Friday, April 2, 2010. A historic date in Minnesota Twins history as they officially christened their new outdoor stadium in downtown Minneapolis with an exhibition game against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Target Field is definitely a first class ballpark, one which the Twins will call home for many, many years to come. And it also launches the Twins organization into the upper echelon of major league baseball franchises. The new venue significantly enhances revenue streams, evidenced by the 50% increase in payroll over last season. Yes, gone are the days in which the Twins were merely a glorified farm system for players who rose to stardom in their organization but got the really big money elsewhere (see Hunter, Torii; Santana, Johan).
As I sat amongst a festive crowd Friday evening, I couldn't help but think about the fact that twice in the previous 26 years the Minnesota Twins almost ceased to exist.
In 1984, there were rumblings that the Tampa area was looking for an MLB franchise. With notoriously frugal owner Calvin Griffith growing weary of the sudden epidemic of seven-figure annual salaries, he ascertained the fan base in the Twin Cities could not support such a system. As a result, Griffith argued that if fan attendance continued to sag, he could opt out of the Metrodome lease and relocate the franchise. But in an effort to block such an action, local businessman Harvey Mackay organized a ticket buyout program for the simple purpose of inflating attendance figures. There was nothing more surreal than a May game against Toronto where the announced crowd was more than 51,000 despite less than 25% of that total actually present. The following month, another local businessman by the name of Carl Pohlad purchased the Twins from Griffith and agreed to keep the team in Minnesota.
Under Pohlad's ownership, the Twins would win two World Series championships. But shortly after their second title, the Twins franchise foundered. From 1993 through 2000, the club had nary a winning season. But in 2001, led by a solid core of young, home-grown players, the Twins broke through with their first above .500 season in nearly a decade. Their reward? Commissioner Bud Selig suggesting the real possibility that the Twins franchise (along with the then Montreal Expos) would be contracted. Despite such an ominous outlook, they weathered the storm and continued to produce winning seasons (five division titles over the next nine seasons) while still being a low revenue producing club.
Given such an uncertain (and sometimes bizarre) history, Friday evening provided an air of celebration. In fact, one of the more poignant moments of the evening came in the eighth inning of Friday's game. Jacque Jones, one of the young up and coming stars of the Twins resurgence in the 2000s, received a long standing ovation from the crowd of more than 32,000. Jones represented a link to the core players who made the most out of the Twins being a small market club. And because of renewed interest in Twins baseball over the past ten years, a new ballpark suddenly became feasible (and ultimately a reality), a fact we fans wanted to acknowledge.
The 8-4 loss to the Cards was almost an afterthought. For the first time in almost two decades, there is zero question about the long term viability of major league baseball in the Twin Cities. That fact alone is cause for celebration.