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MLB - Contraction Still Hanging Over MLB

By Moray Pickering
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 next offseason.

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 this season.

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.

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