Will Past Be Prologue? Part 2 – Lessons to be Learned

Yesterday, I asked readers to endure a recitation of my childhood memories as I looked back at the most exciting Twins season in my memory, 1967. It was Rod Carew’s Rookie of the Year season and, while the Twins ultimately lost out to the Red Sox for the AL pennant, it was followed shortly by a couple of very successful seasons in 1969 and 1970 when Carew helped lead the Twins to the first two AL West Division championships.

Today, I’m going to discuss lessons that I believe should be learned from the years that followed those incredible seasons.

While Carew would never again reach the postseason with the Twins (and would never play in a World Series for anyone), he did have several more pretty amazing years with the Twins. He won six more batting titles to go with the one he won under Billy Martin in 1969. He won an MVP award in 1977, when he put up a 1.019 OPS (long before we knew what OPS was) for a 4th place team.

A sparce crowd at Metropolitan Stadium in 1972 (Photo: Steven R. Swanson)
A sparce crowd at Metropolitan Stadium in 1972 (Photo: Steven R. Swanson)

I missed most of that, though.

By the mid 1970s, I had pretty much tuned the Twins out. I wasn’t the only one, apparently. By 1974, the Twins were averaging just over 8,000 fans for their home games.

Twins owner Calvin Griffith could have gone one of two directions at that point. He had a couple of legitimate stars on his team, Carew and pitcher Bert Blyleven, both in the prime of their careers. He could have chosen to build a better team around them over the next couple of years and make an effort to compete. Charley Finley was starting to disassemble his powerhouse Athletics and the Seitz decision would soon set Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally free of their contracts and open the door to free agency. Griffith’s other option was to trade away Carew, Blyleven and anyone else who might command real money soon and attempt to rebuild his team with young (and inexpensive) prospects. Obviously, Griffith being Griffith, the latter was the only option with any chance of happening.

But what if Griffith had been willing and able to invest, rather than divest? Would the team have improved and brought fans back to the Met? Would the Twins then have been in a better position to command a new stadium of their own rather than being forced to share the Metrodome with the Vikings?

There’s no way to know, of course. What we can and do know, however, is that a lot of fans lost interest in the Twins during the mid to late 1970s. I was one of them.

As I think back through my 52 years of Twinsfandom, that era is probably the stretch when I was the least interested in what was going on with the Twins. I can only distinctly remember three trips to the Twin Cities to watch baseball from the time I graduated from high school in 1974 through the rest of the decade. I think about how many more times I would have watched two future Hall of Famers play baseball if only the owner had shown some kind of commitment to winning. It wasn’t until guys like Puckett, Gaetti, Hrbek and Brunansky developed in to a talented core in Minnesota in the mid 1980s that I got interested enough again to regularly drive up to the Twin Cities for games.

I believe that the people running the Twins now are flirting dangerously with the possibility of history repeating itself.

Those who advocate for the idea of blowing up the roster and rebuilding gradually with the highly touted group of prospects in the organization seem to think that letting the Twins continue to lose close to 100 games over the next year or two is a necessity. We’re told that, if we’re patient, the team will be much improved and be ready to compete by 2014 or 2015.

But do we really believe that Miguel Sano, Kyle Gibson, Eddie Rosario, Alex Meyer and Byron Buxton are going to be ready to win… not just contribute… at the Major League level by then? Maybe Griffith was planning on first round picks like Rick Sofield, Paul Croft and Lenny Faedo being ready to lead the Twins back in to contention by the late 70s, too. Instead, the Twins continued to play in front of more empty seats than filled seats at Met Stadium for several more years and continued to spiral deeper in to oblivion until they won only 60 games in 1982. Even the move to a new indoor stadium couldn’t significantly rebuild the fan base at that point.

What if we’re wrong about the next wave of uber-prospects being ready to seriously compete in the Big Leagues by 2015? What if it takes them longer? What if, like with Hrbek, Gaetti and Viola, this group loses big chunks of games for a few years even after they arrive in Minnesota and it’s 2019 or 2020… or later… before they reach their potential? That’s not exactly unlikely, is it?

The past two years have seemed hellish to Twins fans, but how many people will be watching Twins games at Target Field if the Twins go the better part of a decade or more during which coming even close to a .500 record is unlikely? How many will even be watching on television?

I wish I had watched Rod Carew play baseball more than a handful of times in the 1970s. How many young fans will grow old regretting not showing up to watch Joe Mauer play baseball in his prime because the team wouldn’t put enough talent around him to make a trip to the ballpark worthwhile? How long will it take to get those fans interested again?

Some people will tell us that Griffith had no other choice than the one he made… the advent of free agency was a paradigm shift that he could neither foresee nor afford financially to adapt to. That may be true. I have no way of knowing. But the advent of free agency clearly made owning and operating a competitive Major League Baseball team difficult for all but the wealthiest owners.

Today, I believe Major League Baseball is quite possibly nearing another era of potentially dramatic change in how the business is run. I don’t think any of us can predict, with any certainty, the state of television five years from now. It’s quite possible that it will be significantly different than it is today. The billion dollar media rights deals that large market teams are signing could create even more significant chasms between the “haves” and “have nots” in baseball than the eras of free agency and new stadiums did.

And what happens when cable operators and their subscribers (and potentially even the government) step up and refuse to allow continuance of an environment where subscribers must pay dramatically higher rates for cable television, driven almost solely by the cost of carrying sports programming? If that bubble bursts before teams in middle markets, like Minnesota, get their turn at the trough, the resulting competitive imbalance could last for a generation.

Those issues will have to be addressed by whoever baseball decides will succeed Bud Selig as Commissioner. But in the mean time, the people running the Twins have to be making long term plans for the continued financial viability of their franchise. They probably genuinely believed that a new stadium would allow them to field consistently competitive teams a few years ago when they were lobbying for public financing, but clearly Target Field no longer guarantees anything. MLB’s financial model appears to be taking another dramatic turn and a nice stadium is no longer enough to assure long term solvency, much less competitiveness.

As a result, I believe that the deeper the Twins allow this competitive hole they’re in to get, the greater the risk that we’ll see another 1970s-like loss of interest by the fan base that will simply perpetuate the problem.

I see it as imperative for the Twins to invest enough money in their roster to be competitive EVERY year if they’re going to remain a viable organization in to the future. They must keep fans coming to the ballpark and they absolutely need to make the team valuable enough to cash in on other media revenue streams sooner, rather than later. Doing otherwise risks dooming the franchise to being non-competitive until such time that large market teams finally agree to a more equitable business model… and we know that won’t happen any time soon.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the next crop of kids coming up will hit the ground running and immediately capture the imagination and interest of Twins fans far and wide, leading to the next great golden era of Twins baseball, which will lead to vast riches for the Twins owners and secure the franchise’s future for generations to come.

I just think the odds of that happening are long… too long for the Twins front office to bet the organization’s future on it.

I was 14 years old when Rod Carew’s 1970 Twins won the AL West Division and I turned 31 before my favorite team gave me something to cheer about again in 1987. I hope it won’t be 2027 before kids who cheered on Joe Mauer’s 2010 Central Division Champions get to feel that excitement again.

– JC

4 Replies to “Will Past Be Prologue? Part 2 – Lessons to be Learned”

  1. Pingback: Will Past Be Prologue? Part 1 – Rod Carew and the Best Season Ever – Knuckleballs

  2. Very good reading. Being close to the same age I also lost interest in what I called, “The Quillici Era”. Some of our stars were starting to age and the advent of free agency would soon make the Twins a non player. But I got interested again when they hired Gene Mauch and he actually had some very interesting teams back then. His platooning, sacrificing, pinch hitting freely made for some fun offensive teams. But soon we’d loose Bostock, Hisle, Ford to Free Agency. Along with Trades of Blylyven and Carew. Had Griffiths wanted to build a team around his star players then the Twins could of been a contender. We had great closers under Mauch. Tom Johnson, Bill Campbell, Mike Marshall. Dave Goltz was emerging as a great innings eating starter. It just seemed back then, that when the Twins were on the cusp of putting together a really good team someone left via free agency or Calvin would trade them. And then soon the Dark era of Twins baseball started and we didn’t return to relevance till around 1985. Those teams were incredibly hard to watch.

  3. Jim:

    I commented in a similar vein before, so you know how very right I think you are. My dad’s office had season tickets during the other lean decades (1970s and 1990s), so I still saw my share of games. But it stunk watching the Twins get their butts kicked regularly every season, especially so when they played in the Humphrey Warehouse and there was a hot St. Paul Saints alternative.

    Even thought I agree with you, I want to point out a couple of times where I was surprised the other way:

    1983 we were 70-91 and drawing 10,000 people a game to a brand new stadium. Next year Kirby Puckett happened along early in the season and all of a sudden the same-seeming team was fighting for the division title until the end. Attendance almost doubled and stayed pretty healthy until the end of the Puckett era.

    2000 we were 69-93 and back down to last in attendance. The next year a pretty blown up team of punks was second in the AL Central and on its way to another decade of success.

    So a fan can hope. Happy New Year.

  4. Sometimes, graduating from high school and off to college and entering the real life world does take a bit of the shine out of needing to go and follow baseball. You move about, chase a mate, look for jobs (often working two and studying to boot).

    But on another note. Putting together a baseball team is a combination of homegrown talent, aging talent, and free agents. You can field an entire roster of youth (the Astros, marlins) and maybe they will gel and might be in for a surprise. Or the whole group can stagnate as some thrive and others just play. Often, when you are in a haphazard environment and EVERYONE is pushing, no one works out.

    The perfect major league system means you bring in 2-4 players a year, some start as the fourth outfielder, the long relief. They take their lumps, watch the game with coaches, and end up shining. You bring in the grizzled veteran as a stopgap free agent, the 5th starter, the long-relief, the backup infielder. All capable of stepping up their game for one more chance of glory if the need arises, but there to collect to pension points and inspire teamwork.

    You want to feed the guys into the team year after year. You don’t need them ALL arbitration eligible at the same time., You don’t need the also-rans becoming too expensive when their time comes to step up to the plate and take a fulltime position with the team.

    Or you do what the A’s and the Rays seem to be doing, promote, play, and trade for more for the future. But then you MUST draft and trade well. And you must then play the players to show them off.

    But putting fan butts in the seats? Well, Target Field WAS to make the Twins more competitive. They could splurge and overpay, you’d think, on that $7 million starter/reliever, or $52 million multi-year deal for a pitcher who can bridge the gap between now and next. The Twins have a bit more luxury in being to fail, eating that Blackburn contract, overpaying for a Japanese batting champ. They can make a mistake or two a season. They can, now. With the hope of competing. Fans want to see a good game. They don’t necessarily need to win-win-win all the time. Someone does have to lose in the grad scheme of things (besides the Astros). You just hope it is the other team that loses EQUALLY as yours.

    Baseball is a fun and interesting game experience. Things can change thru the course of an at bat, an inning, a game. You are never totally out until the game ends, unless you consistently give up five runs in the opening frame and have a weak batting order. Fans like to see some strikeouts, a homerun or two by either team, some baserunning, a great fielding play or three. They want to see runners moves, runners get thrown out. They want the suspense of knowing their team has a chance for victory, and that it is accomplished at least 50% of the time in most seasons.

    If you don’t spend money in the offseason, you spend it in the draft. But the Twins still do have extra money to play with. That is the frustration. Target Field gave them extra revenue. New TV contracts gave them extra revenue. But if fans don’t show, you lose that revenue. Profit today vs. profit tomorrow (or what level of profit). Somehow, though, even if the team should “lose” money, the value of the franchise ever increases.

    Except in the eyes of fans.