After the terrorist attacks of September, 2001, baseball was widely credited with helping a grieving America “get back to normal” (or, really, have something else to watch on TV besides more replayed news clips of horrible building explosions). The World Series that year was an all-time classic, with one team representing a city targeted by those attacks, culminating in a thrilling Game 7. Baseball’s greatest ever super-tall pitcher, Randy Johnson, got the last four Yankees out after throwing 104 pitches one day before.
And, exactly two days later, MLB owners voted 28-2 to kill two baseball teams because those owners wanted more free taxpayer money. (Say what you like about then-commissioner Bud Selig, he had a sixth sense for how to do almost the least appealing thing in the most public way at the worst possible moment.) Those two teams were the Montreal Expos and Minnesota Twins.
The plan was stalled on November 16 by Hennepin County judge Harry Crump, who essentially ruled that since the Twins had a lease to play in the Metrodome during 2002, they were obligated to do so, and MLB couldn’t say a dang thing about it. Crump’s decision cleverly mentioned that the intangible community benefits of pro sports were part of the reason given for funding the Dome in the first place. No backsies!
Years later, another judge would decide that the Twins’ lease had finally expired, and the team could leave in 2007 if it wished. But by then, the Twins were actually a good team, and pushing through a stadium bill in the legislature an easier sell. (Necessary because no public referendum on stadium financing ever passes.) Judge Crump had, essentially, saved the Twins.
Why Did MLB Want The Twins (And Expos) Dead?
As Sean McAdam put it at the time: “In a word: leverage... For the first time in recent memory, owners can make the Players Association come to them to bargain for the 50 jobs that would be lost in contraction. That’s not insignificant for the owners, who have lost at nearly every turn at the labor table. Suddenly, the Players Association would be put on the defensive. That alone would change the dynamics of the upcoming negotiations toward a new collective barganing agreement.”
Both team owners voted against the MLB contraction action, and both did so in a naked display of thorough PR-pimping; they were the ones who volunteered their teams to get axed in the first place. Expos owner Jeff Loria, the answer to “can any human soul resemble a bleeding hemorrhoid dump,” was mad that the good people of Montreal weren’t buying his bullhonky about how a new stadium would allow him to spend more on keeping young talent. They suspected the art dealer wanted a new building to increase the team’s sale price. (And they were right; Loria later did exactly this in D.C. and Miami. If MLB does ever expand anytime soon, expect Loria to slime around like unwashed toe crack fungus which achieved semi-sentience, wanting a new city to build him a stadium for a team he’ll promptly sell. Art dealers, folks, not a nice crowd.)
Twins owner Carl Pohlad, in slightly more comprehensible human fashion, was simply being petulant that Minnesotans hadn’t voted to give him a new building after he bought the team from Cal Griffith to keep it in Minnesota. Pohlad, who started his fortune foreclosing on farmers during the Great Depression, wanted more gratitude than the simple purchase of tickets/merch (which went down when slashed-payroll Twins teams were losing badly).
Were either or both of the teams losing money? Difficult to say. They both claimed they were. But baseball teams are not publicly-traded corporations, they’re under no legal obligations to open their books, and to my knowledge none ever has. Recently, at BeyondTheBoxScore, a lawyer explained how teams have many, many ways of shifting their money around legally for tax purposes, so that statements of income and loss might only apply to one aspect of that team’s operations. (It’s why the players’ union has asked for, and almost certainly will not get, a full breakdown of league finances in current short-season negotiations.)
Incidentally, there are varying accounts of whether or not Pohlad really wanted to be done with the team (for a $150mil MLB severance check), or if he was simply in “don’t make me kill this dog” hard-bargaining mode. Bud Selig later said that “Carl wanted to stay in Minneapolis” and “there were owners who believed that contraction might help. I wasn’t of that particular view.” Yet in 2002, Selig had stated “there has never been an owner or a club that has been negative about contraction in any way.” (The Brewers’ owner, Selig’s daughter, voted for contraction.) Jack Moore’s thorough Baseball Prospectus assessment of the whole mess pointed out that the Brewers also stood to gain new revenue if Minnesota were considered in their media market.
How Did The Rest Of The Twins Respond?
Tom Kelly (who’d just retired) thought contraction talk was a ruse. Harmon Killebrew called team president Dave St. Peter in dismay, which St. Peter said was “the most difficult phone call I ever had.” Terry Ryan was offered the Blue Jays’ GM job; he not only turned it down, but no other front-office employee left, either.
Understandably, Twins players (who’d been in the division-title hunt for most of 2001) considered the contraction threat an insult, and used it as motivation in 2002, if there’s any truth to the idea that professional baseball players whose future salaries are based on past performance need motivation. An excellent Bob Nightengale article from the Target Field All-Star Game period (which for some reason only loads on my phone, not my desktop) quotes Torii Hunter:
When we got to spring training, we wanted to prove the world wrong. We said, “Let’s have one more push. If this is going to be our last year, let’s make it a good one.”
We played mad at the world all year. I don’t know how many fights we almost got into. We didn’t care. We were angry. We weren’t going to let baseball just get rid of us.
And we proved the world wrong.
Minnesota not only won the division, but advanced past the first playoff round, which the team hasn’t managed since. “For us, it was so gratifying,” LaTroy Hawkins remembered. Eddie Guardado called that team “the most special group of guys I’ve ever been a part of.”
Commissioner Selig’s response? Minnesota’s 2002 success was an “aberration.”
Judge Crump’s Decision Process, Its Aftermath, And His Insane Resume
Years later, Nightengale writes, Crump was somewhat bemused by the impact of his ruling. “To me, it was an easy decision... Really, it took me only 20 minutes. It was just another day of work. But of all of the tens of thousands of cases I’ve had, people still bring it up all the time.”
In 2002, Crump said “I can tell you that I treated this decision like any other case. I reviewed all my submissions, listened to all sides and, since I’m a religious man, I prayed for the wisdom and the courage to make the right decision.” Although he stopped attending Twins games after his son, a baseball fan, died in a 1994 Christmas Day car crash. “I just haven’t had it in me to go... But I do understand about the deep feelings the game engenders.”
The honorable judge is retired now, but he’s still officially an officer of the court, so his resume is listed on the mn.gov site. It’s the kind of thing that makes you want to edit your resume by changing terms like “written/verbal communications ability” to “NOTHING, I am a FAILURE.” Under education? A pharmacy degree, engineering associate’s degree, and oh, yeah, passed the bar in two states. Under experience? Judge, labor arbitrator, college instructor, utility commissioner, chair of the local Red Cross, you name it. He’s gotten an award from President Bush for saving someone’s life on the ski slopes with CPR (and, of course, is a licensed ski instructor/1000-yard long-range rifle target shooting champion). He’s even fixed racecars and been a small-engine stunt pilot.
Ultimately, Carl Pohlad and Bud Selig got what they wanted; a new Twins stadium. (Although one with an ironclad lease which prohibits Pohlad’s sons from profiting by sellling the team anytime before 2030.) As Moore put it:
The threats of contracting the Twins were never about Minneapolis’s “growth potential” or any of Selig’s typical economic concerns. Those threats were about bullying the people of Minneapolis and creating a culture of fear outside of the untouchable cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. And in that sense, even though the contraction plan never went through, the gambit worked perfectly.
Still, Judge Crump’s decision has had repercussions elsewhere. The Rays’ owner would love to bail town (or force a new stadium, or both) but can’t until 2028. Those pesky leases! (Naturally, Minnesota court rulings have no legal standing in Florida, but I’d bet the city of St. Pete paid attention to Minnesota’s old Metropolitian Sports Facilities Commision and how they argued their case.)
And whatever one thinks of Target Field, I’m personally grateful to Judge Crump for saving the Twins. Also for having a totally amazing resume. I want to show that resume to anybody who ever cruelly (if fairly) said I haven’t achieved anything important in my life. Well, compared to Judge Crump, neither have they.