Saturday, March 23rd, 2002
Opening Day of the 2002 edition of Major League Baseball is just a few days
away now, and yet despite an offseason which has seems to have been dominated
by the contraction issues, we still have an MLB franchise in Montreal. Yes,
professional baseball's most embarrassing team continues to haunt Bud Selig
and the whole league in general.
This was the winter when the world was supposed to wave goodbye to the Montreal
Expos. The crowds in the Olympic Stadium had reached surreal levels and Selig
had made no secret of the fact that the team's days were numbered. In fact,
just days after the culmination of one of the most exciting World Series
in living memory, the league announced that two teams would be contracted
before 2002 Spring Training. Well, we are currently in the midst of 2002
Spring Training and as far as I can tell, we still have the same number of
teams that we did last year. So, what happened?
Well, firstly, Bud Selig forgot to consult his public relations people before
he announced the contraction plan. Many people, including myself, felt that
immediately after the Diamondbacks had won a World Series, which reminded
many of us why we love baseball in the first place, was probably not the
best time to broach the subject of contraction. You could argue that Selig
lost the PR war right there and then and from then onwards the media was
full of stories featuring the word which is now ingrained in the psyche of
all sports fans: contraction.
Selig is never going to win any popularity contests amongst baseball fans,
although he does seem to be quite popular amongst baseball owners. The reason
for this is not hard to find - Selig was a baseball owner and his family
still owns the Milwaukee Brewers, which means he is always more likely to
act in the interests of the owners rather than the fans, or at least that
is the perception amongst a lot of baseball fans.
It was this perceived bias towards the financial interests of the owners
that led many to question the motive and reasoning behind the decision to
contract two teams. The problem was not with contracting the Montreal Expos,
as it was plainly obvious to even the most casual observer that that franchise
had no future, whatsoever. Instead, the problem was with the second team,
which eventually became clear as the Minnesota Twins. It was because of the
Twins that we still have the Expos, as Selig refused to contract one without
the other, and therefore was forced to put back contraction until at least
The Twins' situation is a complex one. After all, they are a team who won
the World Series not all that long ago, and therefore can be considered to
be a more successful team over the last two decades than 90 percent of the
teams in the league. They were also highly competitive in the 2001 season,
staying with Cleveland until the final weeks in the AL Central. So on the
field, there was nothing to suggest that this was a team on the way out.
They are a team with a lot of young talent and a bright future.
However, it is off the field that the problems arise for the Twins. Put simply,
their owner, Carl Pohlad, does not want the team anymore and therefore he
was more than happy to accept MLB's offer of $150 million to contract the
team, rather than sell the team on the open market for the team's actual
market value of around $90 million.
In the early stages, it seemed to most people that the deal was already done,
that the Twins fans had been presented with a fait accompli and there was
nothing that they could do to save their team. It seemed the two teams would
just disappear with barely a whimper. However, Selig and Pohlad failed to
factor in the underlying feelings of the people of Minnesota. In stark contrast
to the people in Montreal who didn't really care, people in the Twin Cities
refused to lie down and let their own sell away their team.
The way they chose to fight back was through the courts, a route that would
eventually lead to the issue being debated in the highest echelons of American
government. Therefore a couple of months later, we were presented with the
sight of Selig arguing with Congressmen on just how broke MLB was and whether
they could still enjoy their anti-trust exemption. This was a battle that
Selig would essentially lose and with it went any chance of contraction before
The argument was over whether MLB was allowed to make business decisions
that were against the public interest, i.e. the contraction of the Twins
against the wishes of the people of Minnesota. MLB thought that they were
covered by their anti-trust exemption, but Congress disagreed and although
the situation has yet to be completely resolved, Congress pretty much sided
with Governor Jesse Ventura and the people of Minnesota.
So what does all this mean for the two teams involved? Well, the future of
the Expos seems much clearer than that of the Twins. This will be their last
season in Montreal, after which they will either be contracted or relocated.
The idea of relocation has gathered a lot of momentum in the last few months
with many now seeing a move to Washington, D.C. as the ideal solution. The
argument is that MLB could more than recoup the $150 million they paid to
take over the Expos by selling the team to a Washington consortium and therefore
rid themselves of owning the Expos.
The Twins are a different matter altogether. Pohlad still wants to contract
the team and Selig still wants to contract the team, but it seems more and
more unlikely by the day that this will be allowed to happen. The solution
may arise in the person of Alabama businessman Donald Watkins, who has expressed
an interest in not only buying the team, but also building a privately funded
new stadium in the Twin Cities. Watkins would also be the first black owner
in MLB, therefore seemingly making this the perfect solution. However, questions
have arisen over just how rich Watkins actually is. Depending on whom you
listen to, Watkins is either one of the richest men in the United States,
or he is a fraud with practically no money of his own behind him.
As with most things in this messy affair, the sale of Twins is taking on
the appearance of a bad TV movie. It is hard to believe that the people who
have been involved in the issue of contraction are the same people who were
obviously smart enough to make enough money to be in the position where they
could own Major League Baseball franchises in the first place. As it stands
at the moment, it seems we would be better off letting a bunch of toddlers
sort it out, than letting this lot drag the whole affair out until it inevitably
becomes a bargaining chip in the imminent labor negotiations.