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Expos, Twins Seem Doomed

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tim Wallach was a five-time all-star with the Montreal Expos, a third baseman who averaged 18 home runs and 81 runs batted in from 1982-92, but the team never retired his uniform number. No offense taken.

“I think they’re going to retire all the numbers, from what it sounds like,” said Wallach, now the Angels’ Class-A Rancho Cucamonga manager.

Major league baseball did not specify which teams would be eliminated under a contraction plan that was approved Tuesday, but the Expos and Minnesota Twins are prime targets.

The 41-year-old Twins won World Series championships in 1987 and 1991 and had Hall of Fame players such as Rod Carew, Kirby Puckett and Dave Winfield. The 33-year-old Expos never won a National League pennant but were competitive for many years and, until recently, had one of baseball’s most productive farm systems.

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“It would be a shame because 20 years ago, Montreal was a real good organization,” Wallach said. “It would be disappointing. To play somewhere for a long time and to think they’ll be gone ... 20 years from now people will ask who I played for, and that team won’t be there.”

Montreal, which has had three owners in seven years, finished last in the NL East this season and had baseball’s lowest attendance--the Expos, who came within a Rick Monday home run of beating the Dodgers in the 1981 NL championship series, attracted 619,451 fans to outdated Olympic Stadium, an average of 7,647 a game.

The franchise never recovered from the 232-day strike that cost the Expos a shot at the 1994 World Series--they had baseball’s best record when the sport shut down that August. Montreal didn’t have the financial resources to retain stars such as Pedro Martinez and Larry Walker, and fans lost interest.

The small-market Twins suffered a similar fate after their thrilling, seven-game World Series victory over Atlanta in 1991. Minnesota endured eight consecutive losing seasons from 1993-2000 and in 2000 had a major league-low payroll of $16.5 million.

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But Minnesota rebounded in 2001 when a team of virtual no-names--most of them players with less than three years of major league experience--led the AL Central for most of the first half before a second-half (30-45) slump. Still, the enthusiastic, close-knit Twins finished 85-77 and only six games behind division-winner Cleveland, which made Tuesday’s contraction vote all the more disappointing.

“We don’t need to lose our team,” center fielder Torii Hunter told the Associated Press. “We worked so hard to get where we are. Our whole team has been building and building. Now we’ve got owners who want to fold.”

The Twins have two of baseball’s best starting pitchers in right-hander Brad Radke and left-hander Eric Milton and a budding star in shortstop Cristian Guzman, one of the game’s fastest players. Veteran Manager Tom Kelly retired at the end of the season, but St. Paul native Paul Molitor seems poised to take over the club.

“If they’d done this last year at this time, I’d understand,” first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz told ESPN. “But now ... I feel we can contend for years, and it’s a shame this is going to happen. We have so many questions with no answers.”

Owner Carl Pohlad was credited with saving baseball in Minnesota when he paid $38 million for the Twins in 1984, but he has never been able to rally enough support to convince state legislators to put up public money for a new home to replace the dingy Metrodome, which the Twins share with the NFL’s Vikings.

Good faith was an issue: Pohlad’s 1997 offer to make an $82-million cash contribution for a new stadium turned out to be an offer to make an interest-bearing loan to the state, and in 1998, Pohlad threatened to sell the team to a North Carolina businessman.

Two years ago, Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor and Minnesota Wild owner Robert Naegele Jr. agreed to buy the Twins for $120 million, contingent on St. Paul and the state providing two-thirds of the funding for a new ballpark. St. Paul voters turned down the ballpark referendum, and the deal fell apart.

The Legislature this year turned down a deal under which Pohlad offered $100 million toward a $300-million stadium. As part of that plan, $100 million would be borrowed, interest-free, from excess reserves in a Workers’ Compensation fund.

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But Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura has always opposed the use of public funds to build a stadium for the private-enterprise Twins, and the threat of contraction wasn’t about to sway him Tuesday.

In an interview on public radio Tuesday, Ventura told critical callers not to blame him if the Twins were eliminated.

“It’s not our fault,” Ventura said. “We are not elected to govern professional baseball.”

The Expos’ plans for a new stadium fell apart when owner Jeffrey Loria allowed a lease to expire on downtown land that had been earmarked for a new stadium, but that’s not what put baseball in Montreal on its deathbed.

“They couldn’t draw people in the old stadium, and they wouldn’t draw people in a new stadium,” said Buck Rodgers, who managed the Expos from 1985-91. “They were a cinch to be eliminated. They should have been eliminated three or four years ago. I said 10 years ago when I left, you’re not going to have a ballclub unless you get things together.”


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