Minnesota Twins Podcast – Talk to Contact – Episode 19

Episode 19 of the Twins baseball podcast,  Talk To Contact (@TalkToContact), is now available for download via iTunes or by clicking here.

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Drew Butera, Boat Anchor

Eric and Paul have returned from their winter hiatus to bring you more witty banter about the Minnesota Twins. This week they are joined by listener of the week, Mark Smith, to predict opening day lineups and discuss spring training battles that will have to be won. After Mark’s departure the twins discuss Kent Hrbek‘s place in the Twins Hall of Fame, Eddie Rosario‘s future as a second basemen and, of course, what type of beer they’re drinking.

If you enjoy our podcast, please take a couple extra minutes and rate and review us on iTunes (ratings and reviews have magical iTunes powers, which help us become mini-versions of Keith Richards.)

You can follow Paul on Twitter (@BaseballPirate) or read his writing at  Puckett’s Pond.

- ERolfPleiss

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

Will Past Be Prologue? Part 1 – Rod Carew and the Best Season Ever

Rod Carew spent 12 seasons in a Minnesota Twins uniform. He was the American League Rookie of the Year in 1967 and was lured away by the sunshine to southern California to play for the Angels following the 1978 season. At least the Twins managed to get some talent in return for Carew (Ken Landreaux, Dave Engle, Paul Hartzell, Brad Havens), rather than lose him to free agency when Carew essentially forced Twins owner Calvin Griffith in to a trade.

The Rod Carew bronze statue outside Target Field

The Rod Carew bronze statue outside Target Field

The 12 seasons Carew spent in Minnesota were some of the best… and worst… years I’ve gone through as a Twins fan. I believe that there are lessons to be learned from Carew’s era, for the Twins ownership and its fans, though I suspect neither group is inclined to heed them… at least not consciously.

I turned five years old near the middle of the Twins’ first season in Minnesota. We made one or two annual trips up to see the Twins play in those days (usually just one… the trip up from Albert Lea was not as quick and easy before I-35), but we watched games on TV all summer long. They were road games, mostly. Home games were seldom televised, so as not to inhibit fans from buying tickets, I suppose. But I had my transistor radio to take to bed with me to listen to the games I couldn’t watch.

So yes, I’ve been a fan through three World Series and even more Division Series. But the most exciting SEASON of Twins baseball in my memory was a year the Twins didn’t even play postseason baseball. That was Rod Carew’s rookie year, 1967.

Those were exciting times to be a Twins fan. As we all know, the Twins had been to the World Series in 1965, where they lost to the Koufax/Drysdale led Dodgers. But 1966 was a pretty good year, too. The Twins finished runner-up to the Orioles for the American League pennant (yes, kids, there was a time when there were no divisions in Major League Baseball) and there was no reason for my fellow pre-teen friends and I to think the Twins wouldn’t be right in the thick of things in 1967, too. And they were. But nobody could have predicted just how “thick” that race would be.

The Twins started out poorly and Griffith fired manager Sam Mele. That came as a shock to a kid like me. How could you fire a great manager like Mele? He took us to the World Series! But under Cal Ermer, the Twins woke up a bit and by the All-Star break were right back in the race. The White Sox held the lead, but the Tigers and Twins were right up there, too. The Angels and Red Sox were further back, but both were above .500.

About a month later, the Twins swept a home series against the White Sox and moved in to first place. To give you an idea how tight the race had become, Boston sat in 5th place, just 2.5 games behind the Twins, with the White Sox, Tigers and Angels sandwiched between them. The Angels soon slumped badly and were out of the race by the end of August, but through the rest of the season, the Twins were never more than two games out of first place.

Then again, the Tigers and both Red & White Sox, weren’t falling any further behind, either. In fact, on the morning of September 7, all four teams were in a virtual tie for first place. On September 15, the Twins, Tigers and Red Sox were tied, with Chicago just 1.5 games back. The White Sox returned the home sweep favor on the Twins September 15-17 and suddenly the Twins were dropped in to a tie with Chicago for 3rd place… one game behind the Tigers. One win over the A’s (that would be the Kansas City A’s, of course) later and the Twins were back in to a 3-way tie for the lead on September 18.

I wish I could find a way to express just how crazy and exciting this was to an 11 year-old Twins fan. It was stuff like this that I believe made that kid a life-long Twins fan.

From that point, September 18, through the rest of the month of September, the Twins were never out of first place. It seemed like they were almost always tied with someone, but every morning when we looked at the standings, the Twins had that little “-” next to them indicating they were no “games behind” anyone in the American League.

The White Sox found themselves in 4th place, two games behind the Twins with two games left, but effectively eliminated from the race because the Twins and Red Sox would finish the season with a two-game series and both teams were ahead of Chicago. Boston and Detrot each were one game behind the Twins with two games to play, but due to some earlier rainouts, the Tigers had played two games fewer than the Twins and Red Sox, so they were staring at Saturday and Sunday home doubleheaders against what was still a pretty decent Angels team.

All the Twins needed was a split of those final two games in Boston, along with one Angels win out of their four games with Detroit, and my Twins were headed to the World Series against Bob Gibson and the Cardinals!

Twins pitcher Jim Kaat faces Carl Yastrzemski on September 30, 1967

Twins pitcher Jim Kaat faces Carl Yastrzemski on September 30, 1967

But the Twins lost on Saturday 6-4, while the Tigers swept their twinbill with the Angels and that sent the Red Sox and Twins in to the final day of the season tied for first place, a half-game ahead of Detroit. The Angels helped out the Twins by gaining a split of their Sunday doubleheader with the Tigers, so all the Twins had to do was beat Boston.

Of course, they didn’t… they lost 5-3… and the Red Sox went on to lose a seven-game World Series to the Cardinals, which I could barely watch. I was heartbroken. But it was still the most exciting Twins SEASON of my life and I had every reason then to expect my Twins to be just as good and just as exciting to watch the next year… and for the rest of my life, for that matter.

In 1968, Griffith probably wished he had Mele back, as Ermer led the Twins to a 7th place finish (though their 79-83 record would look pretty good a couple of decades later) in the last season before expansion and the establishment of divisional play.

A year later, new manager Billy Martin led the Twins to a 97-win season and the first ever AL West Division title. One year was all Griffith could tolerate of Martin and Bill Rigney was brought in to replace him for 1970. Rigney one-upped Martin by winning 98 games. But Martin and Rigney combined to go 0-6 in the postseason, both managers seeing their Twins team get swept by the Orioles three games to none in the best-of-five Division Series.

In his first four seasons of Big League ball, Rod Carew had participated in perhaps the most exciting pennant race ever in 1967 and played for two Division champions in 1969 and 1970.  He was playing alongside Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva and Jim Kaat.

Carew must have felt like he would be playing for championship contenders forever.

But he never played in the postseason again with the Twins and would do so only twice more in his career (in unsuccessful Division series with the Angels in 1979 and 1982). Carew, in effect, lost his shot at appearing in a World Series with the Twins’ loss to Boston on October 1, 1967, in his rookie year.

But as disheartening as that must have been for Carew, things would be even worse for Twins fans. It would be 14 years after Rigney’s club bowed to the Orioles in 1970 before the Twins would finish even as high as second place in their division and, as we now know, it would be 1987 before Twins fans could cheer on another team that would win any kind of title at all.

It was a long wait for fans like me and the Twins would lose a significant chunk of their fan base along the way.

Tomorrow: Part 2 -Lessons to be Learned.

- JC

Welcome to 2013!

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We here at Knuckleballs want to wish all of you a very Happy New Year!

Since we’ve been talking about 2013 so much this off-season, it’s almost a relief that it’s finally here. Since I’m the optimist in the crowd, I’m really looking forward to see what the Twins will cook up starting in Spring Training. I’ve never been reliant on what things look like on paper… there are just too many variables – even for the stat heads.

So, here’s hoping that you keep your eyes on what could happen the next day, the next game and enjoy your 2013!