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Going to bat for ballpark
by Patrick Sweeney

Members of a new state task force on Tuesday took a long, nostalgic look back at 40 years of professional baseball in Minnesota, then began a contentious discussion of how much, if any, public money the state should spend to help build new stadiums for the Minnesota Twins or the Vikings.

Four former Twins stars -- Harmon Killebrew, Bert Blyleven, Kirby Puckett and Kent Hrbek -- told the task force about the personal hurt they felt after hearing the team might be bought out and shut down by other baseball owners.

The task force held its first meeting on the same day lawyers for the Twins and Major League Baseball asked the Minnesota Supreme Court to reverse an injunction requiring the Twins to remain in business for at least another season.

The lawyers asked the Supreme Court to schedule arguments by Dec. 7.

In another development, Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, and Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, announced an effort to revive a 1999 proposal to allow Minnesotans to buy stock, at perhaps $100 or $1,000 a share, to put the Twins under community ownership.

Members of the stadium task force, appointed jointly by Gov. Jesse Ventura and legislative leaders, elected Rep. Kevin Goodno, R-Moorhead, and William Haddeland of Edina, a former Washington lobbyist who is a consultant for Minnesota Public Radio, as co-chairmen.

The task force plans to hold seven more meetings. The next meeting will be at 1 p.m. Nov. 29 in the State Office Building, where Tuesday's was.

Tuesday, the retired players talked about the value of baseball to Minnesota and about the charitable works team members sometimes perform. They urged the task force to find a way to build an outdoor ballpark.

"It just devastated me," Killebrew said of his reaction to hearing that baseball owners had voted Nov. 6 vote to fold two franchises and that the Twins and Montreal Expos reportedly are the top targets. "I was personally physically ill about it."

Task force members responded with fond Twins memories of their own -- a Killebrew home run at the old Met Stadium in Bloomington, the play in the 1991 World Series in which Hrbek tagged Atlanta's Ron Gant with what looked like a wrestling hold.

But, after reveling in the presence of the boys of summers past, members of the 18-person task force argued about how they should evaluate requests from the Twins, Vikings and the University of Minnesota football team for new stadiums.

Businessman Harvey Mackay, who led efforts in the 1970s to build the Metrodome and in the early 1980s to keep the Twins from moving to Florida, compared team owners' pleas for subsidies to ransom demands.

"If somebody's kidnapping your child, unfortunately you have to deal with it," said Mackay, a Ventura appointee who is encouraging a purchase of the Twins by new local owners.

State finance commissioner Pam Wheelock tried to steer the discussion away from the generalities of pro sports' value to the community to the specifics of how much teams and other business interests should contribute for a stadium.

"How much of what is really an unstable industry are we trying to fix with a building?" Wheelock asked, referring to the economics of baseball.

Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, DFL-Lakeville, called testimony by the former players a "dog and pony show."

"There's no question ballplayers are great guys," she said. "But where do we get the money?"

But state Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, said he was not discouraged by the pace of the task force's first meeting. "Part of the question isn't just the outcome, but the legitimacy of the process," he said.

For Twins fans, the bottom line still is this: No one in Minnesota, with exception of Twins owner Carl Pohlad and perhaps his family members and advisers, knows for sure whether his fellow owners really plan to shut down the team.

So far, Pohlad has given mixed messages about whether he is a willing participant in the plan to kill off two of baseball's 30 franchises.

He has said he was willing to accept offers for the team but has shied away from negotiating with potential suitors.

And, while Twins President Jerry Bell and Twins lobbyist Steve Novak have met with would-be buyers who want to keep the team in Minnesota, lawyers for the team are fighting furiously to allow the contraction plan to go into effect.