IRVING, Texas (AP) -- Major league players expected to negotiate a new labor contract during the offseason. They just never thought the elimination of teams would be an issue.
"All of the discussions we had about it previously were just that it was something they had maybe talked about it, and it was nothing really that was serious," said Texas pitcher Rick Helling, the AL player representative. "It took all of us by surprise."
At the same hotel where the players' association executive board began its annual meeting Tuesday, an arbitrator heard the first testimony in the union's grievance against the plan to fold two teams before next season.
Gene Orza, associate general counsel and the union's No. 2 official, was the only person who testified Tuesday before arbitrator Shyam Das. Orza refused to comment on his testimony, which lasted more than three hours and was scheduled to resume Wednesday.
After testimony Wednesday, the grievance hearing moves to New York on Monday for four more days. The sides have agreed to additional hearing dates in December if they are needed.
Owners voted Nov. 6, just two days after the World Series ended, to eliminate two teams. The teams haven't been named, but Montreal and Minnesota are the leading candidates.
The players' union claims the contraction vote violated the terms of their labor contract, which expired Nov. 7 but remains in effect.
"Basically, what it comes down to is we feel they're obligated to negotiate with us over contraction, and they don't feel they are," Helling said.
There are about 50 players at the union's meeting, the largest gathering of players since the World Series.
"Nobody can figure out what they (owners) are thinking, and we're not too sure they know what they are thinking," Detroit Tigers pitcher Danny Patterson said. "This union sticks together. We're not saying we are going to strike, but we're going to fight it."
Players don't want contraction to be the overriding focus of their meeting. But they know that until it is settled, there can't be much progress toward a labor deal.
"You have to know one way or another because they intertwine," Helling said. "To get a collective bargaining agreement done, we have to know how many teams will be playing. Obviously, we're against contraction. We are going to do everything we can to stop it."
Cubs outfielder Michael Tucker acknowledges there are other issues on the table, but that players realize what a pertinent issue contraction is. And they expect it to take a long time to settle the issues.
"Any time you want to get things done the right way, it's not going to be something that's going to be settled in a hurry," Tucker said. "It's something that's going to be time-consuming."
But time may be running out for baseball to eliminate two teams in time for the 2002 season.
The Minnesota Supreme Court last week refused a request by baseball and the Twins for a speedy review of an injunction that forces the team to play next season. The court set a hearing for Dec. 27, two weeks after the deadline for contraction under commissioner Bud Selig's original plan.
Selig has said the elimination of teams will happen, but has acknowledged the timetable is out of his control.
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