Clark Griffith and the Mandate of Heaven

Thirteen years after Calvin Griffith threw up his hands and sold the Twins to Carl Pohlad, his son Clark is back with a bid to buy the team and make sure it stays in Minnesota. Why? Because he figures that's the way it ought to be.

Even with heavy hitters like Opperman involved in the deal, Griffith says the plan is to balance the ownership structure so that partners are investing either $5 million or $10 million in the purchase, no more or less. There can be partnership groups--five people can put in a million dollars apiece to acquire a $5 million share, for example--but each $5 million and $10 million group will have only one representative with an official say in the way the franchise is operated. In this way, Clark and his partners plan to raise $50 million of the proposed purchase price, and borrow the remaining $30 million. The $80 million bid is at the low end of the scale in terms of public speculation over what Pohlad might be able to fetch for the Twins, with some estimates going as high as $105-$110 million.

But a price tag over $100 million is feasible only if the franchise is moved to another city or the Legislature approves the construction of a new stadium, and Clark maintains that both scenarios are problematic. "It is extremely difficult to find a community where a major league baseball team can survive," he says. No major league team has relocated since 1972, and Griffith argues that that's because earlier moves and league expansion have pretty much saturated the urban markets with populations sufficient to support a team.

"You can take football and plop it down in a city region of 600,000 and expect success because it is once a week, eight to ten times a year, and the same people will make the trip--sometimes from great distances--to see the game: It's a ritual," he says. "The same thing with basketball and hockey--there are 40 dates with 15,000-16,000 people and a lot of them go every time. But baseball," Clark continues, reaching for a legal notepad and scribbling out some figures, "is different. Say you need to draw 2.43 million people for a season--that's not a very high figure, but it could be a profitable figure. To get there, you need to draw 30,000 people for every one of the 81 home games you play. Now, say you have a 10-game homestand; to draw the 300,000 you need to average 30,000, you are probably going to have to bring 250,000 different people into the ballpark, because not that many people are going to go to more than one or two games. So you better live in a place it is convenient for a lot of people to get to the park. You don't get that dynamic in a community of, say, a million people, not unless you have a very strong secondary market a half-hour or so away.

"I happen to think this market is one of the best in the country. This kind of population [concentration] is perfect. Look," Clark says, sweeping his hand toward the vista beyond his office window. "As far as you can see in all directions, you've got people. That last ridge out there in the distance, I have clients out there. It's only a half-hour into the city."

Yet the last time Pohlad drew as many as 2.43 million people was 1992, when the Twins were defending world champions. Now Pohlad is saying that the Twins can't make it here without a new stadium. Clark concedes that passage of funding for a new stadium would doom his bid to buy the Twins, but so far that still appears unlikely.

Griffith admits the Twins will need a new stadium someday, but he maintains that that day has not come. How would he make a go of it in the Metrodome? By building the kind of organization top to bottom that develops talent, he says, and by managing well. That's a long-haul strategy, though, and it isn't hard to imagine that impatient fans might develop an ugly sense of déjà vu in the meantime. Griffith denies it--he would spend money to keep the team respectable, he insists--but father Calvin is dubious. "People wouldn't like it. They'd say, 'Like father, like son.'"

But Clark is undeterred; he preaches the virtue of patience. "A new stadium is important, but you have to be careful. All things become ripe in time and if you bludgeon people into giving you something before the time is ripe, they remember that, and they can stay mad at the team. I've had people say that in Milwaukee, the arm-breaking tactics it took to get Miller Field passed have gotten fans mad, and that Brewer attendance may never recover. The problem is, when people turn off of you, it is almost impossible to get them back.

"I remember reading about Chiang Kai-shek and the loss of China. He had a billion people on his side and then all of sudden Mao was up in the hills and Mao makes a long march to escape and the next thing you know, Mao wins and everyone wonders what happened to Chiang Kai-shek. And I say it is simple: He lost the mandate of heaven. I have seen this happen around baseball teams. It's sort of like what is happening here now."

The recurring question, of course, is why in the world would Carl Pohlad be inclined to sell the Twins back to the Griffith family? It had to have rankled Pohlad some when Calvin was quoted some years back as saying of him, "He never keeps his word. He can't keep his word." The Griffiths made no secret of their belief that they handed Pohlad a championship-caliber team on a silver platter. For his part, Pohlad hired the one man Clark Griffith would probably rate as his mortal enemy--Howard Fox--to sweep the Griffiths out of the franchise. Certainly there must be just the slightest bit of tension between the Pohlads and the Griffiths.

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