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Major League Baseball Contraction plans full steam ahead
by Brian Murphy

Despite an intensifying legal and political storm on the horizon, Major League Baseball owners are forging ahead with plans to eliminate two teams when they convene in Chicago Tuesday for an impromptu meeting that has an angry group of Twins still reading tea leaves for clues to their future.

Although contraction will dominate the agenda, owners also might vote on a contract extension for Commissioner Bud Selig, who remains committed to axing two teams -- widely reported to be the Twins and the Montreal Expos -- by mid-December in the face of festering opposition by the Players Association.

"I'm glad to see that at a time when the commissioner is dropping a contraction bomb on everybody, they're still going to find time to work on his deal," Twins player representative Denny Hocking said Saturday. "I wish we all had that kind of job security right now."

The Miami Herald, citing unidentified baseball sources, is reporting today that owners plan to push ahead with contraction despite a growing list of potential obstacles.

A Hennepin County judge already has ordered the Twins to honor their lease and play the 2002 season at the Metrodome. The Twins have appealed Judge Harry Crump's injunction. The team and their landlord, the Metrodome Stadium Authority, have until Wednesday to file arguments before the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Congress has scheduled early December hearings to determine whether to strip MLB of the antitrust exemption that allows it to operate as a monopoly and free from legislative scrutiny.

The Players Association has filed a grievance, although lawyers for the union and the owners still are squabbling over a hearing date for baseball arbitrator Shyam Das to determine whether contraction is legal under the expired collective bargaining agreement.

The unresolved issues could turn into a three-pronged headache for the owners, who are meeting to figure out a way to shutter two franchises, disperse up to 80 players and release a new schedule -- all with spring training looming in less than three months.

Although lawyers for both sides have discussed contraction details, nothing has been completed. Last week, the New York Times reported that the owners' latest proposal did not include roster expansions to absorb the unemployed players, which angered Hocking.

"That's not what we were told two weeks ago," he said.

Union officials are taking the threat seriously and preparing for a fight, even though they're not sure what kind.

"I have no idea what they're planning to do in Chicago, but I've taken them for their word about contraction from the beginning," said Donald Fehr, executive director of the Players Association.

Meanwhile, newspapers in South Florida reported this week that MLB was working on a contraction scenario in which Expos owner Jeffrey Loria would be bought out by other owners, with Montreal then being owned and operated by MLB for a lame-duck 2002 season if the aforementioned challenges make contraction impossible by the start of the season.

That would free Loria to continue negotiations with John Henry to purchase the Florida Marlins. Loria and Henry may be near completion of a deal, according to the same South Florida reports.

ng proposal similar to the one he and Kelly plan to further detail next week. A new stadium in St. Paul would not solve all the economic problems of the Twins, Coleman said. But without a new ballpark, the team would not survive long enough to benefit from any eventual restructuring of the baseball industry, he argued.

One of three potential downtown St. Paul stadium sites is diagonally across West Seventh Street from the Xcel Energy Center hockey arena. The other sites are across the Mississippi River from downtown, and in Lowertown near the farmers' market.

Kelly pointed out that Minneapolis officials face a $10 million limit on city spending for a ballpark, making a ballpark effort more difficult there. "A lot of people are looking to St. Paul for a possible solution," he said.

Coleman and Kelly said their proposal would require the Twins or other private sources to contribute half the cost of a $325 million to $350 million open-air stadium.

The state or the Metropolitan Council would borrow the remaining money through the sale of bonds, Coleman said. Then the city would repay the bonds from the proposed 3 percent tax on bar and restaurant sales, and receipts from city parking lots during games.

Coleman said he didn't know how much money either revenue source would produce, but he would obtain estimates by next week.

Neither did he know whether any stadium plan would persuade baseball owners, who voted Nov. 6 to fold two baseball franchises, to keep the Twins in operation.

"I don't know if it's wasted energy," Coleman said.

Twins President Jerry Bell said Wednesday he met with St. Paul leaders recently but did not learn a lot about the proposal. "If they send it to us, we'll look at it," he said.

Coleman's 1999 stadium proposal was dependent on the departure of Twins owner Carl Pohlad, because Coleman believed the Twins owner's fading popularity would burden the ballpark campaign. Pohlad agreed to sell the team to Glen Taylor, principal owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves, and Robert Naegele Jr., lead owner of the Minnesota Wild. The new proposal might not require an ownership change, Kelly said.

Coleman said the latest proposal probably would have to be approved by voters. Kelly did not commit to putting the measure on the ballot. Both men said the proposal probably would be contingent on baseball owners improving the long-term business prospects of small- and medium-market teams through increased revenue sharing and perhaps a salary cap.

As of Wednesday, neither Kelly nor Coleman had presented their proposal to council members, other than Chris Coleman, who represents the downtown area. In interviews, three council members expressed reservations about the proposal.

"We didn't want to raise taxes to fully fund libraries or fix rec center roofs," council member Kathy Lantry said. "Why should we raise taxes for a ball stadium?" However, Lantry said she might feel differently if baseball instituted economic reforms.

Council member Jerry Blakey said a downtown ballpark would be great, but he won't support public money for it without Major League Baseball reforms.

Council member Jim Reiter said he needed more details but was against a similar pitch earlier this year.

Chris Coleman said voters should decide whether the city should support a new stadium.

"We gave them a chance to take a look at this a couple of years ago, and they said no," he said. "But a couple of things have changed since that vote. One is the success of the Wild, and the other is that it's pretty clear that if nothing is done, the Twins are gone."

Council President Don Bostrom was sympathetic. "This is a chance to say, "Don't let the Twins leave town without the chance for the city of St. Paul to talk about this.' "