Expecting a stadium to give us a good team was an impossible dream

Minnesota Twins fans flocked to Target Field on Opening Day 2014. Jeffrey Thompson / MPR News

It didn’t take Minnesota Twins fans long to give up on the 2014 baseball season, judging by today’s MPR News story about yesterday’s attendance woes at Target Field — one game.

The 35,000 who showed up represented the smallest crowd at Target Field since the place opened.

The Twins aren’t a good team; that much can’t possibly be a surprise to the region’s baseball fans, who also abandoned the team in the ’90s at the Metrodome, long blamed for diminishing the “baseball experience.”

Who to blame for this? Where to start?

“Was building Target Field a mistake?” That’s what my colleague Mike Olson asks in Today’s Question. No, it wasn’t. It’s a great ballpark, it’s outdoors, and going there is a pretty fun experience.

What Mike is asking, however is: Was Minnesota sold a bill of goods in the decade-long stadium debate? The word “competitive” was thrown around pretty liberally at the time, suggesting that if the Minnesota Twins wanted to field good teams, it had to compete with the New York Yankees and big-market teams when it comes to revenue.

Few people at the time seemed to ask the question: “What do you mean by competitive?”

At a hearing in 1996, then Twins president Jerry Bell said it meant not bleeding red ink. The team, he said, was more than $30 million in debt.

There was, actually, very little talk about actually field a good team. It was more about keeping a team from exercising an option to get out of a Metrodome lease if attendance fell below 80 percent of 1997’s average attendance.

Competitive wasn’t about wins. It was about money. The team had no parking revenue, and no suite revenue at the Metrodome .

“From what I can tell, the owners have to see the financial rupture they’re facing. They can only lose money for so long and then they have to sell the team,” then Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe insisted. “This is a reasonable way to approach the problem — it is basically a financial issue.”

There’s plenty to argue about on the question of whether taxpayers should have bailed out the Pohlad family, but the clear debate at the time was simply this: Minnesota either has a baseball team (warts and all) or it doesn’t.

The team consistently painted a romantic picture of baseball, rarely failing in legislative testimony to invoke the image of an elderly woman in a nursing home, watching her Twins on TV, one of the few high points in an otherwise depressing existence. That the Twins have since moved all their TV broadcasts off free TV since then is a bigger moral failing than not winning enough games.

But it was never a reasonable goal to be able to keep up with the Yankees and their ability to spend money. Teams in big markets are coming up with new ways to grab more revenue, too.

The Twins certainly had a moral obligation to field a better team than it has. But it spent much of its payday on keeping catcher Joe Mauer and then budding star Justin Morneau. Their contracts violated every tenet of “Moneyball,” the Oakland Athletics’ (the team that beat them on opening day yesterday) formula for fielding a good team on a small budget. But the Twins had no choice. It would have been a political disaster to get a taxpayer-funded stadium and then let Mauer and Morneau go.

A series of disastrous baseball decisions followed before general manager Bill Smith was fired, replaced by onetime savior Terry Ryan, who’s made a few bad decisions since then.

But the Twins are following an age-old recipe for rebuilding the competitive nature of the team in a weak division: Restocking the farm system with talent and then being patient. The team could have made the same mistake other teams have made: Bring in decrepit, over-the-hill players the fans would recognize and try to fake it.

In the end, it remains a stain on the game of baseball, though, that a season begins without hope. That one isn’t on the fans; that one’s on the league which can’t for the life of it figure out what every other sport has figured out — that teams should all be playing by the same economic rules.

That we expected any other result in the face of that reality, though … that one is on us.

  • Dave

    35k is nothing to sneeze at from a pocketbook perspective. The Pohlads are still making money hand over fist, and I’m sure they have a formula for the minimum attendance necessary to do so. Sellouts make for good copy, but it’s not like they aren’t clinking glasses anyway.

    • Right. They have a revenue stream now they didn’t have before. It always about the revenue stream.

  • If anyone honestly believes building a new stadium = competitive team, ask them how the Vikings did after the Metrodome was built in 1982. All of their Super Bowl appearances happened when games were played at old Met Stadium. 😉

    • Didn’t all of the luxury suite revenue go to Mike Lynn instead of the Vikings? Honestly, who was the fool who negotiated the Metrodome arrangement?

  • Oakland, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh all made the playoffs last year despite having 3 of the lowest 5 payrolls in baseball (all three teams were under $70 million). The money isn’t preventing the Twins from being competitive. That blame needs to be laid at the feet of Terry Ryan and his enablers. There are quicker and better ways to rebuild than the route the Twins have chosen.

    The Twins were 17th in attendance last year. They may not sell out many games anymore, but a beautiful ballpark will at least continue to bring in large (if not huge) crowds throughout the summer.

    Also, technically the Twins gave Justin Morneau his big contract before the 2008 season, two seasons before Mauer signed his. And Bill Smith was fired as general manager, but he’s still a high-ranking executive for the Twins.

    • I’ve seen this point many times over the years, apparently to suggest there either isn’t an economic disparity or it doesn’t matter. But, the fact is, yes, you can win baseball games IF you do it with arbitration-ineligible players. Some teams have to do that. Some teams don’t.

      It took the Pirates 20 years to have a winning season. Now they’ve put back to back winning seasons together, thanks primarily, I’d guess to Andrew McCutcheon and Pedro Alvarez.

      You can do some great things when you don’t get the amateur draft wrong.

      The Indians invented this system in the ’90s by buying out the arbitration years of guys like Ramirez, Thome, Baerga, Alomar and it worked… until other teams realized that they can do it too.

      It showed the need to come up with new ways to get around the economic inequality of baseball. As long as you keep coming up with ways to do it, it can be done. But it’s a limited window because the really good teams aren’t stupid.

      and on those occasions when they are, a little money can make that problem go away. Small market teams don’t have that luxury.

      • To be clear, there is an enormous economic disparity in baseball and it does matter. The greater the payroll, the wider the margin for error.

        But I think the greater disparity in baseball is between the dumb teams and the smart teams. The smart teams make the postseason regardless of their payroll. Of the teams with the ten highest payrolls last year, only three made it to the postseason: Los Angeles, Boston and Detroit.

        • But you’re doing two things (a) establishing a small sample size and (b) picking an arbitrary point separating the money teams from the non-money teams.

          Select another one. Make it the rich half and the non rich half. Then you have to add St. Louis to the list.

          But you have to also factor out certain things like, Cincinnati (also in the top 15) not making the playoffs with 90 wins.

          Now, baseball has sought to address this problem, merely be “weakening” the playoff structure. Technically, Cleveland — a low money team — was in the playoffs (mostly because they played in a weak division with an unbalanced schedule). But they really weren’t, thehy got to play a “play in ” game under expanded postseason.

          Selig may be right, maybe watering down the postseason will make the effects of the economic disparity go away.

          But I’m willing to bet that over the next 10 years, we’re going to see Boston, NY, and Los Angeles teams in the postseason a lot more than we’re going to see Oakland, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland.

          Talent flocks to the money. Wins come from talent. That’s not to say there aren’t obvious exceptions to the rule. But it’s a pretty accurate rule.

          But, yes, given an abundance of money, some team owners can’t help but be drunken sailors and spend it on women, booze, and Nishioka.

          • “Talent flocks to the money. Wins come from talent.”

            This is an interesting sentiment because I believe it used to be true but might be changing (a little?). One of the “Moneyball” things that Oakland and the Rays do is to fill every position with B+ players instead of paying $240 million for an A+ free agent and surrounding him with C+ teammates. Oakland has a quality platoon for almost every position and plenty of depth as a result.

            I’m calling this the “no glaring weaknesses” strategy. Take the Angels for example … why pay for an elite first baseman and outfielder and then spend nothing on other glaring holes? I think the smart rich teams are already catching on to this strategy. The Dodgers had some silly holes last year for a team that was spending more than $200 million. If you’re paying all that money, why would you not pay an extra few million for a replacement level second baseman? The Red Sox did the same last year and it worked out pretty well for them!

          • I think we have to temper the love affair with Oakland a bit. It has shown that, so far, at best, it gets you into a one-and-done situation in the postseason. Maybe that’s why they gave a $10 million contract to the guy who beat them yesterday, outbid people for Cespedes, and acquired another $10 million contract in Johnson (whose blown two games already). That’s more than 1/3 of the payroll to 3 guys and their payroll now is only slightly behind the Twins.

          • I guess the bottom line is more money is better unless you’re going to blow it on scrubs like Nishioka. I don’t trust the Twins enough to want them to hand out any big money contracts.

  • MrE85

    Stadiums are always oversold to the taxpayers who will pay for at least some of the cost. I have always considered people who claimed indoor baseball to be somehow inferior to the game played outside as silly. Sure, it’s great to sit outside on a perfect day, but the Twins won two world titles indoors, and they were epic. I was sad to see the Metrodome go. As the old bumper sticker said: “Don’t laugh, it’s paid for.”

  • Thomas Mercier

    Does this mean that the money being spent on the new Vikings stadium won’t guarantee the Vikings get to win the Superbowl finally??? I thought spending all that money to keep them “competitive” was going to get us a return on our investment.

  • kevinfromminneapolis

    I never expected a new stadium to deliver wins. I expected it to deliver a more competitive payroll, which it has and the money is certainly there to do more when the team warrants spending money on. But the Twins are also losing out on major revenue from their television contract, which brings teams like the Dodgers, Yankees and Rangers crazy money. As long as we have a low cable penetration and no competition for FSN, they’ll be behind in that regard. Victory Sports where are you now?

  • John

    “That the Twins have since moved all their TV broadcastsoff free TV since then is a bigger moral failing than not winning enough games.”

    That explains why I haven’t seen any baseball in a couple years. I always figured I just wasn’t happening to tune in during a game.

    I wonder what percentage of people in the metro have cable. Talking with people in my office and neighborhood (which covers a pretty small sample size of a fairly wide demographic), cable seems to be getting cut at a rapid rate.

    I’d be more likely to go to a game (which I’m thinking about finally doing this year) at Target Field if I had seen a game or two on TV.

  • tboom

    Nicely written Bob! Best two lines:

    “Competitive wasn’t about wins. It was about money. “ And

    “That the Twins have since moved all their TV broadcasts off free TV since then is a bigger moral failing than not winning enough games.”