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It's official: Twins are for sale
by Tony Kennedy and Dennis Brackin
Bob Whereatt and Rochelle Olson contributing

Twins owner Carl Pohlad put his beleagured franchise up for sale Wednesday on the belief that new owners would stand a better chance of getting legislative support for a new stadium.

Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig supported the move, saying a sale of the team "was in the best long-term interest of the Twins franchise."

The ball now goes into the court of state legislators. Twins officials said any sale would certainly be contingent on a successful stadium plan.

Several legislators said a sale would be a positive step toward stadium legislation, but not a solution to the Twins' economic problems.

The Twins believe the team could fetch about $160 million, but any buyer would be expected also to make a big contribution to a new ballpark. The price tag is based on the Twins moving into a new baseball home with larger revenues than the Metrodome can provide.

If a buyer can't be found, Pohlad would conceivably have the option of selling the Twins to his fellow baseball owners as part of the league's contraction plan for 2003. The team's contraction value, if it's eliminated, has been estimated at $155 million. Contraction is the plan approved by baseball owners this winter that would have eliminated the Twins and Montreal Expos.

Pohlad had said before that he was open to offers, and had met with Alabama businessman Donald Watkins about a possible sale. But Wednesday's action signaled that Pohlad and his family will for the first time aggressively try to put the team in new hands, Twins President Jerry Bell said.

"I believe that our fans in the Upper Midwest want the Twins to continue to play here, which may best be achieved through a sale of the team," Carl Pohlad said in a statement. "

Pohlad, who has owned the team since 1984, designated Minneapolis attorney Ralph Strangis to coordinate the sale process. Strangis, a veteran deal maker who brokered the sale of Musicland Inc. to retailer Best Buy, said he expects to be busy fielding offers. He also said Pohlad's intention to sell the team is no "head fake." The Twins believe a deal could be in place by Opening Day, April 1, contingent on a stadium deal.

"I don't think they would have hired me unless they were pursuing this as an absolutely serious endeavor," Strangis said.

Asked if he thought Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor would be among the bidders, Strangis said, "The local list of prospects is pretty well known. I'm not above calling anyone (to solicit an offer) but I don't think that will be necessary."

Twin Cities business leader Harvey Mackay said of Taylor, "I can't think of anyone who would make a better owner."

Taylor couldn't be reached for comment.

Among other potential local bidders are the owners of the Minnesota Wild, headed by Robert Naegele Jr.

Strangis said he'll keep the bidding process confidential.

The belief of Twins officials that a sale is needed to gain legislative support for a stadium could signal that club officials aren't optimistic that a deal with Watkins can be struck. Watkins said he would buy the team and build a privately financed stadium, but several executives within Major League Baseball have expressed doubts about his financial wherewithal.

Bell said he informed Watkins Wednesday that Strangis is the point man for any deals.

"I told [Watkins] what we were doing . . . it's his call," Bell said. "If he wanted us to, we could turn the materials [from Watkins' discussions with Pohlad] over to Ralph [Strangis], or he could withdraw. It's his choice."

Watkins said he would make a decision after he talks about the new ground rules with Strangis. As of Wednesday night, however, he said: "My appetite for owning this team has not been diminished."

No solution

Among city, county and state politicians who are working on various public plans for a new stadium, Pohlad's announcement was seen positively, but not as a solution to approving subsidies for a stadium.

Gov. Jesse Ventura, through his spokesman, said it would have been far better to hear that baseball officials have a plan to improve the financial stability of small market teams.

"Our assumption is no matter who owns it [the Twins], they'll need changes in baseball's economics to make it here," said John Wodele.

Sen. Doug Johnson, DFL-Tower, said the Twins' announcement might help, but he said it was unfair to force Carl Pohlad into a position of selling the team.

"[Selling the team] might pick up votes, but I really don't think that's fair to Carl Pohlad and the family -- that to save the Twins and build a stadium, that this pressure is put on him," Johnson said.

He said his decision on a stadium bill will be based on the financing proposal and "the need for Major League Baseball to fix its salary situation."

House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty, R-Eagan, said the announcement may nominally help supporters of a new stadium.

"The ownership of the Twins is a factor in the debate, but not the factor. So this development is like chicken soup: It can't hurt and it may help a little," said Pawlenty.

"I think it helps," said Sen. Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, and sponsor of a stadium bill. "It brings new energy with the prospect of new ownership of the Minnesota Twins."

Johnson said the question remains whether the new owners will be willing to provide 50 percent of the total construction costs of a new ballpark.

"We will proceed as we have in the past and attempt to garner the number of votes in the House and Senate no matter who the owners might be."

The Senate Tax Committee will consider three stadium proposals starting at 4 p.m. today.

Hennepin County Board Chairman Mike Opat and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak reacted cautiously to the news, saying the impact won't be known until the situation unfolds further. They have a stadium plan that competes with a separate proposal to build a ballpark in St. Paul. St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly couldn't be reached for comment.

Opat and Rybak agreed that -- fairly or unfairly -- the involvement of the Pohlads has been difficult for the public and some political leaders to stomach.

"This allows the debate to be about keeping the Twins and not the Pohlads," said Rybak, who is pushing for a ballpark on the edge of the Minneapolis Warehouse District.

Public affairs consultant Mark Oyaas saw another potential benefit. He has been working for two years with New Ballpark Inc., a group of downtown business leaders seeking private investment for a new stadium. Until now, support from business leaders has been weaker than he had hoped.

"The right change in ownership may inspire energy that's currently lacking," Oyaas said.

Pohlad lost trust with politicians in his previous efforts to get a stadium built with public money. In one instance, he pledged to make a personal contribution for a new stadium, later admitting that what he pledged was a loan. He also threatened to sell the team to North Carolina's Don Beaver in what proved to be an empty threat.

Jim Pohlad, son of owner Carl Pohlad, repeated Wednesday that he had hoped to succeed his father as the primary owner. But Jim Pohlad said his primary objective has always been to keep the Twins in Minnesota, and he believes a new ownership team would have the best shot of doing that.

"It would not be the outcome that we would wish for -- seeing someone else throwing out the first pitch at a new stadium," Jim Pohlad said. "But at least there'd be a new stadium, and at least the team would still be in Minnesota.

"We're at a critical point now, and we want to do whatever we can to keep the process moving along."

Jim Pohlad and Bell declined to reveal whether the Pohlad family has set a minimum price it would accept. But both said they believed the recent sale of the Florida Marlins for $158.5 million had helped set the value of the Twins.

"And you could make the argument that our market is better," Jim Pohlad said.