Tuesday March 23rd, 2010

The signing of catcher Joe Mauer by the Minnesota Twins to a contract extension was, despite all the media hang-wringing that he would go all Kevin Garnett and take East Coast, big-market money, a virtual lock ever since May 21, 2006. On that day, the governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, signed into law a bill that assured public funding for a new ballpark for the Twins. Mauer, a local kid whose grandparents watch him play every home game, wanted Minnesota and Minnesota wanted Mauer. All the marriage needed was money, and the Hennepin County taxpayers provided the dowry.

And so in a beautiful case of synchronicity, the signing of Mauer to an eight-year, $184 million contract and the opening of Target Field will take place just 21 days apart. It's the flip side of the opening of the original Yankee Stadium in 1923, when the outsized game and personality of Babe Ruth made the massive structure necessary -- "the House that Ruth Built." This time the player didn't make the ballpark; the ballpark made the player, at least as it pertains to Mauer remaining a Twin through at least age 35.

Of course, the Mauer signing is a good one for baseball, not just for the Twins. Baseball is an intensely local game. Despite the glitz of free agency, the homegrown player, as "one of our own," brings more goodwill to a franchise than the imported one. And when the homegrown player happens also to be born and raised in the community and also is a star, such as Mauer and Baltimore's Cal Ripken Jr., the asset holds even greater worth, both emotionally and financially, for the game at large.

Ripken once told me he thought about leaving the Orioles in 1988, the year the club fired his father as manager near the start of its 0-21 start. Ripken was heading toward free agency, and he was intrigued by the idea of playing for the Yankees after Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield gave him a recruiting pitch at the 1988 All-Star Game. The two New York stars told him that owner George Steinbrenner had mellowed. But not long after that the Boss returned to his bombastic ways and Ripken decided the grass wasn't greener in New York. Within weeks of getting recruited by Mattingly and Winfield, Ripken signed a three-year, $6.3 million extension with the Orioles.

Not coincidentally, the Orioles broke ground the next year on a new ballpark that would change baseball: Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The park, and the almost four million people who filled it annually, catapulted a mid-market franchise into a major power. Ripken never wore another uniform.

The same agent who negotiated contracts to keep Ripken in his hometown, with revenues made possible by a new ballpark, cut the deal to keep Mauer in Minnesota: Ron Shapiro. The agent knew that Mauer wanted to stay and knew that the Twins now have the funds to keep him and -- this is the key part -- still have enough to keep a winning team around him. The Twins now must be regarded as a much different franchise than when they played in the Metrodome, where they were just another tenant.

At the Metrodome, for instance, the Twins ranked near the bottom in baseball in revenue from luxury suites, club seats, concessions, naming rights (which were non-existent) and non-game events, such as concerts. As the sole tenant of Target Field, with its 55 luxury suites, 3,400 club seats and naming rights, the Twins will see an increase in revenue of about $50 million. (Their ballpark expenses also will rise, but only a fraction of the revenue gain.) The season ticket base has jumped from 11,000 to almost 20,000. Can you imagine the Twins raking in an additional $50 million annually from a ballpark built mostly with taxpayer money and not coming up with the cash to keep Mauer? The place probably wouldn't hold up to the angry mobs carrying torches and pitchforks.

But will Twins fans have to watch a mediocre team or worse because their hometown hero eats up too much of the payroll? No, they shouldn't worry. The Twins are a smart, efficient organization. In the past nine years they have had eight winning seasons, five playoff appearances and the seventh-best record in baseball, posting more wins than the big-market Phillies, Cubs, White Sox, Dodgers and Mets, for instance. The Twins traditionally sink between 55 and 60 percent of their revenues into player salaries, a notch above the minimum 50 percent recommended by MLB. Target Field will push Minnesota's revenues toward $200 million, which means that the Twins can carry a payroll of around $110 million without changing their philosophy.

For 2010 the Twins' payroll jumps from $65 million to about $95 million. They already have $68 million committed to seven players for 2011. And thanks to other extensions before the Mauer deal, a Twins fan knows that the core of the team is under the club's control through at least 2013: Mauer, Justin Morneau, Denard Span, Nick Blackburn and Scott Baker.

So don't worry about the Twins. They are not hanging on to Mauer at the cost of competing. They aren't traveling an uncharted road here. Indeed, the Twins today look much like Baltimore in 1992, Cleveland in 1994 and Seattle in 1999: mid-markets stepping up in class with revenues from a new ballpark and the core talent to take advantage of the window. How might the Twins fare in the next eight years? Perhaps the initial eight-year windows in a new ballpark for the Orioles, Indians and Mariners offer a clue. Take a look at how many times in those eight years they ranked in the top three in attendance, posted a winning season, and made the playoffs:

That history suggests the Twins are entering a long and prosperous honeymoon in their new park with Mauer as the centerpiece. But don't kid yourself. The problem with these markets is that they max out their revenues and the window closes with a thud. Take a look at how those same three franchises have fared since their eight-year honeymoons (representing 10 years for Cleveland, eight for Baltimore and three for Seattle):

Big difference. The money and the wins eventually dried up. In their first 24 combined seasons in their new parks, Baltimore, Cleveland and Seattle combined for 19 top three attendance figures, 15 winning seasons and 10 playoff appearances. In their 21 combined seasons since the bloom wore off, they have only four top three attendance figures, four winning seasons and three playoff appearances.

The challenge for the Twins is not so much how do they compete with Mauer pulling down $23 million per year, it is what do they do toward the end of his contract to find more revenue streams to keep the good times rolling?

About two weeks before Minnesota wrapped up the deal with Mauer, one GM in a mid-sized market wondered, "It's going to be very interesting to see how they set the market. They're going to go to a new [salary] number for someone who has never scored 100 runs and never driven in 100 runs."

The premium to Mauer's value, of course, is that he is a catcher. (It's not his hometown appeal, as good of a story as that makes. Boston and New York would have loved the chance to pay him more than what the Twins will pay him.) He is also 26 years old, just entering his traditional prime years.

Like any deal of this length, there is risk involved. Mauer is a 6-foot-5 catcher who tore a ligament in his knee in 2004, missed five weeks in 2007 with a quad strain and missed one month in 2009 with a lower back strain. But Mauer is an excellent athlete with an extremely efficient swing and solid values, the kind of traits that suggest great reliability. He should be able to catch full time for more than half of the contract's length, though he does have the aptitude and agility to play on the corners of the field if Minnesota sees a need to move him.

The contract adds up to a great deal for the Twins and Mauer. He stays home and the Twins can still field a winning team around him. I'm not sure that the contract, the fourth-largest in history behind those for Alex Rodriguez (twice) and Derek Jeter, changes the market, if only because of Mauer's unique combination of age, position and production.

Twelve months from now, Albert Pujols will be at the same crossroads with St. Louis. But Pujols will be 31 entering his walk year and is a corner infielder. His comp is not Mauer, but Alex Rodriguez, who was a 32-year-old corner infielder when the Yankees gave him a 10-year, $275-million contract with bonuses worth another $25 million. Pujols deserves that kind of contract -- no matter what the terms in the Mauer deal.

The Cardinals face a much more difficult time with Pujols than the Twins did with Mauer. St. Louis already has its new ballpark; it is in Year 5 of the honeymoon. (They are 4 for 4 in top three attendance years so far, with three winning seasons and two playoff appearances.)

The Twins, because of the ballpark, came up with $50 million in additional revenue to cover the $10.5 million annual raise for Mauer, who is making $12.5 million this year. Pujols is making $16 million this year and next. So the Cardinals have to cover a slightly bigger annual raise (about $12 million) but are close to being maxed out with their ballpark and attendance revenue. Making the finances work to retain their homegrown star will be much harder for St. Louis than it was for Minnesota.

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