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Pohlad: Players' agreement positive for Twins
by Tony Kennedy and Conrad deFiebre

Baseball's tentative labor agreement clearly improves the chances for new Twins ownership and for a new franchise-saving ballpark, Twins owner Carl Pohlad said Friday.

"My response is very positive, of course," he said. "It hopefully will result in a more favorable baseball operation here in the Twin Cities."

However, several legislators said that labor peace does not guarantee a successful legislative season for the team. Although national baseball officials generally praised the deal, some state politicians remained skeptical regarding baseball's economics.

"I was hoping for a strike," said Rep. Mike Osskopp, R-Lake City, a persistent critic of public financing for a ballpark. "The Twins need a wholesale restructuring of baseball's economic system, not this little tweaking."

Even the chief sponsor of this year's stadium legislation was wary of Friday's settlement.

"I don't see it doing much at all," said Sen. Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar. "It slows down the bleeding, if you will."

He called the settlement "a short-term solution," forestalling possible contraction of weak franchises for only four years. "It takes three to four years to build a new ballpark," he said. "Then we could have contraction. We're not going to have egg on our face like that."

Twins officials offered a dramatically different prediction on the effects of the new agreement. Ralph Strangis, the Minneapolis lawyer Pohlad hired last year to help sell the team, predicted that the new agreement would eliminate uncertainties about baseball's economics that had been bothersome to prospective buyers of the Twins.

"This makes it substantially more likely that we can sell the team," he said.

"I don't think there's any question about that," added Pohlad, who also noted that the accord would "firm up the price" for the Twins.

Asked whether he would consider keeping the Twins as a family asset if no buyer stepped forward, Pohlad said, "I'm not prepared to respond to that simply because we have announced we would like to sell the team and this will enhance our ability to do it."

Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, who has expressed interest in buying the Twins, could not be reached Friday for comment.

Ballpark is the key

Settling the ownership question is seen by many politicians as a prerequisite to a workable stadium deal. And without a new revenue-enhancing stadium, the Twins say they are doomed in Minnesota.

Even this year, with increased attendance that could approach 2 million, Twins President Jerry Bell said the club is certain to lose money.

"That's a function of the stadium," he said.

Pohlad said the proposed pact with the players' union not only would improve competitive balance in the league for the next four years, but also would set a positive labor tone beyond the proposed expiration of the deal.

"It's a great moment in baseball and historically I think it will go down in history as one of the most important things that has happened," Pohlad said. "I'm speaking of baseball, but of course the Twins are a part of baseball."

The development, he said, would definitely improve the odds for construction of a new ballpark built with taxpayer help. At the Capitol last year, many legislators wanted assurances that baseball would do something to make small-market teams such as the Twins more viable.

"We think this agreement will go a long way toward restoring competitive balance," Bell said. "It will be a little easier for us to be more competitive."

Sam Grabarski, president of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, said the settlement will make a big difference to business leaders who have been contemplating ways to help stabilize the Twins by pitching in on a new ballpark.

Grabarski said a strike would have endangered that enthusiasm.

"This puts us back together," he said. "It can go in a lot of different directions now."

Hennepin County Board Chairman Mike Opat, who has been developing a new county-led ballpark proposal, said a strike would have undoubtedly killed business community involvement in the bid.

"We're looking for something quite significant from the business community," he said. "More than a few million dollars. A strike would have made it very hard to recruit that kind of help.

"This certainly helps. We're excited."

Bill Lester, executive director of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, said the biggest short-term effect at the Metrodome will be to save paychecks for about 700 people who work at Twins games for various employers. It also means the commission can proceed with plans to schedule from one to 11 baseball playoff games at the Dome.

"That's very positive for all those men and women who work there," Lester said.

Stadium a low priority?

The plan Johnson shepherded into law this year offered state borrowing and local taxing authority to help build a ballpark in exchange for baseball restructuring its economics. The settlement, he said, "moves in that direction, but it doesn't fulfill the total concern of economic reform. There's still too much money in the system."

Next year, he added, the Twins will be low on the Legislature's list of priorities, far behind balancing the state budget, funding education and improving transportation.

"I would entertain the notion of reopening the bill," Johnson said. "But there will be only very narrow amendments and no general tax participation."

Meanwhile, the leading candidates for governor were generally more sanguine about the settlement.

Green Party endorsee Ken Pentel said it shows that baseball's leaders "obviously can deal with their problems. They don't need us. Now I want to see the Twins win the World Series." But he said youth athletic facilities, universal health care and affordable housing should be funded before stadiums for professional sports.

David Ruth, spokesman for Independence Party candidate Tim Penny, said the accord could pave the way for the Legislature to revisit its stadium bill and include taxing authority for Hennepin County. Counties are excluded from the law passed by the Legislature last session. Ruth called the settlement's economic reforms "a big step in the right way."

Bill Harper, campaign manager for DFLer Roger Moe, said a strike would have created "a real PR problem for the players and the league," but averting it allows the Legislature to try again for a stadium deal. Even so, Harper added, a ballpark is "probably not in the top 10 priorities for Roger Moe."

Peter Hong, a campaign spokesman for Republican endorsee Tim Pawlenty, said: "Today's deal clearly shows that Major League Baseball responded to the accountability demanded by Minnesotans and principled leaders like Tim Pawlenty. As governor, he will continue to hold a tough line in holding baseball acocuntable to fans and taxpayers."

Perhaps surprisingly, the most positive legislative reaction came from an outspoken critic of public stadium financing, Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville.

"As a fan, I'm thrilled," he said. "A strike would have been outrageous and terrible and unnecessary. The settlement should give the state more time to come up with a fair solution -- a privately funded solution -- instead of a taxpayer bailout."