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Tom Verducci
April 29, 2002
If baseball were just a game and not big business, the Twins would be safe and the Brewers would be out
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April 29, 2002

No Friends In High Places

If baseball were just a game and not big business, the Twins would be safe and the Brewers would be out

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It was bad enough for Bud Selig last winter when a smack-talking former pro wrestler, who happens to be governor of Minnesota, ridiculed the baseball commissioner on Capitol Hill for his fuzzy math and sales pitch for contraction. Now the Minnesota Twins, who are harder-hitting than Gov. Jesse Ventura, present an even greater source of embarrassment for Selig. The Twins—one of two teams, along with the Montreal Expos, that baseball doesn't want—seized first place in the American League Central last week. (Coincidentally, the surprising Expos occupied the top spot in the National League East.) By the look of their rock-steady pitching and oft-spectacular defense, the Twins have staying power, the commissioner's plans be damned.

Like the Oakland A's before them, the Twins are proof that securing and developing young talent, not just wielding a fat checkbook, makes for winning baseball. Minnesota swept the Cleveland Indians last weekend with 12 homegrown players on its 25-man roster. Don't ascribe such a stockpile to annual high draft positions, either: Only one (centerfielder Torii Hunter) of the dozen was taken with the club's first pick in any draft.

To supplement their fertile farm system, the Twins, for eight years under general manager Terry Ryan, have scored by trading veterans for prospects. Included in Ryan's haul are shortstop Cristian Guzman and lefthander Eric Milton (a 2001 All-Star) from the New York Yankees for second baseman Chuck Knoblauch; promising righthander Kyle Lohse from the Chicago Cubs for then 37-year-old righthander Rick Aguilera; and righthander Joe Mays from the Seattle Mariners for outfielder Roberto Kelly, who's out of baseball.

The result of what's been a long rebuilding plan—Minnesota suffered eight straight losing seasons before winning 85 games last year—is an exciting, balanced club that doesn't rely on a star player or two. Three starting pitchers—Mays, Milton and righthander Brad Radke—each won at least 15 games last year. At week's end the bullpen, led by former 2lst-round pick Eddie Guardado (eight saves), was unbeaten during Minnesota's 13-6 run to first place. Hunter and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz (fifth round) are Gold Glove winners who have blossomed into offensive forces. Guzman, outfielder Jacque Jones (second round) and third baseman Corey Koskie (26th round) are skilled defensive players with dangerous bats.

The Twins have another weapon, though it works against them on the contraction front: the Metrodome, a funky, 20-year-old, multipurpose arena with a white Teflon roof and bouncy turf. One AL manager says that it takes his team three games to adjust to the unique conditions there, and he has even considered staging preseries intrasquad games to speed the acclimation process. Since the start of the 2001 season, the Twins are 55-35 at the Metrodome, which lacks the luxury boxes and premium seating—to say nothing of the excitement a new stadium generates—that would ensure long-term viability for the franchise. A financial plan for the requisite replacement has been elusive.

Meanwhile, Selig's contribution to small-market baseball is the Milwaukee Brewers. Selig has placed the team in trust. Run by his daughter, Wendy Selig-Prieb, the club is a monument to poor management of the product on the field. The Brewers and Twins stood on virtually the same economic footing until Selig oversaw a realignment plan in 1998 that moved Milwaukee to the National League Central, giving the Brewers home games against their natural rival, the Cubs. The team got a further boost with the construction of Miller Park, the $393 million stadium built largely with taxpayers' money that opened last year. As a result the Brewers made more money in 2001 than any team in baseball ($16 million, including $1.7 million from revenue sharing).

Nonetheless, Milwaukee suffered its ninth straight losing season, then dumped one of its most productive but expensive players, outfielder Jeromy Burnitz ($7.16 million salary), while adding middling veterans such as infielder Eric Young ($2 million) and outfielders Alex Ochoa ($2.75 million) and Matt Stairs ($500,000). This year the Brewers stumbled to a franchise-worst 3-12 start, costing manager Davey Lopes his job. Homegrown players? The Brewers have five. A 15-game winner? They haven't had one since 1993 ( Cal Eldred). A Gold Glove winner? You have to go back two decades ( Robin Yount).

The glow of Miller Park has dimmed quickly; at week's end attendance was down by 8,252 per game compared with last year. Still, in the bizarro world of contraction, building a winner is less important than pulling off a sweetheart stadium deal, which is why the Brewers are ensconced and the Twins are sweating a stay of execution.