Contraction survivor set to host All-Star Game
The doomsday clock on the Minnesota Twins started ticking about 45 minutes before Game 7 of the 2001 World Series.
It was the opening salvo in another labor battle that threatened to roil a sport poisoned by mistrust between its players and teams, just seven years after a destructive strike snuffed the 1994 postseason.
“It was not a happy occasion, and I was determined to try to turn that around,” recalled Fehr, who now directs the NHL Players Association. “I never bought the notion that somehow the Twin Cities couldn’t support a baseball team.
“I think about that every time I travel through the Twin Cities, and it’s on my mind as I think about the All-Star Game coming to Minnesota.”
With the game’s greatest players converging on Target Field this week for the annual midsummer party, it is convenient to forget how close the Twins came to the guillotine and how their shiny destination ballpark in downtown Minneapolis could still be a parking lot.
Baseball was a hot mess in the heavy aftermath of 9/11.
Class warfare among small- and large-market teams plagued an industry fractured by economic disparity, competitive imbalance and, it soon was revealed, rife with cheating steroids users.
Contraction became baseball’s new buzzword on Nov. 6, 2001, when Commissioner Bud Selig revealed owners had voted 28-2 to cut some of their losses by eliminating two teams.
The clubs were never publicly identified, but media quoting anonymous owners and MLB executives identified them as the Twins and Montreal Expos, teams saddled with sagging attendance at outdated domed stadiums.
Carl Pohlad, the late Twins owner, reportedly had decided to accept a $250 million payoff to shutter the franchise he purchased in 1984, after failing to negotiate a political agreement with the state Legislature to build a new stadium.
“Well, he was frustrated,” Selig told the Pioneer Press last month. “The guy tried everything. I know. I was up there. I thought we had a deal two or three times and every time it fell apart, mainly for political reasons.
“Contraction had nothing to do with Minnesota. Baseball was really struggling at the time, losing a fortune as a sport. There were owners who believed that contraction might help. I wasn’t of that particular view, but the owners were searching around.”
Fehr and the Players Association were furious about the prospect of 50-plus players losing their jobs and vowed to sue the owners to halt their scheme.
Beating the union to the courthouse was the Twins’ Metrodome landlord, the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission.
A week after Selig’s bombshell, Hennepin County Judge Harry Seymour Crump became a local folk hero when he issued a temporary restraining order that forced the Twins to honor their lease and play the 2002 season at the Dome.
“The vital public interest, or trust, of the Twins substantially outweighs any private interest,” Crump wrote in his ruling.
The Twins played 2002 under a cloud of uncertainty and yet clinched their first postseason berth in 11 years, advancing to the American League Championship Series.
The team has lost five straight playoff series since.
In terms of collective bargaining, contraction proceeded to arbitration, where it fizzled as players and owners reached a consensus on a new labor agreement in August 2002 — on the eve of another strike.
Carl Pohlad died in 2009, leaving controlling interest of the Twins to his son, Jim.
“More than anything I can remember back to those times, it was a bad time for everything, for baseball and for this franchise,” Jim Pohlad said. “There was so much uncertainty about a new ballpark. It was just a bad time. I’m glad it’s not now.”
The issue of whether owners can unilaterally eliminate franchises without union consent never was resolved. The Expos, meanwhile, relocated to Washington in 2005 and were renamed the Nationals.
Twelve years after contraction was broached, MLB enjoys record prosperity, popularity and stability. In 2006, the Twins brokered a private-public partnership with Hennepin County to build Target Field, which opened four years later.
Selig insists Carl Pohlad never wanted to cash in and fold the franchise. The outgoing commissioner describes that notion as a myth.
“Carl wanted to stay in Minneapolis, in the Twin Cities. It’s the 14th-largest market in America. Why would anyone want to leave?” Selig said. “But it’s had a great ending. Back in ’01 there was a high level of frustration. But all’s well that ends well. And this has ended really well.”