- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 6, 2002

Major League Baseball yesterday postponed its effort to eliminate two teams for 2002, temporarily ending one of the sport's strangest and most angst-filled chapters. The move means all 30 MLB teams will play this season, but owners again will seek to pare down for 2003.
The announcement, expected for weeks, comes a day after Monday's decision by the Minnesota Supreme Court not to hear baseball's appeal of a lower court ruling mandating that the Minnesota Twins play at the Metrodome this season. The Twins and Montreal Expos had been the primary targets of contraction, which the owners approved by a 28-0 vote in November to help stem the sport's alarming fiscal and competitive disparities among teams.
The players union quickly filed a labor grievance against the contraction effort, fearing the loss of more than 50 big league jobs. Fans nationwide protested the decision. And both houses of Congress began pursuing legislation to roll back the game's 80-year-old antitrust exemption in response to the move.
But the court decision mandating that the Twins remain in existence this year marked the most punishing blow to an effort unseen in baseball since 1899.
"While the clubs would have preferred to contract for 2002 and begin addressing the economic issues immediately, events outside of our direct control, including [Mondays] court decision in Minnesota, have required us to move the date of contraction to 2003," MLB commissioner Bud Selig said. "We remain committed to obtaining competitive balance in the game, which fans in our markets say is the top priority, and will take the steps necessary to achieve it."
By wiping out two teams, the owners' theory was that wealthier teams would need to spend less to subsidize weaker clubs through revenue sharing. And teams unable to keep up with the economics of the sport would receive a quick and less painful exit than bankruptcy.
The players union, predictably, cheered yesterday's move. The two long-battling sides recently began negotiations toward a new collective bargaining agreement. The previous accord expired in November, and contraction undoubtedly will be central in talks this spring and summer.
"We are pleased that the 2002 season will proceed with 30 teams, and anticipate an exciting year," union chief Donald Fehr said. "However, it is regrettable that the clubs continue to assert that they can and will act unilaterally rather than by negotiation and agreement."
The news represents a temporary jolt of good news for District and Northern Virginia-based efforts to bring baseball back to the area. Baseball still aims to cut two, and perhaps ultimately four, teams, and MLB officials last month refused bids from both financier Fred Malek and telecommunications executive William Collins to buy the Expos on the condition of a move to Washington in 2003.
But as long as 30 teams remain alive, that leaves a full complement of potential teams for relocation, the local groups say.
"All the candidates [for a move] are still candidates," said Bobby Goldwater, executive director of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission. The board runs RFK Stadium and is working with a group led by Malek for a District-based team. "This, at the very least, crystallizes the landscape for 2002."
Until some ultimate resolution is reached on contraction, the Expos will be run by Major League Baseball. The $120 million sale of the Expos from owner Jeffrey Loria back to MLB will be approved Tuesday during an owners' meeting in Chicago. Loria is departing Montreal to purchase the Florida Marlins. The Expos are foremost on Washington's wish list for a team, given their MLB-worst revenue and attendance, and Selig last month called Washington a "prime candidate" for relocation. But a hard timeline for such a move has not been identified.
The Twins, meanwhile, still must gain a new stadium to become economically viable and remain in Minnesota. Alabama businessman Donald Watkins is seeking to buy the club and build a new ballpark in the Twin Cities, but his ability to complete a deal, and the club's future, remains in doubt.
"This is a stay of execution," Dave St. Peter, Twins senior vice president of business affairs, told Bloomberg News. "What we're able to do with that one-year reprieve is going to be the question."
Since the November contraction vote, the four teams foremost on baseball's endangered list Montreal, Minnesota, Tampa Bay and Oakland have been working in an odd state of limbo. Because of the cloud of contraction, none of these clubs made any significant offseason moves, ticket sales and other winter business were suspended and meaningful preparations for the upcoming season were few. And until yesterday, none of these teams could tell its fans with full certainty it would play in 2002.
Loria's pending purchase of the Marlins has kept that club off baseball's death row, but it, too, has not accomplished much since November.
Rep. John Conyers, Michigan Democrat, and Sen. Paul Wellstone, Minnesota Democrat, the two lead sponsors of the legislation to eliminate the antitrust exemption on matters of relocation and contraction, said yesterday they will press ahead. The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a Feb. 13 hearing on the matter.
"I was proud to be one of the many Minnesotans that came together in opposing the owners putting their own profits above fan loyalty, and I will continue my efforts," Wellstone said.


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