Twin Killing

Is there any way to keep Major League Baseball in Minnesota? Well, for starters we could get a judge to classify Carl Pohlad as a vulnerable adult...

The contraction process, of course, will be challenged on any number of fronts; here in Minnesota challenges are already afoot at the judicial and legislative levels, and the inevitable task force has been hastily assembled. Gov. Jesse Ventura, who had previously been steadfast in his refusal to enter the fray, has finally lent his guarded support to the group of business and political leaders that is working to at least delay contraction; that group is spearheaded by Minneapolis attorney Mike Ciresi, who hopes to marshal private investors to buy the team and rally support for a stadium-finance plan. Across the river Mayor Norm Coleman has apparently joined forces with his recently elected successor, Randy Kelly, in proposing (again) a new Twins stadium (and citywide three percent bar and restaurant tax) for downtown St. Paul. Hennepin County District Judge Harry Crump acted swiftly in issuing a temporary injunction binding the Twins to their Metrodome lease for the 2002 season, a move that is sure to be appealed by Major League Baseball. Fehr and his all-powerful players' union will surely file grievances, and in Washington Sen. Paul Wellstone has joined with Rep. John Conyers from Michigan in introducing to Congress a bill intended to limit or revoke Major League Baseball's federal antitrust exemption, a move that is long overdue. Senate majority leader Tom Daschle has also asked President Bush to grant Minnesota a one-year reprieve. (Those looking for hope on that front might keep in mind that Bush was formerly an owner of the Texas Rangers and walked away from that sinecure with a more-than-handsome return on his investment; don't think for a minute that he doesn't fully understand the meaning of the phrase major league asshole.)

The latest word is that Selig has summoned the owners to Chicago for another meeting just as City Pages goes to press. It's possible, given Crump's decision and the slim possibility of a hasty appeal or resolution, that Selig will lobby for a delay on the contraction issue. It's also possible that the owners will dig in and prepare for a protracted battle. If that's the case, it's already plenty clear that baseball's magnates will have their hands full.

Selig and the owners have found themselves fighting their contraction battle against enemies on all sides--and with baseball's winter meetings looming on December 9. That is the date, presumably, that MLB would like to drop its hammer and name names. It doesn't leave a lot of time for anybody. If Selig thought his November 6 teaser would kick some kind of stadium-salvation action into gear in the Twin Cities, he may have been right, but he could not possibly have expected any serious resolution in so short a timeframe. The timing of that notice is the one factor working most strongly against the notion that contraction is another bluff, one final attempt to extort public funding for a new stadium here. But if in fact Selig and the owners were serious, what was it they hoped to accomplish?

 

A number of scenarios and much speculation have been bandied about, but the reality is that there is no reasonable economic justification for contraction, other than one based entirely on desperation. When businesses start closing up shop on the main street, doesn't one generally assume that the town is in trouble? You would certainly think so, yet killing teams might seem, in the twisted reasoning of the owners, like a convenient way to try to erase some of the mistakes they made in their disastrous expansion program of the 1990s; it should hardly come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention that two of the other franchises most often mentioned when the subject of contraction arises are two of the teams baseball added in expansion: the Florida Marlins and Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Both teams have floundered and neither is likely to survive in its present location.

The other two expansion teams, the Rockies and the Diamondbacks, face financial peril as well, Arizona's championship notwithstanding. The Rockies, in their much-ballyhooed ballpark in Denver, routinely draw large crowds but continue to lose money. Arizona is in an even more precarious position and would appear to be on the same fast track to oblivion that has already brought Florida to the brink of extinction; despite the team's success on the field in 2001, the Diamondbacks have been plagued with a severe financial crisis that has reportedly saddled owner Jerry Colangelo with nearly $250 million in debt, and has led him to borrow money from Major League Baseball and plead for salary deferments from some of his players. This is a man who shelled out more than $65 million for marginal players Todd Stottlemyre (15-9 in three injury-plagued seasons with the D-Backs) and Jay Bell (.248 average with 13 homers and 46 RBI in 2001). Matt Williams, a rickety, over-the-hill third baseman, made $9 million this past season and hit 16 home runs. Colangelo had more than 10,000 empty seats in his ballpark for game one of the National League championship series. That's a disgraceful red flag for an expansion franchise that has only been in existence for four years.

So no, there is no clear economic gain for the owners in the contraction wrangle, and even if a case could be made, the choice of franchises is transparently punitive. There is no getting around the fact that the Expos are in trouble in Montreal, but their cause hasn't been helped by absentee owner Jeffrey Loria, a New York art dealer who plainly bought the team with the hope that he might one day move it to greener pastures. Still, the Expos' current predicament aside, this is a franchise with a history in Montreal: From 1970 though the 2001 season, the Expos had a 2,545-2,580 win-loss record, roughly comparable to Selig's Brewers' record over the same period (2,565-2,532). The Expos have drawn two million fans on four occasions; the Brewers have done so twice. And no team has been more victimized than the Expos by the game's economic and labor woes: The team finished first in the second half of 1981's disastrous split season and lost to the Dodgers in the National League championship series; in 1994, the year Selig and the owners shut down the season and wiped out the World Series, Montreal was six games in front of Atlanta in the NL's Eastern Division.

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