of a city there and say, 'We think it's a great policy to try to bust the union and shut down baseball.' I don't think the owners want to put themselves in that position. Moreover, I'm pretty certain there is a standing rule against ownership of a major league club by any political entity."

Basic as it seems, that last point is a subject of some confusion. (My call to the American League counsel's office wasn't returned by press time.) If there is such a rule, it could be changed, but that presumably would require the approval of three-fourths of baseball's owners to ratify. A simple ownership transfer takes less--two-thirds in the affected league, a majority in the other.

By all accounts, Carl Pohlad has considerable clout with other baseball owners, so it's conceivable that he has the means to get the deal done. It seems far more likely that it will be rejected by baseball after the Legislature has already passed a stadium package. Then would come some manner of bait-and-switch--such as a compromise version of "revenue-sharing" that tried to finesse its way past public scrutiny of the Twins's finances. In other words, paper promises that would come down to the same thing we started with, which is free money for the Pohlads. This little drama is far from concluded.

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