With the issue of contraction finally put on baseball's back burner, the heat has been turned down on two teams still uncertain of their futures beyond the 2002 season.
Commissioner Bud Selig conceded yesterday that Major League Baseball must delay its attempts to contract until next year, offering a reprieve to the Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos, clubs baseball apparently had intended to fold before meeting legal opposition.
On Monday, Minnesota's Supreme Court refused to consider an appeal of an injunction, issued three months ago, that forces the Twins to fulfill their lease and play at the Metrodome in 2002. Baseball owners had voted Nov. 6 to eliminate two teams, and management negotiators Rob Manfred and Paul Beeston informed the players association in late January that the Twins and Expos were the only candidates, according to the Associated Press.
"Last September and October, I said on numerous occasions we would begin addressing the serious economic and competitive balance problems facing the game as soon as the season was over," Selig said. "Deferring the announcement of contraction so as not to interfere with the season and postseason put us on a tight timetable.
"While the clubs would have preferred to contract for 2002 and begin addressing the economic issues immediately, events outside of our direct control, including yesterday's court decision in Minnesota, have required us to move the date of contraction to 2003."
Selig has vowed to press forward, saying contraction was an initiative of the 30 teams and "continues to be wholly supported by that group."
The Expos, rumored to be moving to Northern Virginia or Washington after the coming season, and the Twins ranked 30th and 29th in revenue last year, and both teams have failed to obtain government financing for new ballparks.
"The clubs recognize that our current economic circumstances make contraction absolutely inevitable, as certain franchises simply cannot compete and cannot generate enough revenues to survive," Selig said. "Quite a few of our clubs advocate contraction by as many as four clubs, and our ultimate implementation of contraction obviously may well be affected by the economics of the industry in 2002.
"The results of our collective bargaining will likewise be important to our ongoing effort to achieve economic reform and competitive balance. Like most industries, we will continue to evaluate our weakest franchises to determine how much contraction is warranted and in the overall best interests of baseball and its fans. We remain committed to obtaining competitive balance in the game, which fans in all our markets say is the top priority, and will take the steps necessary to achieve it."
Selig still must contend with the players association. The union filed a grievance to block contraction by claiming the owners' vote violated the players' labor contract, which expired Nov. 7 but remains in force.
"I personally had hoped that the union had an interest in helping us solve our economic and competitive balance problems," Beeston said. "It is evident now that they have no such interest, and that is a great disappointment to me. We had several discussions this spring and summer indicating our consideration of contraction. The union's vigorous opposition was inconsistent with those earlier discussions.
"We continue to believe that contraction is a decision to be made by the clubs and that the union's only involvement is to bargain the effects of contraction on the players. We anticipate that the arbitrator will promptly proceed to a determination on that point so we can clear the decks for our decision to contract next year."
The Twins already had informed employees on Monday that the franchise would remain in existence for its 42nd season in Minnesota. They open on the road against the Kansas City Royals on April 1, with their first game in the Metrodome coming April 12 against Detroit.
"Hopefully, this gives the guys a sense of security to go out and play baseball," said infielder Denny Hocking.
Twins owner Carl Pohlad told Selig he was willing to fold his franchise, but president Jerry Bell said: "We've anticipated for the last month or so that we would be playing. We have a good team, we had a good year last year and we expect to have a good year this year."
The Expos expect to be run by Major League Baseball once owner Jeffrey Loria purchases the Florida Marlins for a reported $158.5 million. Loria is negotiating to sell the Expos to the remaining 29 teams for $120 million, and Selig plans to have the commissioner's office appoint a chief executive officer-general manager to direct the club this season. Orioles Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, baseball's vice president in charge of discipline, could be named Expos manager.
Baseball owners are scheduled to meet Tuesday in Chicago to approve club sales. A group headed by Marlins owner John Henry was given approval Jan. 16 to buy the Boston Red Sox for $660 million.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
March 3: Commissioner Bud Selig says he would consider shutting down struggling franchises.
Oct. 25: Reports say Major League Baseball plans to fold the Expos and Twins.
Nov. 6: Major-league owners vote to disband two teams for 2002.
Nov. 8: The players union files a grievance, claiming contraction violates its labor agreement with MLB.
Nov. 16: A Hennepin County (Minn.) district judge issues an injunction against the closing of the Twins.
Jan. 22: The Minnesota Court of Appeals upholds the injunction.
Feb. 4: The Minnesota Supreme Court refuses to consider an appeal of the injunction.
Feb. 5: Selig announces baseball won't contract in 2002.