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People are still claiming, with a straight face, that the Twins were going to be contracted in 2002

Jul 14, 2014, 9:16 AM EDT

MLB Commissioner Bud Selig speaks during a news conference in New York Reuters

MINNEAPOLIS, MN — Bob Nightengale of USA Today has a front pager in today’s USA Today about the Twins long road back to prosperity since the dark days of 2001-02. And he’s absolutely right about the prosperity part. As I noted earlier, Target Field is a gem. The Twins draw pretty well even when they’re not winning. Just walking around this city you see people with Twins gear on everywhere and pass by bars where you know people watch a lot of games when they’re on. It just feels like a baseball town, even without the All-Star trappings everywhere.

But, Nightengale notes, there was a time when things were much darker:

Franchises were losing money in baseball, and owners were ready to downsize. The two that appeared doomed were the Twins and Montreal Expos. The Expos weren’t being supported in Quebec, and Pohlad was frustrated he couldn’t get public funding for a new ballpark, stuck in the Teflon-roof covered Metrodome.

“The owners really wanted contraction,” Selig told USA TODAY Sports, “but for different reasons. The economics of the sport was brutal at the time. They looked at (contraction) at the time as one of the better solutions to it.

“Did I necessarily agree? No. But I understood the logic.”

That people are still under the impression that contraction was a viable option back in 2002 is a testament to the b.s. machine that Major League Baseball is capable of being when it wants to be and the lack of critical thinking most folks, baseball writers included, tend to apply to the business of baseball. It’s just accepted now that two teams could be contracted even though such a scenario would have been and remains nuts.

“The economics were brutal at the time,” Selig says. Well, certainly the arguing about economics was. Baseball’s Collective Bargaining Agreement was up for renewal in the summer of 2002 and it was a knock down, drag out fight between MLB and the MLBPA. It went to the 11th hour and a strike/lockout was just narrowly avoided. It was the last time there was serious labor strife in baseball and, yes, people were talking about extreme solutions and strategies to solve the crisis.

But that crisis was mostly over player salaries and the owners’ last vain grasp at imposing a salary cap. Which means that what they were seriously wanting was a way to contain costs on the order of millions or, perhaps, tens of millions. A player making $20 million was insane to them and they wanted a structure in place where, at most, they could maybe pay one $15 million, say? That was the level of economic argument. It was important to contain costs on that relatively micro level.

So, contraction was an option? Ha!

Owners of any teams that would be contracted would have to be bought out.  these days franchises are valued at $500 million. Back in 2002, let’s say it was half that. And of course you’d have to contract two teams in order to keep a sane schedule. That would put the cost at half a billion, simply to make the contracted owners give up their property.

But then you have to figure in all of the contracts between the contracted teams and their business partners, sponsors and media affiliates that would have to be bought out and torn up. And the subsequent litigation that many would mount in order to keep it from happening. Then you get the political problems: you think local politicians, governors and members of Congress are gonna sit by while the local nine are contracted? There will be hearings and ugliness for months if not years if someone seriously attempted to contract a team.

Then, remember the context: all of this was happening during a fierce labor battle. If you think the union was putting up a stink about small changes to the CBA, wait and see what the MLBA — back when it had Don Fehr waging battle, not the relatively toothless version it is becoming now — would have done. The union would have considered contraction to be an assault on membership, because some 50 major league jobs would go bye-bye and the salaries for the remaining players would go down as more guys compete for fewer roster spots. The owners blinked at the thought of a work stoppage that the MLBPA may or may not have mounted in 2002. If contraction was actually on the table the players would have struck in a heartbeat. So add tons of lost revenue to that pile.

Baseball owners totally love throwing, say, a billion dollars into a toilet, so they’d totally make that happen right?

Or how about this: contraction was a ploy. A ploy by Major League Baseball to get the Twins a new publicly financed stadium in Minnesota and several other cities which, thus far, had been loathe to pony up for one. And to pressure Peter Angelos into letting a team get moved down to Washington. And guess what? It worked. The Twins got their new ballpark and several other teams did too in the past 12 years.

And based on the things that are written about that time in baseball history, the ploy is still working. Even today.

  1. largebill - Jul 14, 2014 at 9:26 AM

    Craig,

    Believe you’re discounting MLB’s ability to consider making awful decisions.

    • paperlions - Jul 14, 2014 at 1:15 PM

      Baseball is excellent at making decisions that make owners more money. The economic growth of baseball, even during a horribly down economy, coupled with their continued ability to extort 100s of millions in tax dollars to build stadiums that profit them but not the community show that MLB is great at making business decisions….it is the baseball decision making process that suffers because the focus is on making money, not on optimizing the product.

  2. zzalapski - Jul 14, 2014 at 9:32 AM

    I like watching a game at Target Field. Its aesthetics are better than the Metrodome’s, without question.

    I hated how it was brought about via public financing, however. It’s all the more galling because I’m paying for a major league stadium that’s home to a minor league team.

  3. tfbuckfutter - Jul 14, 2014 at 9:43 AM

    “They should contract Bud Selig….I mean that in the way “contract” is being used here. I don’t mean they should give him another contract.”

    -Said by someone in 2002 probably

  4. DelawarePhilliesFan - Jul 14, 2014 at 10:17 AM

    If I am not mistaken, I believe the price tag they put on Minnesota at the time was $190 Million….and the other 29 teams already owned the Expos (so who would they be buying out?). But lets say the cost of buying out other interests put it at $500 mil.

    Plenty of people in power saw that as a small price to pay in order to not prop up failing franchises, and to not split future luxury. Not saying they were right – but you simply are not recalling 2002 if you think it was not seriously considered. That it never came to fruition is obvious, and if it helped pressure municipalities to pony – I am sure MLB is nothing but delighted. But it was seriously kicked around.

    You can disagree if you like – but I think you are the only person who laugh about it

    • Reflex - Jul 14, 2014 at 10:54 AM

      Um, you say this as though the Expos were not expected to be sold to someone ever again for at least what MLB paid for them. Its still lost money if they simply fold the franchise rather than recovering what was spent to buy out its own. This is basically saying that baseball would have paid for the Expos buyout, and then taken that asset worth a couple hundred million and simply burned it to the ground rather than reselling it to one of the many billionaires who enjoy owning a sports franchise. All to keep player salaries, which are less than half of team expenditures, a little bit lower.

      Ridiculous.

      • DelawarePhilliesFan - Jul 14, 2014 at 12:24 PM

        To be clear on two things – my point was that the Expos already were bought, but sure, you can add that into the figure – which I agrees would be well beyond the value of just the Twins.

        And two – there was no HBT in 2002, but if there was, there would have been 500 posts from me SCREAMING LOUDLY that contraction is horrific, especially considering cities like DC would gladly take a team.

        I am not speaking favor of contraction – I thought and still believe it would have horrible. I am saying it was seriously considered. There was a 28-2 vote in favor of it

      • Reflex - Jul 14, 2014 at 1:52 PM

        The vote was a bluff. The economics of baseball in 2002 were very healthy. The sport was wildly profitable and growing. Flushing a billion down the drain in a futile attempt to hold player salaries in check was never going to happen. People who believed it were simply did not understand how the PR game works.

    • SocraticGadfly - Jul 14, 2014 at 1:36 PM

      MLB’s own estimates, IIRC, were $200M-$250M per team in costs.

      • DelawarePhilliesFan - Jul 14, 2014 at 3:12 PM

        Yes, but the Expos were in Canadian dollars. ;)

        You could be right, I somehow recall a final price tab of $490 Mil

  5. jeffbbf - Jul 14, 2014 at 10:18 AM

    I wonder if Craig writes this crap while on Focusyn and wearing an aluminum foil hat.

    “Do you want to know the terrifying truth – or do you want to see me sock a few dingers!” – Mark McGwire

    • gerryb323 - Jul 14, 2014 at 10:48 AM

      Craig’s so hard-core, he probably would still use tin for his hat.

    • tfbuckfutter - Jul 14, 2014 at 11:05 AM

      “My testicles don’t fit in my underpants.”
      “BART! Give me those oranges”
      *Drops in lunch bags*
      “Eww…moooom”
      “Oh grow up, Lisa.”

      • SocraticGadfly - Jul 14, 2014 at 11:33 AM

        Bart needs hisself some of them Jeters shorts.

  6. ddmcd1974 - Jul 14, 2014 at 10:44 AM

    This article is ridiculous. It was a payout for Contraction of one franchise not two(owners all owned expos) and it was possible maybe probable. This writer simply doesn’t believe what mlb says no matter what. So please when you write an article if this type let the readers know your agenda upfront ok.

    • paperlions - Jul 14, 2014 at 1:21 PM

      You realize that they sold the Expos, right? They didn’t just give them away. So, yes, they would have had to buy out and contract 2 franchises.

      The next time you don’t bother to think for 2 seconds before posting, let us know up front.

  7. voteforno6 - Jul 14, 2014 at 11:13 AM

    Didn’t the MLBPA actually get an injunction against contraction back then?

    • boomshakalakaboomm - Jul 18, 2014 at 8:24 PM

      I believe the story for the Twins was that the Metrodome would not let them out of their lease.

  8. yahmule - Jul 14, 2014 at 11:28 AM

    Craig is one of those guys who often tries to spin Bud Selig’s career in a positive light, even though he was incidental or an outright hindrance to progress in so many ways. This new take that paints Bud as a Machiavellian mastermind really pushes the outer limits of Craig’s imagination.

    Evidently, the assertion is threatening to move your franchise is too simple a ploy to sucker the sophisticated fans of today into granting you a new stadium. No, Budrick’s plan was apparently to make the entire sport appear so weak they needed to fold franchises to survive. Brilliant!

    In truth, most of the talk about contraction happened outside of baseball. It was never an idea that was given serious consideration inside the game. This is merely another example of Bud trying to paint himself as a hero over a non-issue and people falling for it. At least this is merely an off the cuff comment and not a transparent and desperate campaign of legacy-building like his PED revisionism.

    • Cris E - Jul 14, 2014 at 12:07 PM

      I’m not sure what you’re objecting to, but pretty much everyone agrees with Craig (on this point anyway. Let’s not get carried away.)

      In truth, the talk about contraction was *intended* to happen outside of baseball. It wasn’t a baseball issue, it wasn’t even real: it was a strawman bargaining chip. Bud was just spreading chum in the water as they fished for stadium dollars, and it worked. As easy as it is to hate on Bud Selig, this was a simple, cheap and tawdry ploy that worked. Tip your hat to the guy and be happy you aren’t living in Hennepin county and picking up the tab.

    • paperlions - Jul 14, 2014 at 1:23 PM

      Who do you think the Commissioner works for?

      Selig’s tenure has been a fantastic success. There is a reason the owners pay him over $22M/year. He has taken the heat for their unpopular decisions and helped to gain consensus in a group that agrees on little, making them all even more fabulously wealthy than they were before.

  9. SocraticGadfly - Jul 14, 2014 at 11:36 AM

    I agree that the stadium ploy angle is tin-foil-hat time.

    I know that the new Busch, although it didn’t open until after all of this, was already in discussion in 2002, in fact.

    Plus, there’s the problem of Craig trying to paint Bud as both brilliant and idiot.

    • Cris E - Jul 14, 2014 at 12:18 PM

      Really? Threats to move are as old as attempts to extract tax dollars for businesses. Baseball teams look for stadium money (Introducing your Tampa/St Pete Giants!), car manufacturers want tax breaks for new facilities, even my crappy mid-sized employer got assistance in getting a new building and we were only threatening to change suburbs. Contracting two teams is a loopy, self-destructive variation on the theme.

      What’s less likely, moving the Twins to North Carolina (where you’d need to build a new stadium as well) or spending hundreds of millions of dollars to reduce the number of teams and provoke a huge labor war? Both were proposed with a straight face before Target Field finally got funded. I’m going with door #3: saying crazy things to see if someone will write a check.

      • SocraticGadfly - Jul 14, 2014 at 12:53 PM

        Oh, I know that … we just read about the A’s threat to move to nowhere, a big bluff, a big Red Bluff, California, or whatever, last week.

        That’s different than claiming the 2002 contraction talk was in significant part about stadium money.

        As I noted, the current Busch was at least already under discussion. Citizens in Philly was on the way to getting started. Ditto for Petco in San Diego.

        That leaves Nationals/Nationals, Citi/Mets, Marlins/Marlins, Target/Twins and New Yankee/Yankees.

        Of those, a baseball-only stadium for the Nats was going to be built, period, and the questions were in the details. Ditto on the new Yankee Stadium.

        Let’s look at some stadiums and deals, too. Petco also wouldn’t qualify for the conspiracy theories because the City of San Diego is primary owner; the city of Philly owns Citizens. New Busch got state of Missouri loans, but no gifted government dollars. Of the newer ones yet, Miami-Dade County owns Marlins Park. In DC, the Convention and Sports Authority owns Nationals Park. Hennepin County, via the Minn Ballpark Authority, owns Target.

        That’s not to say that in some cases (Miami, the obvious one) some wool has been pulled over the public’s eyes. It

    • Cris E - Jul 14, 2014 at 3:45 PM

      Not following you. It doesn’t matter who owns the stadium or when it was built, only where the money came from. A team would agree to just about any facility ownership model to land a bale or three of public money. Hennepin County laid down serious dough for Target Field (almost $400m) and DC put over $600m into the Nationals park. Who cares who “owns” them…

      • Cris E - Jul 14, 2014 at 3:45 PM

        (oops: responding to SocraticGadfly – Jul 14, 2014 at 12:53 PM)

    • clydeserra - Jul 14, 2014 at 6:13 PM

      incidentally, I think it was around 2002 that Bud’s old collged buddy lew wolff was hired by then A’s ownership group to look for a new stadium site for the A’s

  10. theotherfamousamos - Jul 14, 2014 at 1:53 PM

    Craig, the problem with your argument is that you base it on this sentence: “Owners of any teams that would be contracted would have to be bought out.”

    It’s widely reported that Pohlad offered to sell his team to MLB for $150 million.

    It’s reported here, in his obituary: http://www.startribune.com/obituaries/37106499.html , in his obituary.

    Sure, Bud Selig et al trumpeted up the claims about baseball’s economic woes. That doesn’t mean contraction of the Twins wasn’t a real threat.

    Also, owners voted in favor of contraction.

    MLBPA was awaiting an arbitrator’s ruling on contraction when the process came to a sudden and unexpected halt when Hennepin County District Judge Harry Crump issued a temporary injunction barring contraction in November 2001. Shortly after that, the parties negotiated contraction off the table.

    So to claim that it wasn’t a real thing is disingenuous. The process was in full swing. Would it have gone all the way? There is no way to know for sure, but it was more than just Bud and his cronies screaming Chicken Little style.

    • Cris E - Jul 14, 2014 at 3:56 PM

      Please. The same guy who was talking about Portland and North Carolina shifts to contraction and now he’s serious? Of course he plays it straight all the way to the end or else he gets branded with the mark of Loria, and the Pohlads like to think of themselves as members in good standing in this state.

      If it was an owner that wasn’t in the process of wrangling a stadium deal I might lend him more credence, but not in the context of negotiations like this. It was totally a gambit, and one that worked.

  11. mplsjoe - Jul 14, 2014 at 7:18 PM

    If contraction was an empty threat, someone forgot to tell the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Comm’n, which sued the Twins and got an injunction against the same:

    http://mn.gov/lawlib/archive/ctappub/0201/c2012010.htm

  12. skerney - Jul 14, 2014 at 11:07 PM

    USA Today is the newspaper you get for free at hotels and Taco Bell. Let it not be lost on you that their vending machines are shaped like televisions.

  13. boomshakalakaboomm - Jul 18, 2014 at 8:19 PM

    As a Twins fan I have to say that not too many people in the Twins Cities were fooled. We knew it was about the Metrodome. But, based on the Twins’ last ten years, why build a new stadium for owners who didn’t want to win? They STILL don’t, fyi. AL Central “Championship” seemed to always be enough for them, keep the fans in the seats, cheap out on players (Mike Lamb, Ruben Sierra, Rondell White, Brendan Harris, et. al.), and talk about “next year”. Billionaire owners and millionaire players, and they insist on gouging the taxpayers to build them a ball park. HA! Go ahead and contract. Or build your own damn stadium. I used to go to 4-5 games a month, but haven’t wasted a dime on this team in five years now. You want my money? I want a competitive team. I thought this new stadium was to increase revenue to afford better players, but instead we throw it all at that glorified singles hitter who is always on the DL with “bilateral leg weakness” among other ailments. Go ahead and contract. I dare you.

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