In Minnesota, Twins' endgame plays like 'Lear'

The melancholy saga of the Minnesota Twins, who may disappear as early as tomorrow at the twitch of Major League Baseball's muddling fingers, would have blown Shakespeare away.

Shakespeare gave us "King Lear," the story of an embittered old man screaming in the storm, infuriated by the ingratitude of his daughters. Baseball's sudden and hard-boiled scheme to evict the Twins offers the props for a Shakespearean sequel.

As today's Lear, baseball gives us Carl Pohlad, the banker billionaire who owns the vanishing Twins. Mr. Pohlad imagines Minnesota's 5 million people to be guilty of ingratitude on the same historic scale as the treachery that drove Lear to rail at the ocean. Which is? The Minnesota public has declined to build one of those new palatial arenas that big-time sports operators now demand of the taxpayers.

High-rolling owners such as Pohlad could afford to pay for such stadiums themselves, of course. But sometime in the latter part of the 20th century, they discovered a marvelous new branch of economics: Get the peasants to pay for the new stadium.

Trouble was, Minnesota said no. This is a place that about a decade ago produced a one-year baseball attendance of more than 3 million, the first ever in a league that includes the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. It has other values that make its living conditions among the best in the nation. It also has other jock teams. So it said no several times.

Pohlad's response to that public insolence was to go to the commissioner of baseball, Bud Selig, and to volunteer the Minnesota Twins for execution. For his trouble, Pohlad is to receive from baseball a check estimated at between $125 million and $200 million, at least three or four times the $38 million he paid for the club 15 years ago.

Drive to keep the Twins

In their mounting alarm at the prospect of losing major-league baseball after 40 years, Minnesota politicians, corporate leaders, and baseball zealots have mounted a legal and stadium strategy to buy time.

It doesn't look promising. Before the Minnesota Supreme Court is a request by the Twins' ownership to decommission the Twins, right now, as a tenant of the Metrodome stadium. The Twins' lease legally runs through the 2002 season.

The stadium commission went into a Minnesota district court and got an order preventing the Twins' ownership from breaking its lease. But the Twins' lawyer says if baseball decides to dissolve the Twins, there's no team to play, and therefore the lease is dead. And Pohlad would get the payoff.

Pohlad, though, is no simplistic, unfeeling autocrat. After he amassed his banking treasure, he got involved in civic action and corporate giving, and bought the team from the late Calvin Griffith - one of those wonderfully sour-headed baseball dinosaurs who built the game but ultimately couldn't compete with the Steinbrenners and the conglomerates.

But Griffith did put together the stuff of champions for the Twins - Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek, Frank Viola, Gary Gaetti, and more. They won the World Series in 1987 and 1991, and Pohlad became a public hero.

When baseball evolved into a free-agency circus, doling out ridiculous millions to forgettable mediocrities as well as to its stars, Pohlad refused to join the spending binge.

But then, one year, he dropped the player payroll to $16 million, which might not have financed the Yankee ball boys for a season. It turned the Twins into the Dogpatch of baseball, overrun by the big spenders.

Then Pohlad said he could compete if the public gave him a new stadium, with the expensive corporate suites and designer décor. The one serious stadium plan that the Twins put forward included an $82 million "contribution" by the Twins and Pohlad.

It wasn't. A couple of weeks later, the contribution was exposed as a roundabout loan that could ultimately deliver all that money back to Pohlad and the Twins. The fans, disillusioned, never trusted Pohlad again, and none of the stadium proposals got airborne.

Pohlad refused to sell the team and was planning to give it to his sons. That was the consensus around Minnesota right up until a month ago when, without warning, Mr. Selig announced "contraction." Two teams were going. Montreal, which doesn't want a team, was one. One of the Florida teams was supposed to be the other. But some intramural horse-trading, spurred by a fuming Pohlad, put the black spot squarely on the Twins.

Selig needed something like Pohlad's willingness because baseball has been lost in the swamp of its own lack of direction.

The huge salaries the rich teams can afford, which are killing the rest of the teams, have cost baseball the popularity it once enjoyed. Rather than deal with the strong players' union, Selig warmed up to contraction as a way to begin dealing with the imbalance between high- and low-revenue teams.

'Have to make some decisions'

"Baseball economics changed dramatically in the early '90s - more than even those of us in the game understood at the time," Selig told the Star Tribune here earlier this month. He also defends his friend Pohlad, who has said little publicly about the recent turn of events. "If a community says, 'Look, we're just not going to use taxpayer funds,' I understand that," Selig said. "But if that leaves the franchise in an economic position that is not viable, then the commissioner and the clubs have to make some decisions."

The struggle to save the Twins has brought new but still-reluctant interest in public funding of a stadium, if combined with Twins' money. But new ownership seems unlikely. Gov. Jesse Ventura, who opposes public funding, has waded in as a PR gesture.

But if Pohlad wants to go, the Twins are dead. That is the Lear-like scenario whose outlines are no longer in serious dispute among analysts. It will be on the table in Chicago tomorrow when owners gather.

The apparent message baseball's billionaires have decided to give to major-league cities - the ones now playing, the ones coming, and the ones going - is: "Build us a stadium. We don't care where else you could put your money - schools, poor people, housing, public safety, or elder care. We want ours, so we can pay those million-dollar salaries that we haven't got the guts to control."

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