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Players start battle over contraction

Posted: Friday, November 09, 2001

NEW YORK -- Baseball players began their fight to stop owners from eliminating two major league teams, filing a grievance claiming their labor contract was violated.

Management and the union met for about two hours Thursday, their first session since owners voted earlier in the week to get rid of two teams next year -- with Montreal and Minnesota the front-runners to disappear.

New York Mets pitcher Al Leiter and Texas pitcher Rick Helling were at the meeting, along with Detroit Tigers infielders Tony Clark and Damion Easley. The session took place on the day after the expiration of the sport's collective bargaining agreement.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig was quoted on the sport's Web site as saying the decision on which teams to eliminate may come soon.

''I honestly believe that we can get this done by the end of November,'' he was quoted as saying on mlb.com. ''Now after November is over you may come to me and say: 'What happened?' But I think that is a realistic goal.''

In Washington, Sens. Paul Wellstone and Mark Dayton, both Democrats from Minnesota, asked President Bush to support legislation that would rescind baseball's antitrust exemption.

Wellstone and Rep. John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said they will introduce legislation next week to revoke the exemption.

''Without your support, we believe it will be extremely difficult to move this legislation forward,'' Wellstone and Dayton wrote to Bush, the former controlling owner of the Texas Rangers. White House officials did not return calls seeking comment.

Players and owners declined comment on the talks, but details were confirmed by officials on both sides who spoke on the condition they not be identified.

In the grievance, filed Wednesday just hours before the labor contract ran out, the union claimed owners violated the agreement Tuesday by unilaterally deciding to cut from 30 to 28 teams next season. If the sides don't settle, the grievance would be decided by Shyam Das, baseball's permanent arbitrator.

Management lawyers maintained owners had the right to eliminate teams but conceded that particulars, such as how to disperse players on the folded franchises, must be bargained over.

Management lawyers didn't make any proposals to the union during the discussion, which dealt in generalities and not specifics, and both sides agreed it would be impossible to complete negotiations until the teams to be eliminated are identified.

In addition to the Expos and Twins, Florida, Oakland and Tampa Bay also are possibilities. Montreal has the lowest attendance in the major leagues. Minnesota owner Carl Pohlad, a close friend of baseball commissioner Bud Selig, wants to be bought out and would get a much higher price in a contraction payment from the remaining 28 teams than he would from a sale.

Lawyers for owners and players said they will get back in touch with each other next week.

In Minneapolis, a hearing scheduled Thursday on a suit by the Minnesota Sports Facilities Commission was postponed until next week. Hennepin County District Court Judge Diana Eagon has issued a temporary restraining order against the Twins and major league baseball.

The commission sued earlier this week to compel the Twins to honor their lease to play in the Metrodome, which runs through next season.

Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, would be in line to become chairman of the Judiciary Committee if Democrats regain control of the House next year.

''This is like a game of musical chairs -- two teams will be left standing and their fans will be left out in the cold,'' he said. ''This unprecedented decision is bad for the fans, bad for the players on the field and the workers and businesses at and around the stadium, bad for the minor league teams that will also be cut loose, and bad for the cities that will be forced into new and more costly bidding wars to avoid being dumped by baseball.''

Congress traditionally has been reluctant to tamper with baseball's antitrust exemption, created by a 1922 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

''Any time 30 of the wealthiest and most influential individuals get together behind closed doors and agree to reduce output, that cannot be a good thing for anyone but the monopolists,'' Conyers said. ''I will do everything in my power to see that this ill-considered decision does not stand, including introducing legislation to ensure that the full weight of the antitrust laws applies to this anticompetitive decision.''

Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, asked the Judiciary Committee to hold hearings. He worries that two minor league farm teams in Iowa -- the Expos' Clinton Lumber Kings and the Twins' Quad City River Bandits -- would be eliminated in the fallout.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said he warned Selig a few months ago, ''I don't much care what you do, but don't you try to shut down the baseball team in Minnesota or you're going to have a huge problem with me.''

The state's other senator, Democrat Kent Conrad, said Minnesota and the Twin Cities share some of the blame. Conrad's wife, Lucy Calautti, is a lobbyist for baseball owners.

''Frankly, they didn't show much interest in doing the things necessary to save that franchise,'' Conrad said.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, said he would look at the legislation.

''He thinks that major league baseball should take a long look at the concerns that the Senate has expressed,'' spokesman Jay Carson said.



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