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State demands contraction data

Attorney General Bob Butterworth aimed a high hard one at baseball owners Tuesday, using his subpoena power to head off possible elimination of either Florida team.

State antitrust lawyers demanded documents and sworn statements from commissioner Bud Selig and owners of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Florida Marlins, who reportedly joined in a 28-2 vote at an owners meeting to drop two teams before next season. Selig has not identified the teams, but they are believed to be the Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos.

"We want to know what happened on Nov. 6 behind those closed doors when those 30 wealthy owners voted to contract teams, and perhaps relocate some other teams," he said. "We know Florida may be affected. I don't feel Florida's out of the woods here at all, and we want to know what those persons conspired about."

A seven-page civil subpoena seeks extensive financial data on the Rays and Marlins by Dec. 13, including profit-and-loss statements and direct or indirect benefits of "contraction," baseball's term for reducing the number of teams.

John Higgins, the Devil Rays senior vice president of administration and general counsel, was served with papers Tuesday morning, he said. "Since it's a legal proceeding, I'm really not in a position to comment," he said.

"All we're going to say is, we have received it, and we'll deal with it in due course," said Rich Levin, a spokesman for the commissioner.

"I'll acknowledge that we have received the documents from the attorney general's office, but I can't provide any comment beyond that," Marlins spokesman Julio Rebull said.

Although the Rays and Marlins are struggling mightily to draw fans, and the Marlins are fighting an uphill battle to get a new stadium, neither team is seen as a leading contraction candidate.

Butterworth called Selig a "bully" for writing a letter to Florida legislators in April in which he warned that the Marlins might have to relocate or fold without state legislation to create a means for paying for a new stadium.

No such legislation passed, and the Marlins, who had the second-worst attendance among big-league teams last season, have been unable to win support in Miami-Dade for a new ballpark.

If Butterworth succeeds, he might lift the veil shrouding management of America's national pastime. But the owners might go to court in an attempt to keep from disclosing their most closely held financial secrets.

Baseball enjoys a limited antitrust exemption that protects it from interstate commerce laws. Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., plan to file legislation today seeking to overturn the exemption.

But the exemption has proved powerful in the past, allowing baseball to shield its dealings. Minnesota fought, with the support of Butterworth, to gain records related to a proposed sale of the Twins in 1997, but courts ruled in favor of baseball.

Butterworth had better luck in 1994. In a case prompted by the San Francisco Giants' exploration of a possible move to the Tampa Bay area, the state Supreme Court ruled baseball's exemption from antitrust laws did not extend to team relocations.

If Florida wins this time, the information will not be made public until the case is concluded, Butterworth said, because of a public records exemption for material gathered during an investigation.

Butterworth occasionally goes to Marlins games, for which his wife, Marta Prado, has held season tickets through her employer. He denied he is grandstanding against the unpopular owners and said he has a legal duty to investigate the contraction plan because the loss of either team would have a major impact on Florida.

"The owners meeting may represent a classic example of competitors gathering to restrict competition in order to reap excessive profits for themselves," he said. "The ones who get hurt in the end obviously will be the fans."

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.