MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- A judge delayed his decision Thursday on whether to extend a court order that prevents the Minnesota Twins from being eliminated.
In a lawsuit that could block the decision by baseball owners to get rid of two teams before next season, the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission obtained a temporary restraining order last week against the team and major league baseball requiring the Twins to play at the Metrodome in 2002, the final year of their lease.
Hennepin County District Judge Harry Crump held a hearing Thursday on whether to issue a temporary injunction against the Twins and baseball pending a trial. After 90 minutes of oral arguments from lawyers, Crump said he is likely to rule within a couple of days.
"Once the franchise takes wing, we can't get the remedy we need," said Corey Ayling, a lawyer for the Facilities Commission.
Baseball owners voted 28-2 last week to eliminate two teams but did not identify them. Montreal and Minnesota are the leading candidates, with Florida, Oakland and Tampa Bay also possibilities.
The team's lease requires it to play in the Metrodome through 2002. In determining whether to issue the injunction, the judge must consider whether the Facilities Commission is likely to win a trial, whether it would sustain irreparable harm if the injunction isn't issued, whether the Twins and baseball would be damaged, and whether the public interest is served.
"All of a sudden, what was a private enterprise is now a public trust," said Roger Magnuson, the lawyer who represented the Twins and baseball commissioner Bud Selig.
"The government does not have the right to mandate the continued operation of a business, even if the public likes the services offered by that enterprise," Magnuson wrote in papers submitted to the court.
The Facilities Commission, whose members are appointed by the Minnesota governor and the Minneapolis city council, says their lease with the team requires specific performance. The Twins began playing in the Metrodome in 1982, but haven't been required to pay rent for the regular season in more than a decade.
"If the team ceases to play major league professional baseball games for any reason, the team shall have breached this agreement," the lease says, "and will be liable for such remedies as may be available to the commission at law ... including, but not limited to, injunctive relief."
If Crump issues the injunction, it may be impossible to eliminate the Twins for next year, since it's unclear when a trial would take place. Selig wants to pick the two teams to or elimination by the end of November and wants to complete the process by Dec. 15.
"This isn't a dollar-or-cents thing," Ayling said, adding the Twins are an object of civic pride and community interest and bring national exposure to the state.
The 30 courtroom seats and the jury box were filled with fans and media, and another dozen or so people clogged the aisles. Among those attending were Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton and Clark Griffith, son of former Twins owner Calvin Griffith.
"We all feel the hurt if the Twins leave," Magnuson said. But, he said, "You can't compel people to play ball."
Magnuson argued that Crump would be overstepping his bounds to extend the order. Ayling said without an extension the Twins could be eliminated or moved at any time.
Ayling was aided in court by Alan Gilbert, chief deputy of Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch, who has threatened his own lawsuit against baseball if the Twins are eliminated or moved.
Ayling and Gilbert cited a 1977 ruling involving the New York Jets and a 1983 case against New York Yankees. When those teams tried to play games outside their regular venues, courts blocked them, saying games in other places would damage the city's quality of life and cost it money.
Magnuson said those cases shouldn't apply because this dispute was over whether a team played, not where it played.
Lawyers for the Twins and baseball also claimed it was premature for the court to consider an injunction because the Twins have not yet been formally chosen for elimination.
Magnuson said it was ironic that the public bodies were fighting to have the Twins deemed a public interest when the team has consistently been denied taxpayer subsidies for a new ballpark on the grounds that they are a private business.
Commission lawyers claimed in papers given to the court that a store could be ordered to stay open if it tried to break its lease and relocate.
"In cases of shopping center leases, where a vacant anchor store damages the center as a whole, the payment of rent cannot justly compensate the landlord for the harm caused by 'going dark,"' the commission lawyers wrote.
The plan to eliminate two teams also is under attack from the Major League Baseball Players Association, which filed a grievance claiming that it violates their labor contract, which expired last week. Lawyers for the owners and the union are expected to speak Friday with arbitrator Shyam Das, who will hear the case, probably in early December.
Brian Bakst may be reached at bbakst(at)ap.org.
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