MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- The last time the Twins led their division in late August, they were in the midst of a worst-to-first fairy tale, improving from last place in 1990 to World Series champs in 1991.
This August, the Twins could suffer a reversal of fortune, going from first to worst: first place to worst case.
The Major League Baseball Players Association has set a strike date of Friday, the day the Twins begin a series in Oakland. Negotiations continue, but for now baseball is headed for a strike that could cut short the Twins' remarkable season or at least delay their playoff run.
Or, theoretically, it could kill off the Twins.
"I think a strike could end Twins baseball in Minnesota," Kent Hrbek said. "That's my figuring. And I think that stinks."
Hrbek was an important part of that worst-to-first team. Now he surveys the baseball landscape from a unique perspective. He is a Minnesota native, a ring-wearing former Twin, a former Major League Baseball Players Association member, a current Twins fan and the father of Twins fans.
"This is no fun," he said. "And it's all getting magnified because of what the team is doing this year. A buddy of mine was in Texas, and he said they could care less if they strike. It's a little different around here."
Then Hrbek expressed a view never heard from current players: that it's time for the union to ensure the survival of the game in places like Minnesota.
"They always pride themselves on having such a good union," Hrbek said. "They're proud of how strong it is and what they've done for the players. But it might be time for them to step back and say, 'Hey, we've got a lot more problems than football and basketball.'
"Maybe it's time for them to step back and do something to make ends meet, to make everybody happy. Because they're ticking off a lot of people, and without the people, you don't have a game."
Gene Larkin's hit won the 1991 World Series. He, like Hrbek, lives in the Twin Cities, follows the current team and is raising Twins fans.
He, like Hrbek, said it's up to the players to ensure the survival of the game.
"I love watching the Twins, but there aren't many other teams I'm interested in seeing," Larkin said. "And when someone who's as passionate about the game as I am says that, you know there's something wrong. There just aren't many good teams, and that's because of the game's financial structure."
Larkin was referring to baseball's lack of a rule that limits spending on salaries. The result has been that teams in markets where revenue is especially high -- usually because of lucrative TV contracts or high stadium revenues -- spend much more on salaries than other teams do. Owners want a rule that limits spending; players don't.
The players have dominated labor negotiations since 1972, leading to a system in which the average player makes $2.38 million, and Rangers shortstop Alex Rodriguez signed a contract worth $252 million -- plus bonuses.
"If they go on strike and the owners call their bluff, I think the onus is on the players," Larkin said. "I think the owners could care less. I think they're willing to take a hit for a year or two, to fix their game.
"The players can't take that. They can't make this kind of money doing something else. They're also the ones out in public, where they get the dirty looks. That wears on you."
Hrbek worries that a strike could bring to bear the doomsday scenarios that have confronted the Twins in the past 10 months.
Last November, Commissioner Bud Selig announced that the sport would eliminate two teams under its "contraction" plan. Those teams were later revealed to be the Twins and the Montreal Expos.
The Twins were targeted because of their low revenues, stemming from their revenue-limiting lease agreement and lack of cash-producing amenities at the Metrodome. Contraction was delayed by a local district court, which ruled that the Twins would have to play in the Metrodome through at least the 2003 season.
In the last legislative session, the Twins' six-year push to win taxpayer support for a new stadium resulted in historic votes in the House and Senate to approve financing for a $330 million ballpark.
A strike would threaten:
--The 2003 season, as well as the end of the 2002 season. Hawkish owners such as the Texas Rangers' Tom Hicks and the San Diego Padres' John Moores said this week that if there is a strike, many owners would be willing to shut down the game for a year to reach a favorable arrangement with the players. In the worst-case scenario for the Twins, a strike would wipe out the 2003 season and baseball would eliminate the Twins before the game returned to the field.
--The Twins' ability to pursue a stadium deal. Last week, Sen. Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, the Senate sponsor of Twins' stadium legislation, wrote a letter to Twins union representative Denny Hocking, saying the threat of a strike by the players union "has all but dissolved the public's desire to contribute to a new stadium." Selig has stressed many times that the only hope for the Twins' long-term survival is for them to secure a new stadium.
--The Twins' roster. If a strike ended the 2002 season but was settled before the 2003 season began without drastically changing the financial structure of the game, Twins owner Carl Pohlad might be tempted to cut player costs.
The Twins' payroll is $41 million. To keep the current roster together next season could cost $60 million.
During the last strike, in 1994-95, Pohlad decided to cut player costs. The result: The Twins had one of baseball's lowest payrolls and worst records from 1995 through 2000.
The Twins return to the Metrodome on Tuesday for a three-game series against the Seattle Mariners.
Hrbek, Larkin and Kirby Puckett -- the last Twin to be inducted into the Hall of Fame and a team vice president -- all said that baseball needs to be on the field when the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks arrives.
"A work stoppage would be the worst thing in the world," Puckett said. "Our nation is at war, our economy is bad. We need to let baseball go on and touch the lives of people in this country the way it always has. And we need baseball to survive in Minnesota."
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