The Road to Contraction, Part 1

Originally posted this two years ago.

After nearly a decade of losing seasons and poor play, the Minnesota Twins seemed to have turned a corner in 2001. In Tom Kelly’s last season as manager, a young group of players who had spent time in the Twins system together blossomed, and the team that had been near the bottom of the division for years was suddenly a contender. With a young nucleus highlighted by strong starting pitching, it seemed like the long suffering Twins fans of the mid-to-late nineties might finally find the light at the end of the tunnel. At the conclusion of the 2001 World Series, however, commissioner Bud Selig seemingly dropped the “contraction” bomb out of nowhere, and the light at the end of the tunnel was looking more and more like it was attached to a Mack truck.

In reality, contraction had been on the table for quite some time. It was formally introduced in an owner’s meeting at least two years earlier, and rumors seemed to go back even before that. In 1999, a panel was assembled to look into increasing competitive balance in baseball. Colorado Rockies owner Jerry McMorris was the first to propose the idea on record, and did so to the panel. His idea to eliminate baseball’s weakest franchise soon came to be known as contraction. At first, Selig was against the idea, but by 2001, around the same time that the CBA was to be negotiated, was making the argument that baseball needed to contract at least two teams.

On October 23, just as the Yankees and the Diamondbacks were preparing to play in the World Series, the Windsor Star reported that the decision had been made, and contraction would be a reality before the 2002 season. The two teams targeted, according the the Ontario newspaper, were Montreal and Florida. The next day, Bud Selig denied the report in the New York Times.

“I’ve made no decisions yet,” Selig told the New York Times from Milwaukee. “I’ve been saying for a year it’s a viable option. We have a lot of work to do. We have lot of questions we haven’t answered yet.”

On October 25, it was reported in the Pioneer Press that one of the scenarios under consideration would involve eliminating the Twins. When asked if he had been contacted about potential contraction, Twins owner Carl Pohlad said “I don’t know. Right now we’re waiting for the World Series, and then what to do with baseball’s labor situation. All of baseball is waiting to see what happens with the labor situation.” When further pressed, Pohlad referred to contraction as “newspaper talk,” implying that he hadn’t even given the notion any consideration.

The plan, which would also involve various franchise sales and the elimination of the Montreal Expos, was given about a 50/50 chance of happening at the time. The biggest sticking point, according to the Pioneer Press report, would be opposition to the elimination of two teams.

Speculation dominated the talk in Minnesota sports sections over the next couple of weeks, and Selig did little to clarify the situation when he talked to reporters prior to Game 2 of the World Series.

“Fifteen months ago, I said contraction was not a viable solution for our problems,” Selig said. “As problems have exacerbated, it’s clear to me that everything should be on the table, including contraction.

“Contraction’s viable . . . nothing more than that.” Selig was asked if it was feasible to take the dramatic action of dropping two teams in such a rapid timeline.

“I know we already have a 30-team schedule for next season, but things can change,” Selig said. “I wouldn’t rule it in [for 2002] and I wouldn’t rule it out.”

There was some outrage, including Attorney General Mike Hatch’s promise that he would not let the Twins leave without a fight. Still, to the average Twins fan, the prospect of contraction seemed no different than any of the other rumors surrounding the relocation the Twins that had been swirling over the past decade. The key issue, of course, was the Twins’ desire for a publicly funded stadium, a fight that was already several years old in Minnesota. It didn’t take long for the drumbeat to start up again, leaving cynical fans plenty of reasons to believe that contraction was just another ploy.

Sid Hartman, local sports columnist and major proponent of a new Twins stadium, laid it on pretty thick in his Halloween column, saying that he was starting to tear up because he was more convinced than ever that the Twins would be leaving, and that Pohlad had come to the conclusion that the community did not care if it had major league baseball or not.

Baseball’s bylaws allow for teams to withdraw with the approval of 3/4 of the owners. The vote was scheduled for November 6, 2001 at the owner’s meetings in Chicago. Leading up to the important vote, there seemed to be more than just a little apathy among residents of the state. Various polls showed that a very small percentage of residents thought that losing the Twins would be a big deal, while a larger minority didn’t care one way or the other. Bob Sansevere summarized the feeling in his November 1 column:

A fourth person has died from inhaling anthrax. The nation remains under a terrorist alert. The economy is unstable. Thousands upon thousands have lost their jobs. Too much is happening in the world for me to get too whipped up over the plight of the Twins.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who doesn’t rank the Twins first among things to fret about.

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