- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 27, 2002

FORT MYERS, Fla. The first exhibition game of the spring takes place today in this sleepy town along the Florida Gulf Coast. It's an event that has been going on for years, but one that rarely garners much attention, if any at all.
Of course, when you're the Minnesota Twins and you just spent the last four months wondering whether your team would be exterminated before you ever had a chance to play today's game, the mere act of playing baseball is news in itself.
"It's going to be an exciting day for a lot of people," said Ron Gardenhire, who makes his managerial debut when the Twins play host to the Cincinnati Reds at Hammond Stadium. "We're finally getting back to playing baseball, and there were a lot of people who didn't think it would happen."
Nov. 6, 2001: That's the day the future of this proud franchise became questionable, the day baseball commissioner Bud Selig announced that the sport's owners had approved the elimination of two teams for the coming season. Almost immediately, the Twins and Montreal Expos (the two franchises that produce the least revenue among baseball's 30 teams) knew they were targeted for contraction.
"At one point, yeah, there was a doubt whether we'd play or not," Minnesota outfielder Torii Hunter said. "We didn't know how serious it was. After awhile, we started hearing better things about it and we got a better outlook on the situation."
While there has been little protest out of Montreal, fans in Minnesota and around the baseball world have been baffled by the decision to try to do away with the Twins, a franchise with more than 40 years of tradition, two World Series trophies and a young and exciting team that may be on the verge of something special.
The Twins stunned nearly everyone last season when they won 85 games and contended for their first division title in a decade, despite a roster of prospects and a minuscule $27 million payroll.
And the fans took notice. Attendance at the much-maligned Metrodome last year reached $1.6 million a 70 percent increase from the previous season.
This is the franchise baseball wants to contract?
"The question was always, 'Why? Why the Twins?'" pitcher Brad Radke said. "We had a great year last year. We drew a lot of fans. But that's not my business."
"The thing that surprised me was we had the fifth best record in the American League," said infielder Denny Hocking, the team's union representative. "Everybody talks about competitive balance and about how teams with low payrolls can't compete, well, there's always one or two teams that throw that out of the mix. Why anyone would want to get rid of competitive teams is beyond me. I was under the impression that it was good for the game."
Public backlash in the Twin Cities, along with several favorable court rulings in Minnesota, prevented Major League Baseball from doing away with the Twins … for now. There are still countless obstacles to overcome, most notably the potential sale of the franchise by Carl Pohlad to a new owner who is committed to keeping the team in Minnesota (perhaps Alabama businessman Donald Watkins) and the ongoing effort to build a new stadium.
But at the moment, the 51 players participating in Twins camp this spring are just glad to know they'll be playing a ballgame today.
"It'll be nice to start games," Hocking said. "Even if a reporter comes up and asks you why you made an error today that cost you a run. It would be nice to answer questions like that instead of questions about contraction."
With virtually the entire roster back and with a full year of experience under their belts, the Twins enter 2002 truly believing they can make the postseason.
"We've got a core of good young guys," said Radke, who along with former University of Maryland star Eric Milton and Joe Mays make up one of the top pitching trios in the American League. "We definitely learned a lot last year, how to win, how to play together. And the second half we learned a lot too, that we have to play six full months instead of three."
Could Selig have a worse nightmare than the small-market Minnesota Twins contending for the World Series and stuffing contraction back in his face?
"You don't want to use that as motivation," catcher A.J. Pierzynski said, "but at the same time you hope that it's been able to bring us together."
There's evidence to support that theory. First baseman Doug Mientkiewicz has been walking around the Twins clubhouse this week wearing a T-shirt with the word "Contraction" written underneath a drawing of a baseball glove with one strategically placed finger pointed upward.
Call it a subtle reminder that this team doesn't intend to go away quietly.
"That's our goal, to go out there and try to influence whoever it is that's trying to contract us," Hunter said. "If Pohlad sells the team, that should stop it. And if we get a new stadium, that should stop it. But we still have to go out and try to win."


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