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Hatch plans suit to stop Twins contraction
by Conrad deFiebre and Robert Whereatt
with Kevin Diaz and the Associated Press contributing

Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch said Wednesday that he plans to sue Major League Baseball owners under federal antitrust laws if they try to eliminate the Twins franchise by buying out owner Carl Pohlad.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., said he will introduce a bill today to revoke baseball's antitrust exemption.

The two announcements highlighted a day of mostly pessimistic assessments and finger-pointing -- from the State Capitol to the U.S. Capitol -- in the wake of Tuesday's vote by owners to eliminate two teams, believed to be the Twins and Montreal Expos.

"I still don't think there's an appetite in the Legislature to pass a public subsidy arrangement" for a new ballpark, said House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty, R-Eagan. "This thing has taken so many weird twists and turns over the years I'm hesitant to guess, but it does feel like the final chapter."

Hatch, however, said he believes a lawsuit could stop the so-called contraction deal despite a federal antitrust exemption granted to baseball by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1922.

More recent court decisions have tended to narrow the exemption so that it might not apply to anticompetitive moves designed to increase the remaining owners' market shares, Hatch said. Besides, he added, the original Supreme Court ruling was based on the contention that baseball is a sport, not a business.

"There are 250 million good reasons to say they are conducting themselves as a business," he said, referring to one report of the amount of money Pohlad would collect from his fellow owners in contraction. "As a business, they ought to comply with the rules, just like everybody else."

Hatch said that he couldn't take action until the Twins became specifically targeted for contraction, but that his staff has discussed legal options with officials in Florida, home to two other teams that have been mentioned as candidates for elimination.

"It's a tough case," Hatch said. "It's an unusual area."

But just getting the case into court could shine a public spotlight on what has been a secret negotiation among the owners, he added. "We think we should have the right to know what's going on," he said.

Hatch also said he will file a brief today in Hennepin County District Court in support of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission's suit to prevent dissolution of the Twins at least until next fall. The commission operates the Metrodome, where the team has a lease that runs through next season.

Exemption challenge

Wellstone suggested that his challenge to the antitrust exemption would be a longshot at best, needing the full support of President Bush, a former owner of baseball's Texas Rangers.

"While the president obviously has a lot on his mind right now, I am writing to him today to seek his support for this legislation," Wellstone said. "This would be a controversial and significant legislative change, and over the years Congress has been unwilling to consider it seriously."

Gov. Jesse Ventura and St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman also have urged Congress to rescind the exemption. And Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, called Wednesday for hearings to reexamine the exemption.

But Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., called attempts to rescind it "pure foolery" and said Congress has neither the time nor the interest to deal with the issue.

At the Legislature

In Minnesota, a stadium bill awaits possible action in the Senate when the Legislature reconvenes Jan. 29. The bill calls for a $300 million open-air stadium, with $150 million coming from the Twins and private sources, $100 million on loan from the state, $40 million from Metropolitan Council revenue bonds and $10 million in sales tax breaks on building materials.

But the chief sponsor, Sen. Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, said Wednesday he sees little chance of the bill's passage. "I think the people of Minnesota and the Legislature have been duped by Carl Pohlad," he said. "I think the only glimmer of hope is new ownership."

More optimistic was Rep. Harry Mares, R-White Bear Lake, chief House sponsor of the stadium bill. "I think there's some time," he said. "I haven't given up on it."

Though baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said Tuesday he hopes to make an "expeditious" decision about which teams will be eliminated, legislators held out hope there would be time for a task force on stadiums -- yet to be appointed by Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, DFL-Erskine, and House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon -- to meet and make recommendations.

Several legislators called Wednesday for House and Senate leaders and Ventura to meet with Selig in an effort to save the Twins. But Ventura spokesman John Wodele dismissed that as a waste of time.

"What value would it have?" he asked. "None. There is nothing that's genuine about this group [of baseball owners]. It's the most disingenuous group of greedy old men that we've ever seen in this country."

Ventura began a two-day break from his official duties Wednesday at an undisclosed location. Although he continues to oppose taxpayer subsidies for sports stadiums and other entertainment venues, Wodele said, the governor will support the work of the legislative task force and "hope for a miracle."

Baseball and players union representatives could meet as soon as today to discuss the contraction issue. Baseball's labor contract expired at midnight Wednesday, and talks about shrinking the league appear likely to get caught up in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement.