Dreams of Field

The Minnesota Twins are convinced the public will eventually buy them a new $300 million stadium. They have reason to believe.

In mid-April the Minnesota Twins had the best record in the American League. The perennial cellar dwellers had shot out of the gates to win 9 of their first 12 games heading into that evening's dustup with the Kansas City Royals. Shortstop Cristian Guzman was riding an 11-game hitting streak; Doug Mientkiewicz had already belted three home runs--one more than during his entire 1999 rookie campaign.

Off the field, the franchise was hoping to capitalize on its team's hot streak. Much like they did in 1997, the Twins were at the state Legislature, pushing a plan to replace the 20-year-old Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome with a $300 million, open-air ballpark that could later be outfitted with a retractable roof. Their proposal called for $150 million in financing from the Twins and other private sources: $100 million would come from a state-backed no- or low-interest loan; the remaining revenue would be generated by state-issued bonds and a tax exemption on construction materials. The scheme was more straightforward than the Twins' pitch in 1997, and owner Carl Pohlad had finally agreed to contribute a sizable but unspecified lump of cash from his own bank account (according to Forbes, the owner's net worth is $1.8 billion). In addition, no funding mechanisms would kick in until Major League Baseball agreed to make significant structural changes, including increased revenue sharing among its 30 teams.

Sen. Dean Johnson, a DFLer from Willmar, and Rep. Harry Mares, a Republican from White Bear Lake, each introduced bills that hewed closely to the Twins' blueprint. The team then bankrolled 19 lobbyists to blanket the capitol and schmooze legislators. In the first six months of the year the Twins spent nearly a million dollars on lobbying efforts--more than any other public or private organization in the state.

On April 17 Mares's bill had been stalled in the Local Government committee, where it didn't have the votes to pass. The team kept pushing, determined to debate the merits of a new ballpark up until the final days of the legislative session.

That same evening, a meeting on the ballpark issue was scheduled for 5:30 p.m. at the downtown headquarters of the Minneapolis Community Development Agency (MCDA). For more than a year, Minneapolis citizens, local businesspeople, and city officials had been crafting their own stadium plan. A city-appointed panel of 17 citizens, dubbed C-17, had spent the fall hashing out ballpark options. Stadium experts had been flown in, financing options mulled over, and a potential site identified. The final proposal called for a cheaper, scaled-down ballpark in downtown Minneapolis paid for with little or no government dollars. The meeting was to be the first time that city officials and members of the C-17 committee would brief the Twins on their work.

Representatives from the city's planning, finance, and public works departments, along with employees of the MCDA, were on hand. First Ward city council member Paul Ostrow was in attendance. Betsy Hodges, co-chair of the C-17 committee, was present to speak for the citizens' group.

The only interested party that didn't have a presence was the Minnesota Twins--even though MCDA deputy executive director Keith Ford had been assured that team president Jerry Bell, or someone else representing the team, would attend. "I expected that somebody would be there," says Jim Forsyth, project manager for the MCDA, who was leading the city's ballpark efforts. "For whatever reason I guess the Twins felt that the time wasn't right. I think they still had hopes for their bill in the Legislature." Hodges says she was "somewhat bewildered" by the Twins no-show. "There was no downside to them meeting with us," she adds.

The initial summit would likely have been little more than a meet-and-greet. But the snub is significant. Despite repeated rebuffs from voters and their legislators over the past seven years, the Twins have been unwilling to settle for anything less than a $300 million, roof-ready stadium subsidized by taxpayer dollars. It seems nothing has changed.

Three months after the fact, the Twins' president says he still doesn't know why he failed to attend the April meeting. "I think they scheduled the meeting on a day I was out of town," Bell says, talking on the phone from his office. He then dismisses the City of Minneapolis as an inconsequential player in the Twins' end game: "I don't really look at the city as a source of funding for a ballpark anyway."

Bell and the Twins chose instead to spend the rest of the spring beating the legislative bushes for dollars. The effort almost reaped dividends. In April and May a seemingly endless parade of pro-stadium legislators made their way into the Metrodome's broadcast booth to hawk the ballpark plan during Twins games. Meanwhile, the Star Tribune's Sid Hartman and the St. Paul Pioneer Press's Charley Walters sternly lectured fans that if a new stadium wasn't built Major League Baseball would engage in "contraction," and simply eliminate the fiscally challenged team--like yanking a noxious weed from a flower bed. It didn't hurt, of course, that the Twins were engaged in a Lazarus-like rise on the diamond, defying the baseball Gods by winning with a roster of young, low-paid no-names.

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