- The Washington Times - Friday, June 7, 2002

The Minnesota Twins were spared from elimination through at least 2003 yesterday after a legal settlement between Major League Baseball and the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission in Minneapolis, operators of the Metrodome.

Here in Washington, where the Twins played until 1961 as the original Senators, efforts to regain a major league team received another decent, if still delayed, boost from the accord.

By virtue of the Twins coming off the contraction block, baseball's efforts to cut at least two teams were dealt a serious blow. For purposes of scheduling, all additions or subtractions of teams need to be done in increments of two. And only one truly viable candidate for contraction remains the MLB-owned and operated Montreal Expos.

"If this leads to a reduced probability of any contraction at all, that surely improves our chances of receiving a team sooner rather than later," said Fred Malek, chairman of Washington Baseball Club, the District-based effort.

Although contraction and relocation are not mutually exclusive, local advocates for baseball have long held that any removal of a major league team lessens the immediate chances of any other team moving to the Washington area. Groups in both the District and Northern Virginia are seeking a team and continue to develop plans to build new baseball-only stadiums.

Commissioner Bud Selig continues to assert that contraction remains a priority for 2003, saying there are "six to eight" teams teetering toward bankruptcy. But MLB sources privately conceded yesterday that their options for contraction are significantly hindered with the Twins off the list.

MLB owners last fall began their oft-criticized plan to cut at least two teams in an effort to address the game's growing economic and competitive disparity between clubs. Within days of the announcement, the Minnesota facilities commission and the MLB Players Association filed legal motions to halt the proceedings. MLB delayed the plan to cut teams before the 2002 season in February because of that litigation.

Yesterday's deal between the commission and MLB keeps Twins in existence through next year, a period in which both sides hope a deal for a new $330million ballpark is finalized. The players' grievance against contraction, meanwhile, yesterday moved to final arguments. The union argues that any effort to slash teams violates the basic working agreement. A decision from an independent arbitrator is expected in mid-July.

The Expos and Twins were the two teams originally slotted for contraction because their local revenues easily trail those of any other MLB club. With the Twins now off the list, no real candidate to join the Expos is standing on deck. Franchises in Tampa, Fla., and Miami are suffering badly, but the Devil Rays have a quarter-century left on their stadium lease, and state officials there are already preparing to follow Minnesota's lead and challenge any Florida-based contraction effort in court.

Any contracted team must volunteer for elimination, and owners in Oakland, Kansas City and Anaheim have shown no willingness to move in that direction. Toronto may be another possibility, given its heavy financial losses and currency disparity. But MLB owners remain loath to wipe out a market that is just one of two in history to draw 4million fans in a season.

In recent months, MLB officials have been kinder in word to the Washington area, calling it "the prime candidate" and an "inevitable" location to receive a team. But any relocation will remain delayed until after the owners reach a new labor deal with the players, and there to date has been no agreement on any core issue.

Malek and Northern Virginia counterpart William Collins tried to buy the Expos earlier this year and move them here. Because of Selig's intent to broker the labor deal first, no new offers for Montreal are expected anytime soon.

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