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Contraction pulled officially off table

MLB calls it possible for 2003; Rays say they're not in danger.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 6, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- Major League Baseball pushed contraction back a year, but top Tampa Bay officials say the Rays won't be shoved onto the endangered franchises list.

Losing court battles and a race with the calendar, commissioner Bud Selig said Tuesday baseball would wait until 2003 but remained "fully committed" to eliminating at least two teams.

The delay could provide Minnesota interests time to work out a sale and stadium deal that would save the Twins, and by Tuesday night there already was media speculation the Rays would be targeted next to pair with Montreal.

Rays managing general partner Vince Naimoli said it won't happen.

"I am not concerned that the Devil Rays might be a candidate a year from now," Naimoli said Tuesday. "I firmly believe we will not be because of the positioning of our revenues.

"I do think the subject of contraction is very important and must proceed. We're totally supportive of contraction and believe it is one of many solutions to attain competitive balance and economic parity. While I certainly grieve for the area's fans who might be contracted, I'm very glad the fans in our area will not suffer."

Commissioner Bud Selig said economics of the coming season could play a large role in the contraction equation. Chief operating officer John McHale Jr. said the Rays have a chance to control their future.

"We have a challenge to continue to show our partners in this game that we will, on a long-term basis, generate the revenues required to be successful," McHale said. "I don't think this (announcement) creates any more urgency or puts any more pressure on us than we have put on ourselves to begin with."

The Rays believe they have two major factors in their favor:

Baseball officials have said the primary criteria for contraction is a lack of local revenue, generated by ticket sales, radio and TV rights, sponsorships, signage and other such items.

The Rays, in figures released in December, ranked 21st out of 30 teams in total local revenue. They were 16th without factoring in gate receipts, which is one category that can vary significantly from year to year.

"We're very grateful to our fans and sponsors in that our revenue ranks us in the upper two-thirds of baseball and consequently we have never been a subject for contraction," Naimoli said.

Though some major sponsorships and suite contracts are up for renewal, McHale said the Rays expect to retain their middle-of-the-pack ranking. Season-ticket sales and renewals, following the industry trend, appear to be down only slightly from last season's estimated 9,500.

The principal issue stopping contraction this year was the Twins lease at the Metrodome, and the Rays have a much longer, and apparently stronger, lease for Tropicana Field.

The Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, which operates the Metrodome, sued to force the Twins to honor the one remaining year on their lease. A local judge issued an injunction forcing the team to play the 2002 season, the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the order, and the state Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal.

Naimoli said the Rays lease, which runs through the 2027 season, would be "a great deterrent to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays being a candidate for contraction." So, too, he said, would state attorney general Bob Butterworth, who has taken MLB to court once on this matter.

Selig, in a statement, said the "current economic circumstance" makes contraction "absolutely inevitable as certain franchises simply cannot compete and cannot generate enough revenues to survive."

He also made it clear the threat of contraction, possibly by up to four teams, would be a major issue in the labor negotiations with the players union.

The union vigorously opposes contraction and filed a grievance shortly after the Nov. 6 announcement, contending the issue must be negotiated. The owners say they must bargain only the effects of contraction, such as player dispersal. The arbitrator's ruling may well determine what happens next.

CAMP ROSTER GROWS: Seven players from the farm system, including first-round draft picks Rocco Baldelli and Josh Hamilton, have been invited to major-league spring training.

Hamilton, the top overall pick in 1999, and Baldelli, the Rays' first pick in 2000, will be joined by outfielder Carl Crawford, whose stock has risen rapidly and is becoming one of the organization's most promising prospects.

Also invited were left-handed pitcher Jon Switzer (the No. 2 pick in 2001), infielder Jorge Cantu, catcher Paul Hoover and pitcher Travis Harper.

SPRING SCHEDULE: The Rays added a March 29 home game against Minnesota to their spring schedule. First pitch is set for for 1:05.

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