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Owners may vote Tuesday to dismantle Twins, Expos
by Jim Souhan with Tom Jones, Steve Aschburner and Patrick Reusse contributing

Major League Baseball is considering whether to hold a vote next week on a plan that would end the 41-year existence of the Minnesota Twins, according to a prominent state legislator.

The Twins and Montreal Expos are the two teams that would become victims of contraction if the vote is held Tuesday during the owners' meetings in Chicago, said Rep. Harry Mares, R-White Bear Lake. In this case, contraction would mean reducing the number of teams from 30 to 28.

Mares said Wednesday he had a phone conversation with a top baseball official in New York who told him the Twins and Expos are the teams under consideration.

If the vote passes, it is unclear whether the Twins would play next season.

The club, meanwhile, continues the interview process to hire a manager to replace Tom Kelly.

Contraction has been a subject of debate throughout this year. Commissioner Bud Selig and team owners have raised the specter of contraction because they have failed in myriad ways to fix their sport's flawed economic structure. The setup means small market teams such as the Expos and Twins, with payrolls under $35 million, have trouble competing financially with large market teams such as the New York Yankees and its $100 million payroll.

Mares is a long-time stadium proponent and a chief sponsor of the Twins' latest stadium bill. He said he believes that if that vote is taken, the Twins and Expos will cease to exist. If there isn't a vote, he said, that will be an indication that Selig could not amass the requisite 23 votes (of 30 teams) to enact contraction.

A baseball official said Wednesday that Twins owner Carl Pohlad would receive a check for $250 million from Major League Baseball if he agrees to contraction.

"I think it's 50-50 whether there's a vote or not, based on what I've been told," Mares said. "I would hope a vote wouldn't be taken. I will say there are a lot of things that would have to fall into place for all this to happen.

"If they take a vote, Minnesota will be contracted, I believe, with Montreal being the other team. But I can't give you my sources for this. I think if it comes to a vote, we're done. If it doesn't come to a vote, that means they couldn't get the votes and anything is possible."

Mares' contact echoes what others have said in the past few days about the possibility of the Twins becoming a victim of economic contraction.

Asked Wednesday by the Star Tribune whether the Twins could actually cease to exist, Selig said only, "I have some very tough decisions to make."

Twins officials were unwilling to comment Wednesday night. Team officials across baseball have been threatened with a $1 million fine if they discuss contraction.

If Pohlad were willing to accept contraction by Tuesday, perhaps the only way the Twins could be saved would be if Minnesota buyers emerged and then persuaded Pohlad to sell to them rather than accept baseball's check. Timberwolves' owner Glen Taylor , suggested by Minneapolis business leaders as the logical person to lead such an effort, declined to comment Wednesday when asked whether he would make a move for the Twins. Wild president Jac Sperling said Wednesday night the Wild has no plans to become involved again in a bid for the Twins.

Robert Naegele Jr., the managing partner of the Wild, had agreed in October 1999 to buy the Twinsfrom Pohlad with Taylor if a ballpark were built in St. Paul. That initiative was voted down in November 1999.

State Attorney General Mike Hatch said that if the Twins were targeted for contraction, he would hope to find a way to keep the team in place, but that he's not sure what could be done.

"We will research all of the laws available, and use all of the legal resources available to the state to intervene if that is done," he said. "I'm not going to pretend that we can do anything. I want to look at it."

"This is a different forum than we've faced in the past. Before, they were talking about moving a team, which is a little different than contracting. If they make a vote to contract, that's a different set of facts entirely."

Mares said three pieces of paper represent the reasons Pohlad is reportedly willing to accept contraction.

The first is the latest stadium bill. Under the current House stadium bill, the city selected to get the stadium would receive an interest-free loan of $140 million. The state would also provide sales tax exemptions worth $10 million on construction materials. The Twins and other private interests would put up $150 million, for a total of $300 million.

The second is the "blue-ribbon panel" report on baseball's economics commissioned by Selig last year. The panel recommended relocation or contraction of struggling franchises unable to build a new stadium or generate enough revenue to compete on their own.

The third is the $250 million check -- an amount that no Minnesota buyers are thought to be able or willing to approach.

Said Mares: "We all think the Twins had a great year, and by some measures they did, but even during a good year they drew less than the average team did, and had low revenues, and didn't come any closer to getting a stadium bill passed. Then Carl put forth what I considered a very generous offer in the last bill, and we didn't sell it. Then you add in what happened Sept. 11, and things have changed.

"This isn't a threat. This is the real world. So I am not a happy camper."

Why the Twins? Baseball officials say the Twins, unlike supposed contraction candidates such as the Florida Marlins and Tampa Bay Devil Rays, have little debt and only a one-year lease to be bought out.

The most popular scenario among baseball officials is this: The Expos fold, with Montreal owner Jeff Loria becoming the owner of the Florida Marlins, and Marlins owner John Henry taking over the Anaheim Angels from the Walt Disney Co., which wants to leave baseball.

Sen. Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, is a stadium proponent. He hopes the talk of contraction is the first salvo in upcoming negotiations between owners and the Players Association (baseball's collective bargaining agreement ends a day after the end of the World Series) and in negotiations between Pohlad and Minnesota business owners.

"If the owners do vote for Minnesota to be a part of contraction, does that mean that we have a second chance?" Johnson said. "I mean, maybe it means that the current owners would reconsider if a new ballpark were put into place.

"This all seems to be moving faster than we thought it could. This has become such an intense subject so quickly that I have to believe there are serious contraction discussions taking place.

"All that looms in the back of my mind is that this is a bargaining position, to move the governor and legislature to some action.

"I guess it's time for us to have the political courage to vote no or yes to a stadium, and I think that's what we're moving towards."

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, said he can't refute contraction as a possibility, but questions whether it could be another negotiating ploy from an owner who has threatened to sell or relocate the team in the past.

"I know this is great timing for them to talk this way in terms of negotiations," Marty said. "It strikes me as unlikely to happen. I don't think we can know what Carl Pohlad thinks, and if it is a possibility, what do we do? I certainly think we should be looking at legal options."