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Judge rules Twins can leave Metrodome after this season

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A judge has ruled in favor of the Minnesota Twins in their lawsuit over their lease for the Metrodome. The team argued that the terms of the lease end in 2006, which will give the Twins more leverage in their quest for a new stadium. (MPR file photo)
A Hennepin County judge has ruled that the Minnesota Twins don't have to play in the Metrodome beyond the 2006 season. The ruling gives Twins owner Carl Pohlad greater flexibility to move his team even though no other city is courting them. While Twins officials say they want to stay in Minnesota, the court's decision increases pressure on state lawmakers to approve funding for a new stadium for the team.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Hennepin County District Court Judge Charles Porter's ruling basically says the Twins' lease at the Metrodome expired in 2003 and the team can leave at the end of the upcoming season. Twins attorney Roger Magnuson says team officials are pleased with the ruling but he says it doesn't mean the team intends to pull up stakes and move. He says the decision helps make the case that the Metrodome is no longer a good fit for the team.

"What this does is take away the illusion some people had that somehow there will be an intervention and some metaphysical right will be created to keep the Twins long-term in the Metrodome even if it is unsuitable. And the judge made clear that that's not true and we're simply here on a season-by-season basis," Magnuson said.

The lawsuit stems from a 1998 lease agreement between the Twins and their landlord, the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission. The Twins maintained the lease expired in 2003. The Sports Facilities Commission argued that the lease was extended because the Twins continued to to play in the dome and receive game revenue. The 1998 agreement prevented Major League Baseball from shutting down the team in 2001.

Corey Ayling, the attorney for the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, is still studying the ruling and says he isn't sure if the commission will appeal it. While Ayling says officials are disappointed with the decision, he says there are some bright spots. He says the Twins will be bound to continue playing in the dome if they sell tickets or start advertising for 2007 season. Ayling says the commission also has other legal avenues if the Twins threaten to leave. He says they'll consider every legal option to ensure that the team stays in the state.

"The commission's charge is to preserve this asset for the Minnesota fan and we'll take all measures necessary to keep the Twins in Minnesota. In the long run that will mean a new stadium. In the short run, the commission will continue to enforce the Twins obligations and also Major League Baseball's obligations to have a Minnesota franchise," according to Ayling.

The ruling ratchets up pressure for state lawmakers to resolve the stadium dilemma at the Capitol. The team has lobbied the Legislature to approve a stadium funding package for the past decade. Gov. Pawlenty's spokesman, Brian McClung, says the ruling reinforces the governor's belief that the Metrodome is not a long-term option for the Twins.

"The governor has said for months that frankly the Twins are not going to stay in the Metrodome for much longer so if the people of Minnesota believe the Twins are an amenity that should be kept, as the governor does, then it's time to find a reasonable way to solve this stadium issue," the spokesman said.

Prior to the ruling, Pawlenty met with team officials, state lawmakers and members of the Hennepin County Board to discuss a new stadium funding plan for the Twins. The group is hopeful that the Twins and the Hennepin County Board can strike a deal similar to the one reached last year. The deal involved a county-wide sales tax increase to help fund a $478 million stadium in downtown Minneapolis. The plan required approval from lawmakers, but the Legislature didn't act and the agreement expired at the end of last year.

What complicates things is that the delay added another $30 million to the price tag, which neither Hennepin County officials nor the team are willing to pay. Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum also insists that no state money go to the ballpark.

Before the ruling came out, Sviggum said he was hopeful that lawmakers would vote on a deal this session.

"The bottom line, I think, it's very important that legislators stand accountable for their vote and not have this hidden rhetoric, not have this hid in committees. You come forward on the House and Senate floors and have votes up or down," Sviggum said.

Sviggum and the other legislative leaders say they intend to canvas rank-and-file lawmakers to see if there is enough support to take up the issue this session. But the upcoming election may complicate matters. Every state lawmaker and Gov. Pawlenty are up for election this year and there may be some uneasiness about helping the Twins' billionaire owner pay for a new stadium so close to the election.