Twins don't have to play in Metrodome beyond 2006

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The Minnesota Twins don't have to play in the Metrodome beyond the 2006 season, a judge ruled Monday in a decision that could increase pressure on lawmakers to approve financing for a new ballpark.

Hennepin County District Judge Charles Porter sided with the baseball team in a lawsuit against its public landlord. The ruling gives franchise owner Carl Pohlad more power to move his team, although no city is publicly courting the Twins.

Porter ruled that the Twins' lease expired in 2003.

Twins attorney Roger Magnuson said the team wants to stay.

"The purpose of this was not simply to clear the way for getting out of town," he said. "The Twins have been trying every possible way to get a suitable venue."

But the ruling makes clear, he said, that the lease is "freely terminable at the end of any season."

The lawsuit revolved around a 1998 use agreement requiring the team to play in the Metrodome. The lawsuit said the agreement expired in 2003, and subsequent talks on a new deal haven't resulted in an agreement. The Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission argued that the team's continued play in the Metrodome and acceptance of revenue effectively kept the use agreement in force.

The 1998 agreement was the primary tool used by the commission to fend off a Major League Baseball proposal in 2001 to fold the Twins.

Commission Chairman Roy Terwilliger said it was too soon to decide on an appeal. The commission's lawyer, Corey Ayling, said he thinks the Twins still could trigger a 2007 playing obligation by their actions.

"If the Twins do take steps to sell tickets and reserve dates, we will define that as a renewal of the current arrangement to play ball in the Metrodome under the current terms," Ayling said.

The ruling came hours after Twins officials met with leading lawmakers about their stalled stadium plan.

After the 90-minute meeting at the governor's mansion, top Democratic-Farmer-Labor and Republican party lawmakers said they would poll legislators on the issue ahead of the session that starts next month.

"The homework assignment is for legislative leaders to go back to their caucuses and see what the level of support is," said Brian McClung, a spokesman for Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

McClung said the ruling adds urgency to the stadium debate.

"Governor Pawlenty has said all along that the Metrodome is not a long-term solution for the Twins," he said. "This ruling reinforces that."

After a decade of trying but failing to pass a workable stadium plan, the Twins are mulling whether to approach the 2006 Legislature with another proposal.

Last year, the Twins teamed with Hennepin County on a $478 million proposal that didn't require state funding. The partners needed state approval to raise the county sales tax without a voter referendum.

The Legislature didn't vote on the proposal, and the year's delay has added another $30 million to the proposal's costs. The lawmakers said the state wouldn't cover that cost; Jerry Bell, president of the Twins' parent company, said he didn't anticipate the team would foot the bill. either.

House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, said the 2005 bill had the support of 69 House members, enough to guarantee passage if it came to a vote. The DFL-led Senate has been more receptive to stadium bills.

"From our point of view, education and health care are infinitely more important, but we're certainly willing to do some work on this issue as well," said House Minority Leader Matt Entenza, DFL-St. Paul.