Bugging Bud

Tuesday, April 23, 2002

MINNEAPOLIS -- When commissioner Bud Selig perused the standings Monday, he saw Minnesota leading the AL Central and Montreal heading the NL East.

The teams he tried to get rid of not only survived, they are among baseball's best three weeks into the season.

"People are going to have a heart attack if they see us and Montreal in the World Series," Minnesota first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz said.

Just two days after the World Series, owners voted to fold two teams, and their labor negotiators later told the players' association that the Twins and Expos were the targets. The contraction plan was stopped when a Minnesota judge issued an injunction forcing the Twins to honor their 2002 lease at the Metrodome, but Selig has vowed to eliminate two clubs by 2003.

Now there's a chance one -- or both -- could qualify for the playoffs and be eliminated a few weeks later.

"It's another ironic part of baseball, I suppose," Expos reliever Graeme Lloyd said.

With several rising stars returning from an 85-win, second-place finish last year, Minnesota's hot start is not a surprise. After a three-game sweep of the Indians over the weekend, the Twins (13-6) took over first place in the AL Central ahead of Chicago and Cleveland.

Contraction made players mad, but they insist they're not just responding to the attempt to eliminate their teams.

"This team is very focused on our own," Mientkiewicz said. "We don't need outside motivation."

Minnesota has perhaps the best defense in the majors and young hitters such as Jacque Jones and Torii Hunter, who is batting an AL-best .405. After a shaky beginning, Twins pitchers have bounced back with four straight quality starts. And the bullpen, led by lefties J.C. Romero and Eddie Guardado, has made a big contribution.

"The commissioner is going to do what he's going to do -- eliminate a couple teams," Jones said. "Maybe it's us, maybe it's not, but we can't worry about it."

Montreal bats are hot

Montreal, second in the NL in batting at .270, hasn't led its division this late since 1996 -- when it held the top spot until May 18.

"You can't afford to waste any energy on trying to stick it to those who want contraction," first baseman Lee Stevens said. "But it would be very satisfying, obviously."

Led by All-Star outfielder Vladimir Guerrero, the Expos would've had several highly sought-after players in a dispersal draft. Even if there isn't contraction, it could be the team's last season in Montreal, with a move to Washington possible.

But the Expos (11-8) have become a team to be reckoned with. After they won the last three games of a four-game series against the Mets to take a one-game lead over New York and Atlanta, the back page of New York's Daily News blared, "CONTRACT 'EM NOW!" over a photo of Mets pitcher Pedro Astacio hanging his head on the mound Sunday.

Another headline read: "Mets fall again, wish Expos would just go away."

Competing with schoolwork and a few nights of unusually warm weather on their first homestand, the Twins have had 50,007 more people come through the gates in nine games -- including a sellout opening night that was their first since 1992. Their average attendance is up to 22,934 -- nearly as high as the 23,788 average of the Selig family's Milwaukee Brewers.

Montreal is still last in the major leagues in attendance, averaging 9,331 per game and drawing 35,374 fewer from last year through 10 games.

But on Sunday the Expos did draw their largest crowd (11,672) since opening day, and attendance has increased in four straight games.

The Twins are paying attention to the plight of the Expos and other low-revenue teams.

"We're pulling for them up there in Montreal," Mientkiewicz said. "Just like we're pulling for the Marlins or K.C. You want to pull for teams in the same situation as you. We don't want anybody else to have to go through what we went through this winter."

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