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Anti-contraction talks break off: Twins in limbo
by Jim Souhan

Twins President Jerry Bell lunched with corporate sponsors, and general manager Terry Ryan made the rounds at baseball's winter meetings in Boston on Thursday, both hoping to hear that contraction had been postponed for a year.

But by day's end, the team's fate was back in the hands of the Minnesota courts and baseball's arbitrator.

Negotiations between lawyers for baseball's owners and the Major League Players Association that would have postponed the elimination of two teams until after the 2002 season broke down, leaving the Twins in limbo again and the owners and players at odds.

After the talks ended, a hearing before independent arbitrator Shyam Das resumed in New York over the union's previously filed grievance over the contraction process.

"We wanted them to acknowledge that we have the right to contract," said Rob Manfred, the owners' top labor lawyer. "They just got too narrow. We felt they were limiting our rights as to when and how we can contract. We felt we were better off litigating the issue."

Paul Beeston, baseball's chief operating officer, said: "We will continue with our plans to contract two clubs for the 2002 season and resume negotiations with the Players Association on the effects of contraction."

The sides were reportedly close to an agreement Monday, but Thursday afternoon the Players Association's executive director, Don Fehr, issued a statement lambasting Manfred and the owners for their tactics. "All of this is regrettable," Fehr said in the statement.

Baseball's plan is to eliminate two teams, most likely the Twins and Montreal Expos. The Players Association hopes to stall contraction for a year and negotiate the effects of the plan, including the nature of a dispersal draft of players from the eliminated teams.

"From a player's standpoint, I'm sick of hearing that they're going to do something and they don't, and hearing that they'll settle and they won't," said Twins infielder Denny Hocking, the team's union representative. "I think somebody needs to step up to the plate sometime soon and figure out what's going on. If we're going to let this thing get solved in the court, let's do it."

Last week, baseball Commissioner Bud Selig argued before a House Judiciary Committee that baseball lost $519 million last year, although the figures reveal only $232 million of operating losses before interest payments and depreciation.

He also said he hoped to make a final decision on contraction soon.

Said Bell: "We speculated, as everyone else did, that this would probably be completed this week, and now it doesn't appear that way, because they've resumed the arbitration hearings. I wish I could tell you what was going to happen, but I can't."

He said his lunch with the Twins' corporate sponsors "went great. Then we came out of lunch and heard this. ... "

Angry words

Fehr apparently had the same reaction upon reading Manfred's quotes characterizing the negotiations. In the statement, he said, in part, "The structure of the proposed agreement was always that the clubs would not contract for 2002, and that if the clubs wished to pursue contraction for 2003, they would do so based on an agreed upon timetable consistent with the Basic Agreement.

"In return, the Players Association agreed that if these procedures were followed, the Players Association would forgo certain legal arguments it might have to stop contraction in 2003, while reserving others.

"These settlement discussions broke down last night, when the clubs introduced two new demands: (1) That if the clubs, after having decided which two clubs they would contract in 2003, were unable to contract in 2003, the clubs could attempt to contract in 2004 and switch the identity of the clubs to be contracted, while the restrictions upon the Players Association remained in place; and (2) That certain parts of the Settlement Agreement remain secret."

Fehr said that when discussions broke off Wednesday night, the owners' legal counsel asked the Players Association to refrain from disclosing the reasons for the impasse. Fehr said the union honored that request. Then he blasted Manfred for going public.

Manfred objected to the union's assertion that talks failed because baseball changed its demands.

"It's wrong to characterize it as our fault because we raised new issues," he said. "Both sides raised new issues throughout the process."

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., who has sponsored a bill to repeal part of baseball's antitrust exemption, criticized owners for demanding secrecy during negotiations.

"This indicates to me that the owners' principal interest is in being able to enter into backroom deals outside of public and congressional scrutiny," he said.

Manfred disagreed with Fehr and Conyers on the issue of secrecy.

"This secrecy thing is an effort to create an appearance of something untoward when there absolutely was none," Manfred said. "We had a very legitimate business reason to propose confidentiality in response to the structure that they proposed."

The lawyers will decide

Thursday's developments mean that baseball's ability to pursue contraction this off-season will be determined by the Minnesota Court of Appeals and baseball's arbitrator, Das.

In November, Hennepin County District Judge Harry Crump issued an injunction forcing the Twins to honor their 2002 lease at the Metrodome by playing major league games there, ruling that the team was not allowed to disband.

Baseball's lawyers failed to get an accelerated review by Minnesota's Supreme Court, and the injunction remains in force until at least Dec. 27, when the Minnesota Court of Appeals holds a hearing.

Das postponed hearing the Players Association's grievance over contraction while the owners and the union negotiated this week. Thursday, owners began their cross-examination of Gene Orza, the union's No. 2 official, who opened the hearing last week with two days of testimony before Das in Irving, Texas.

Selig has led the owners' campaign to change the financial structure of the game. His hard-line stance has opened the possibility that the 2002 season won't begin on time. Baseball's collective bargaining agreement with the players expired in November, and since 1972, baseball has failed to avoid a work stoppage each of the previous eight times the bargaining agreement has expired.

"Basically, enough time has been wasted this year on these issues," Hocking said. "Spring training is coming up fast, and they better figure out what they're going to do."

The Twins won 85 games last year, breaking a franchise-record streak of eight straight losing seasons. Hocking referred to Selig's calling the Twins' on-the-field success "an aberration."

"You know, with the potential this team has for next year, and the fun this team can have next year, maybe Bud doesn't want to see the smiles on the faces of a so-called aberration again next year," Hocking said.

Meanwhile, Ryan denied a rumor that baseball officials had told him not to make any moves this week. He admitted that he had difficulty making progress with free agents or trades because of the team's status.

"I haven't had much action here, but it's not because of any restrictions," he said. "I think people are still staying away from us because of all this, but it's not for a lack of trying on our part."