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Are the stripped-down Twins still a major league team? Depends on whom you ask
By Gerry Callahan
Spring training has always been a time for managers to review the basics of the game with their players, but this year Twins skipper Tom Kelly took the concept to the extreme. During Minnesota's first week of camp in Fort Myers, Fla., Kelly gathered his players around him and told them to keep one thing in mind when they took the field this season: The Twins are still a major league ball club.
That may sound fairly obvious -- unless, of course, you spent a little time at Minnesota's spring training facility and got a look at Kelly's 1999 ball club. There has been a good deal of talk of the growing divide between haves and have-nots in baseball, and there is no doubt on which side of the canyon Kelly's heroes can be found.
Something funny has already happened in the Twin Cities, though Kelly isn't laughing. Only eight years removed from their team's last World Series championship, Twins fans have replaced their Homer Hankies with white flags, essentially surrendering the season before it begins. Last year Minnesota set a club record with its sixth straight losing campaign, and the worst, it appears, is yet to come.
Minnesota ownership has decided that if the franchise is going to lose, it might as well lose on the cheap. During the off-season general manager Terry Ryan was ordered to slash the payroll from $27 million to under $15 million. By Opening Day, the entire Twins roster could be making less than Kevin Brown, and by October Minnesota will probably be looking at 100 losses.
Though he received feelers from the Dodgers during the off-season about filling their then-vacant managerial post, Kelly chose to remain at the helm of this sinking ship. That decision was about the only bright spot in a long, dark winter for Twins fans. Paul Molitor retired and took a job as a part-time instructor in the organization. Bob Tewksbury, who averaged fewer than 1.5 walks per nine innings in '98, also called it quits, and centerfielder Otis Nixon (37 stolen bases) bolted for Atlanta as a free agent. The most discouraging move, however, might have been the front office's decision not even to offer arbitration to reliable shortstop Pat Meares. The Twins say that even if they had beaten Meares in an arbitration hearing, they couldn't have afforded to keep him.
Meares signed a one-year deal with the Pirates for $1.5 million, further depleting an already thin Twins infield. During his team's first full-squad workout in late February, Kelly had plenty of players on the field but few proven infielders. Todd Walker is firmly entrenched at second, and Kelly says he'll likely go with Doug Mientkiewicz (10 days of big league experience) at first, Corey Koskie (20 days) at third and former utilityman Denny Hocking at shortstop. That's an infield with a total of less than five years of major league experience.
The one position at which the Twins have no shortage of experience -- or talent -- is catcher. After sifting through more lucrative offers in the off-season, veteran Terry Steinbach decided to return to his home-state team. Of course, Steinbach first had to decide which home-state team that was, the Twins or his brother's town league team, in New Ulm, which is 100 miles southwest of the Twin Cities. This time the Twins were not outbid, and Steinbach chose to come back for another season at a cut-rate salary of $800,000. In addition to being a topflight catcher, the amiable 12-year veteran serves as a cheerful antidote to the creeping sense of doom for big league baseball in the Twin Cities.
Despite a subpar second half in 1998 (3-8, 6.27 ERA), Radke is still Minnesota's most marketable player. The Twins would like to hold on to their ace and trim other salaries from the payroll, but that won't be easy. Closer Rick Aguilera ($3.25 million) has a no-trade clause, and outfielder Marty Cordova ($3 million) has little trade value, his production having slipped from .309 with 111 RBIs three years ago to .253 with 69 RBIs in '98.
Given their dim prospects, the Twins could draw fewer than a million fans, though they boast the cheapest average ticket price in the majors ($8.22). Last season they were nearly outdrawn on a few occasions by the neighboring St. Paul Saints of the Northern League, an independent minor league oufit. While that may prove that fans in the Twin Cities can appreciate minor league ball, they'd probably prefer not to see it being played by a major league team.
Issue date: March 29, 1999
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