Twin Killing

Is there any way to keep Major League Baseball in Minnesota? Well, for starters we could get a judge to classify Carl Pohlad as a vulnerable adult...

The Twins, of course, are another story entirely. Everyone here should know the story of this franchise by now: the first team to draw three million fans, two world championships, Hall of Fame players in Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, and Kirby Puckett, and a history that stretches back to the team's 1901 origins as the Washington Senators. As has been pointed out by others, between 1985 and the strike in 1994 the Twins outdrew the Yankees. And once again, for local fans Selig's timing in targeting the Twins for contraction couldn't have been crueler. After years of absolute futility, the 2001 Twins turned the corner and delivered a winning season and a team of talented young ballplayers. Attendance in the Dome rose 70 percent--roughly the same increase, incidentally, as the Brewers saw in their first year in brand-new Miller Park.

One could, I suppose, make a reasonable case for contraction based on the quality of play in the major leagues--there are too many teams, too many mediocre players making too much money--but the owners created that problem. And even if contraction were the answer (and it's really not, as in all likelihood the union would simply negotiate additional roster spots as part of any contraction agreement), the Minnesota Twins are well down any reasonable list of deserving candidates.

It's hard not to argue that what Selig and the other owners want is to hold any number of cities hostage in a sort of North Stars/Cleveland Browns/Baltimore Colts scenario. Contract teams, and then use those vacancies--in the case of Minnesota, a proven, reliable market--as leverage against other struggling franchises. This is, after all, the 14th-largest television market; the owners must want a team here. They're betting that down the road Minnesota will come crawling back to baseball begging to take on another failing, established team. Please, give us the Oakland Athletics, the Kansas City Royals, give us any ratty, miserable team at all--we'll give you the moon. We can all probably imagine what that moon will cost. When baseball owners start talking about "the long-term welfare of the game," beware: To these fellows welfare is a loaded gun.

It's still, of course, a gamble. Minnesota has been remarkably obstinate in its dealings with Major League Baseball, but I think that's a terrible risk the owners are willing to take: It has, after all, proved to be an effective strategy elsewhere.

 

That might seem like a cynical perspective, but if this episode has demonstrated anything, it's that you can't be too cynical, and I have to believe that such a scenario is at least in the back of the owners' minds.

If that is the case, Twins fans--and baseball fans and columnists all over the nation--are apparently having none of it. Public response to baseball's contraction announcement has been loudly and nearly unanimously in the Twins' favor. As they have done so often in the past, baseball's owners have created a public-relations nightmare at precisely the wrong time--although one of the more entertaining sidebars in recent weeks has been Selig's comments in the November 14 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "Selig...said he thought the talk of contraction had done well from a public relations standpoint, citing columns and newspaper reports from around the country," Don Walker reported. Selig clearly hasn't been reading the same newspapers I have, but then, you have to take pretty much everything Bud says with a tablespoon of salt--he also pooh-poohed talk of a conflict of interest on his part by claiming that St. Louis, being closer to the Twin Cities than Milwaukee is, stands to benefit from the Twins' contraction as much as Milwaukee would. (Milwaukee is 338 miles from Minneapolis, St. Louis 619 miles.) Such fuzzy math might help to explain some of baseball's problems with the bottom line.

And baseball's problems with the bottom line go well beyond the need for new, revenue-producing stadiums. Everybody in the world seems to know this, but Selig and the owners--and, to be fair, the players' union--haven't yet demonstrated the will to work it out. So far the evidence suggests that new-stadium revenue streams will simply get plowed into ever-escalating player salaries, and the positive results of that sort of spending seldom show up on the field. Detroit's attendance was down 23 percent its second year in a new ballpark. Texas paid $250 million to Alex Rodriguez and promptly went in the toilet, finishing in the cellar in the American League West. Pittsburgh, Colorado, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Baltimore all had wretched seasons in state-of-the-art stadiums, while newly crowned world-champion Arizona's attendance has declined in each year of the franchise's existence.

The frustrating thing for fans is that baseball knows what its problems are, and it knows what the solutions are. Major League Baseball went through the charade of appointing a "Blue Ribbon Panel" to study baseball's economic malaise, but Selig has thus far chosen to largely ignore the panel's recommendations. The game needs a realistic salary cap, minimum payrolls, and real, meaningful revenue sharing. To accomplish those things, the owners need to sit down and hammer out some difficult compromises with the union--both sides are clearly going to have to give some concessions for the good of the game--but that seems even less likely today than it did a month ago. One more reason to applaud Selig's timing: great idea--piss off the union the moment their contract expires and negotiations should be getting under way for a new agreement.

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