ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Baseball's plan to eliminate two teams by next season was dealt a severe blow Friday when Minnesota courts put off until Dec. 27 an appeal of the injunction that forces the Twins to play in 2002.
First, the Minnesota Supreme Court refused to grant the request by baseball and the Twins for a speedy review, sending the case to the Court of Appeals.
Later in the day, the appellate court set the hearing date for well after mid-December, which many baseball officials have said is the deadline for deciding whether the major leagues will have 30 or 28 teams next year. Baseball had hoped to hold a dispersal draft of players by Dec. 15.
"It just gets more and more troublesome with each passing day," said players' union head Donald Fehr, who has filed a grievance to stop contraction. "You don't have schedules, you can't sell tickets, there's uncertainty in the market."
Baseball and the Twins had asked for the hearing to take place before Dec. 7, citing the need for teams to make key decisions before Dec. 20, the last day to offer contracts to unsigned players on rosters.
Commissioner Bud Selig, who has avoided setting an exact deadline, did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment. The new date was "not insurmountable" for baseball, said Sandy Alderson, executive vice president of operations in the commissioner's office.
"Now that we have something more definitive, it's something we'll take another look at next week," he said.
In Montreal, the Expos moved forward with plans to play another season, agreeing Friday to a one-year lease to play at Olympic Stadium. The deal, however, does allow the team to cancel the contract unilaterally.
And in Washington, Rep. John Conyers Jr. asked Selig to provide audited financial records for the past three years on the Twins, Expos and other teams, along with all of baseball's studies for franchise elimination and relocation.
The Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, the Twins' landlord at the Metrodome, obtained the injunction from Hennepin County District Judge Harry Seymour Crump on Nov. 16, 10 days after owners voted to fold two franchises. Although the teams haven't been picked, the Twins and Expos are the likely targets because they have low revenue and have not secured government funding for new ballparks.
In a two-page order, Minnesota Chief Justice Kathleen A. Blatz wrote that baseball's lawyers "have not demonstrated that this case requires the extraordinary procedure of immediate determination in the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, to preserve the opportunity for further review by this court if warranted, review in the Court of Appeals should be expedited on a schedule to be adopted by that court in its discretion."
Later Friday, the Court of Appeals ordered the MSFC to submit its reply brief by Dec. 13 and for baseball to hand in its rebuttal four days later. The case will be heard by Chief Judge Edward Toussaint Jr., Judge Robert H. Schumacher and Judge Roger M. Klaphake.
"We don't think we have anything to fear by a review by the appellate courts," MSFC executive director Bill Lester said. "We're very confident the lower court decision will stand."
Pitchers and catchers are scheduled to starting reporting to spring training on Feb. 15.
"If we make it to February," Lester said earlier in the day, "we're home free for 2002."
While the Twins' lease at the Metrodome runs through 2002, the Expos' lease at Olympic Stadium had lapsed.
Expos spokesman P.J. Loyello said the new lease expires Nov. 30, 2002, but said both sides agreed to give the team an opt-out clause. Sylvie Bastien, spokeswoman for the government board that operates Olympic Stadium, confirmed the lease was signed but wouldn't give details.
Meanwhile, Conyers asked Selig for audited financial records for 1999, 2000 and 2001 for Minnesota, Montreal, Florida, Tampa Bay, Oakland and Kansas City "along with any available comparison of these financial records to overall major league baseball figures." He asked that revenue sharing figures be listed separately.
Conyers is the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, which has scheduled a hearing Thursday on baseball's antitrust exemption. Selig and Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura are among the witnesses.
Conyers also asked baseball to provide "minutes, notes or other records" of the Nov. 6 owners meeting "along with any memorandum or other supporting materials provided to the owners." He also asked Selig for all studies done by baseball in the last five years on contraction and relocation, and for any studies on territorial rights to San Jose, Calif.; New Jersey; and Washington.
He gave Selig a deadline of no later than Tuesday morning for the materials.
Ventura plans to tell Congress not to sympathize with owners' claims of big losses, saying they brought it on themselves by paying large salaries.
"There's been nothing on their side to curtail their spending," Ventura said. "Yet they're crying out hard luck and all this. When you have a business, you don't pay your employees more money than you take in."