WASHINGTON -- Baseball's labor agreement was especially good news for Minnesota and Washington. The Twins aren't going to disappear anytime soon, and the quest for a team in the nation's capital got a huge boost.
Under the deal, no teams can be eliminated through the 2006 season. Owners tried to fold the Montreal Expos and Minnesota Twins after last season, and commissioner Bud Selig had indicated they would try contraction again this year - with up to four teams in danger - to cut costs.
"This is great news," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said from Oakland before Friday night's game against the A's. "It will give us a chance to play baseball. If there had been a work stoppage, who knows what would have happened to this ball club?"
The Twins have defied expectations this season by running away with the American League's Central division, and recent games at the Metrodome have been well-attended.
"We have a chance to win the division," Gardenhire said. "It's been a very exciting year with some bumps in the road. This is just one of them."
However, the Twins still say a new stadium is the only way to secure the long-term future of the team.
"No labor agreement can take the place of a new stadium," Twins president Jerry Bell said. "It seems to me that the legislature's questions were dealt with. We have an agreement that will restore competitive balance to the league, and contraction is off the table, which is what they wanted."
But State Sen. Dean Johnson said a stadium is low on the list of priorities for next session.
"There's 20 major issues," Johnson said. "A ballpark will be 21st. Get in line."
Meanwhile, the owners must decide what to do with the Expos, who are owned by the 29 other clubs after Jeffrey Loria sold the team and bought the Florida Marlins. Montreal suffers from poor attendance, has only a handful of games on local TV and has little local support for a new stadium that would help make the franchise financially viable.
Enter Washington, which has been trying to lure a team since the expansion Senators moved to Texas after the 1971 season.
"I can't imagine they would have the intention of going back to Montreal next season," said Jerry Burkot, spokesman for the Virginia Baseball Club, which wants to place a team in Washington's Northern Virginia suburbs. "When it's time to make an offer, we're ready to make an offer."
The area's other major baseball group contending for a franchise, the Washington Baseball Club, is also ready to pounce. The Washington club would place a team within the borders of the District of Columbia.
"We're doing everything we can on our side to be ready to go when they are ready for us," said Fred Malek, who heads the D.C. group. "We're continuing on a site selection study. We're continuing on our financing plan."
Selig said in January that Washington was a "prime candidate" for relocation, but that the matter would not be addressed until a labor agreement was reached. The Washington groups had not realistically expected a team before 2004, but the limbo status of the Expos could speed up the process.
While other cities have expressed interest in having a team - Charlotte, Las Vegas and Portland among them - Washington would have the advantage should the owners decide to move the Expos in 2003 because it has an available major league-size stadium. Any team moving to the area would play at RFK Stadium for at least two years while a new stadium is built.
"We have a stadium that can be ready in a couple of months," Malek said.
A move would face opposition from Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who has said repeatedly that his team would suffer financially if a team were placed in Washington.
Although the Expos are no longer facing elimination, there was little rejoicing in Montreal because it is still seen as a lame duck baseball city. Team president Tony Tavares said the team will need more money to operate in 2003 because of salary increases due to its top players, making relocation even more attractive.
"There's obviously going to be a question from now on if there's going to be relocation because obviously there's not going to be contraction," Expos pitcher Javier Vazquez said. "It's tiring not being in a certain place and knowing where you're going to be, but we've been dealing with that all the years that I've been here."
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