In the past 10 days, the baseball doomsday scenario called contraction has
progressed from far-fetched rumor to imminent threat.
How can Major League Baseball consider folding the Minnesota Twins, a
41-year-old franchise that has won two World Series in the past 15 years, that
was the first American League franchise to draw 3 million fans in a season and
that is coming off its best season in nine years?
While the possibility of contraction remains dubious to some economists and
baseball observers, a variety of baseball officials, lawyers and economists have
provided reasons why the Twins could become victims of contraction at the owners
meetings in Chicago on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Some say there have been signs all along that contraction is a possibility
and reason that, in the eyes of owners and management figures, the Twins are a
"It seems to me that this is almost the logical working out of the fact
that we have a commissioner that acts not in the best interests of baseball but
in the best interests of the owners," said Paul Anton, chief economist at
Anton, Lubov & Associates in Minneapolis. "So, I'm afraid, this makes
sense in the world of baseball."
How can eliminating a once-proud, currently-promising franchise -- along with
the poorly supported Montreal Expos -- make sense?
Twins and other Major League Baseball employees, politicians, economists,
local ballpark advocates and business leaders, and potential buyers of the
franchise offered myriad reasons:
Owners have had little success negotiating collective bargaining agreements
with the powerful players' association, and the current agreement expires this
If the owners can wipe out 50 jobs before beginning those negotiations, they
feel they will gain valuable leverage.
- Even after paying the owners of the eliminated teams from $200 to $250
million, the remaining 28 owners will make up that money by saving the
revenue-sharing cash they would have contributed to those teams, and by
collecting the eliminated teams' share of the national television contract
and licensing revenues over a number of years.
- Eliminating the Expos eliminates baseball's foremost money pit -- the
Expos ranked last in attendance and have no hopes for building a stadium.
- Eliminating the Twins serves two purposes for commissioner Bud Selig -- it
would be a threat to other cities that have been unwilling to build new,
revenue-producing stadiums, and it would open a sizable market where
baseball could relocate a struggling franchise or even an expansion team.
- Professional sports leagues have always relied on moving or contracting
teams to make their leagues more profitable, or to appease owners. But no
major league team has moved since the Washington Senators became the Texas
Rangers in 1972. No major league team has folded since the National League
contracted from 12 to eight teams after the 1899 season.
- The potential obstacles usually cited when experts downplay the threat of
contraction -- including lawsuits -- are insignificant in the realm of a
multibillion-dollar industry willing to pay $500 million in contraction
- Minnesota is the largest baseball market to steadfastly refuse to approve
or build a stadium.
- The Twins are more likely to be victims of contraction than franchises
such as the Florida Marlins or Tampa Bay Devil Rays because the owners of
those teams have more assumable debt than Twins owner Carl Pohlad, and might
fight contraction through the courts with help of their attorney general.
Pohlad reportedly is eager to accept contraction and has just one year left
on his Metrodome lease.
- Pohlad, after years of speculation he would never relocate the Twins
because he wants to protect the family name in Minnesota, might be willing
to cite the lack of stadium support as an excuse for taking a huge check and
getting out of baseball at a time when the team payroll is about to take a
major leap, and his last connection to the clubhouse (manager Tom Kelly) has
Pohlad's baseball peers have noticed the franchise's financial struggles
and inability to procure a publicly financed stadium. This spring, at a
spring training site in Arizona, a major league general manager was asked by
the Star Tribune about contraction.
"I'd get rid of the Twins," the GM said. "That area has
shown no willingness to support baseball in the current climate."
Key members of two local ballpark groups saw contraction as a threat
Mark J. Oyaas, a lobbyist and staff member of New Ballpark Inc., wrote a
memo in April outlining his concerns over contraction. He also shared his
fears with members of New Ballpark Inc., a Minneapolis business group that
has been pushing for privately funded stadium.
In that memo, he listed three reasons he believed contraction would be
"Carl's last swindle," citing the reasons as "overwhelming,
albeit circumstantial, evidence that the Twins' ownership is running little
more than a scam to provide the Pohlad family 'cover' in anticipation of
contraction of two or more teams by the owners that comprise the governing
board of Major League Baseball."
Oyaas' reasons, paraphrased:
That baseball has considered contraction since opening the last wave of
expansion because of an internal view that baseball can't support 30 teams
-- as indicated by the Florida Marlins' liquidation of their roster after
winning the '97 World Series. Oyaas quoted Giants owner Peter Magowan as
saying Minnesota and Montreal are the two most likely candidates for
That baseball would include contraction in the upcoming collective
bargaining agreements (which is now surely going to happen.)
That the Twins' unwillingness to work with New Ballpark Inc. -- which
tried to find a way to build a privately-funded ballpark such as San
Francisco's Pacific Bell Park -- was strangely "bone-headed ... unless
the desired outcome is not to build a new ballpark but to stall and wait
In his memo, Oyaas noted that the accepted payment for contraction was
$250 million -- one figure now being cited by some baseball sources.
Oyaas concluded, in April: "The current effort is little more than a
means to placate fans and protect the Pohlad legacy in the community ('Hey
we tried')." And that the Pohlads' lobbying efforts were merely the
cost of setting up a $250 million payday.
Karla Blomberg, chairwoman of Minnesotans for Major League Baseball, a
study group brought together by the Twins, said she came to believe earlier
this year that contraction was a credible threat. Her group, like New
Ballpark Inc., brought in Giants senior vice president and general counsel,
Jack Bair, to discuss the difficulties of baseball's revenue sharing
arrangement, and Bair convinced her group that contraction was a viable
"Everybody gets more of the pie because there are fewer teams,"
she said. "There's more enthusiasm for the teams that exist. And then
when they decide, 'Here's a community that really wants baseball,' they can
say, 'We can take this team off the shelf and sell it to you for a high
"It's so simple, in my mind, that it's hard to see how people might
not recognize it."
Blomberg, Oyaas and other experts say the math is indeed simple.
Contraction will cost from $14 million to $18 million per team -- less than
Texas shortstop Alex Rodriguez made this season.
The cost to the 28 remaining teams will be defrayed by lower revenue
sharing payments and a larger share of television and licensing revenues.
And, possibly, by collecting future expansion fees.
"What this almost sounds like is the owners saying, 'We'll contract
to where everybody is making money and has built a revenue-generating
stadium,' " Anton said. "They can cash out the lesser owners and
everybody else can stay in the game and make tons of money."
Baseball would certainly benefit from having a market where it can
threaten to relocate other struggling franchises. Some baseball officials
call it the "The Wild scenario."
That is, when the Minnesota North Stars stunned the state by leaving for
Dallas, Minnesota and St. Paul, in particular responded by building a
state-of-the-art arena and paying a huge expansion fee to regain an NHL
franchise -- the now popular Minnesota Wild.
Selig has used threats of relocation or contraction in the past. Last
July he told members of Minnesotans for Major League Baseball, "Without
a new stadium, there's no chance to succeed here. You need to get it
Last July, baseball also released its Blue Ribbon Panel report. That
report urged more revenue sharing; it also espoused relocation and
contraction as possible options to revitalize the game.
"They studied this game for 18 months, they looked at all the books,
and they came out and said a number of things had to be done," said
Rep. Harry Mares, R-White Bear Lake, a stadium proponent. "And their
bottom two points were that relocation should be required if their criteria
were not met, and number two was contraction.
"If Carl Pohlad says he wants contraction, he's got the respect of
all the owners, he's served on all the committees, they like him, and he and
the commissioner have been close for years.
"I've studied this whole process and I believe Bud Selig has his
ducks in a row. He's not going to do or say anything about this unless he
has the votes."
There are obstacles to contraction:
- The powerful Players Association would fight the loss of jobs. (Officials
from the Players Association are telling their members that contraction
cannot be enacted in time for the 2002 season.)
- Potential lawsuits from minor-league affiliates with contracts to work
with Major League teams.
- Potential lawsuits from the state and city, or workers dependent on the
But several lawyers said they believe lawsuits against a
multibillion-dollar industry willing to pay millions in contraction fees
would not be problematic.
Attorney Clark Griffith, son of former Twins owner Calvin Griffith, said
he sees no sense in contraction. "It's like saying there's something
wrong with my heart, so I'm going to cut my feet off," he said.
And yet he said there would be few meaningful obstacles to contraction.
"The minor league teams can be bought out, fairly cheaply in this
context," he said. "Minor league organizations are linked to the
major leagues by the professional baseball agreement. They are subject to
commissioner's powers in certain ways. If there are contracts with major
league teams to supply them with baseball players for next year, MLB simply
steps in and causes those contracts to be fulfilled, by supplying players or
affiliate teams or money.
"The only damages that can be brought by the minor leagues -- or a
lot of other potential claimants -- are contract damages, which are money
damages. You can't compel a Major League team to stay in business to simply
comply with a minor-league team contract.
"Where there are potential lawsuits -- whereby a court can stop
contraction -- everything's a money damages issue. There's no specific
performance stuff here, such as a 30-year lease which argues that you have
to be there."
The Twins have a one-year lease at the Metrodome, and Metropolitan Sports
Facilities Commission executive director Bill Lester said neither his
organization nor any Metrodome employees would likely gain much via a suit.
He said the commission makes about $500,000 off the Twins during a
calendar year. "And people who work here are not guaranteed a minimum
number of dates and are not specifically tied to the Twins," Lester
Why would Pohlad, who saved baseball for Minnesota by buying the Twins in
1984, get out now?
People with knowledge of Pohlad say he believes efforts to gain a new
stadium are doomed, he's fearful of paying an ever-rising payroll simply to
keep his current team together, and he's not sure he wants the team to be a
future burden to his family.
Jim Pohlad, one of Carl's three sons, recently told the Star Tribune that
he would like to run the team. That was before word leaked that his father
was willing to accept a check for contraction.
If the Twins are eliminated, they would hardly become the most celebrated
parting of team and locale.
In 1984, The Colts left Baltimore under cover of darkness to relocate to
When Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell's fight for a stadium became
rancorous, he moved his team to Baltimore, where they became the Ravens and
won the Super Bowl in 2001. This year the expansion Browns are playing in a
new stadium in Cleveland.
The hockey North Stars left Minnesota, the football Rams left Los
Angeles, the baseball Giants left the Polo Grounds and the baseball Dodgers
left Ebbets Field.
Perhaps one of those team owners would have been willing to fold rather
than move, if offered a big enough check.
"I've been trying to get civic and political leaders to take this
notion seriously," said New Ballpark's Oyaas. "Part of the
doubting is due to the hangover from Carl's supposed attempt to move the
team to North Carolina in '97. So people wouldn't believe this even if it
"We had hoped, with our organization, to keep the level of activity
to a point where the league couldn't say, 'Well, they're not doing anything
in Minneapolis.' But, at this point, I believe in my heart of hearts that
we're the ones to be contracted."
Oyaas says he's heartbroken. But not surprised.