A major league twist in sister cities' saga

For years, St. Paul has wanted to show up Minneapolis. Today, cityvoters may pass up that opportunity.

The saga of sometimes squabbling twins, Minneapolis and St. Paul, takes what may be the most bizarre twist of all today.

Minneapolis, bigger and historically more aggressive and resourceful, has a major league baseball team, the Minnesota Twins. St. Paul, across the Mississippi River, doesn't. The Twins want out of Minneapolis. For years, the city of St. Paul has lusted for the kind of prestige and visibility that its larger neighbor has enjoyed around the world.

The promoters of a baseball stadium for St. Paul are telling the citizens this brave new horizon is now at hand. A yes vote today, committing St. Paul to subsidize one-third of the cost of a new $350 million stadium for the Twins, could be the first stride toward reaching that grail. And almost all of the polls are predicting St. Paul will say ... no.

In the 1960s or '70s, if you told the voters of St. Paul that they were now in position to snare the Minnesota Twins and haul them across the river under the civic eyeballs of Minneapolis, they would have swarmed the voting booths and roared "yes" to the subsidy. A major baseball team puts the stamp of stardom on a city. Status. Money. Highlights on ESPN. The prospect of it would have electrified the St. Paulites then. And why not now?

The cities are an old soap opera, Minneapolis and St. Paul, the heart of a metropolitan area of 2 million people. They're Twin Cities, but not exactly kin. To the entrenched St. Paulite years ago, Minneapolis was the bossy, pushy powerhouse. St. Paul was quieter, more comfy with its diverse neighborhoods and had, it judged, more class.

So years ago St. Paul would undoubtedly have voted yes and told the world - particularly Minneapolis - that it was now big league. But this is the eve of a new millennium, and the old yens for cross-river vengeance don't mean as much as the new melodrama whirling around the jockocracy here.

Consider: The owner of the Twins, billionaire Carl Pohlad, wants to sell or move the team. He also wants a new stadium to cement the $120- million deal he has to sell the club he bought for $36 million.

The new owner of the football Vikings, Red McCombs, is a hustling, car-dealing Texas billionaire who also wants Minnesota to build him a new stadium. That's two new stadiums to replace the Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, just 17 years old.

Mr. Pohlad believes he was snubbed by Minneapolis and the legislature when they refused him a new ballpark. The antagonism is richly returned by the masses. They were offended by the way he handled his pitch for a public subsidy two years ago. Pohlad threatened to move the team to North Carolina. Voters there declined to build a stadium.

So into the malaise stepped St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, a persuasive deal-cutter who had already helped create a new hockey arena.

A few months ago, Mr. Coleman approached the unhappy Pohlad. The old banker told him he would bring his team to St. Paul if it built a new stadium. Here was the moment ordained for St. Paul. Coleman's proposition: The city would restore outdoor baseball, an idea adored by purists here despite the random snowstorms in April and October.

Critics wailed. Coleman persevered. First, he said, St. Paul had to vote a half-cent increase in the city sales tax. To make the deal credible, Coleman asked Pohlad to remove himself from the picture and sell the Twins to Minnesota investors. A few weeks ago, Pohlad, proud but exhausted, signed a letter of intent.

None of this means girders are about to be sunk into the St. Paul tundra. The legislature still has to OK a change in the St. Paul sales tax even if the voters approve. It then would have to vote $108 million in matching funds. State lawmakers profess zero interest in doing that, reflecting the attitude of multitudes of Minnesotans.

You hear even less enthusiasm from that swashbuckling apostle of self-reliance, Gov. Jesse Ventura, who snarls at spending public money for the convenience of millionaires. "They," he says, "can build their own stadiums."

But the most intriguing part of the vote today is the likelihood that St. Paul will shrug off a chance to grab the sunlight of big-league baseball after living in Minneapolis's shadow all these years.

Clearly, the old animosities don't burn as hotly as they used to since the days when a St. Paul family is said to have completely disinherited a luckless son who married a woman from Minneapolis. This is 1999. The cities have cross-pollinated corporately. New immigrants have changed the face and colors of old neighborhoods. Tens of thousands of Hmongs, Hispanics, and Vietnamese never heard of a rivalry. Some of the old settlers don't care about it.

The vote will probably be no easy victory for antistadium forces. Stadium crusaders are plowing heavy money into the last days of campaigning. Coleman is door-knocking tirelessly. His alliance is backed by heavy lobbying from Twin Cities TV outlets and the editorial pages of both the St. Paul and Minneapolis newspapers.

All of which makes this vote the latest telling battleground between the sports industry and protesting taxpayers - and a barometer of whatever rivalries remain between two old siblings.

A Twins snapshot


* Is America's second coldest city, averaging 45 degrees F.

* Has more retail outlets in a four-block area than any other US city.

* Was founded to process grain and still remains the headquarters of Pillsbury, General Mills, and Cargill.

St. Paul

*Celebrates its 150th anniversary this year as the capital of Minnesota.

*Is the birthplace of the commercially produced shopping bag, invented in 1916 by grocer Walter Deubner.

*Is the former home of Zachary Taylor, Dred Scott, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The Twin Cities

*Invented Cream of Wheat, HMOs, and Wheaties.

*Has more black professionals per capita than any metro area in the US.

*Is second to New York in per-capita attendance at theater and arts events.

Sources: Greater Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Association, St. Paul City Guide, City of St. Paul, and City of Minneapolis

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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