Curtains?

In only five years, the sports mecca of Minnesota has said goodbye to its NHL team and, by voting down proposals for new stadiums, has all but lost the Twins and begun to alienate the Vikings. The way the economics of sports works nowadays, this could happen to any city in America
December 22, 1997

In the final days of the debate

, before Minnesota seceded from the major leagues, the manager of the Twins shambled to a microphone on the steps of the state capitol and made a novel, nakedly self-interested appeal to taxpayers, who had thus far been reluctant to build a $411 million stadium for the team's owner, an 82-year-old billionaire bank executive named Carl Pohlad.

"I can't imagine having to get up and move again after 10 years of living in Maplewood, Minnesota," Tom Kelly told the motley crowd of 200 or so baseball fans assembled for one last Save the Twins rally on Oct. 28. "It makes me sick to think of it." Then Kelly urged the people to call their legislators, announced that he had a pressing appointment elsewhere and clattered down the capitol steps toward the parking lot, his nylon sweat suit swish-swishing all the way.

Kent Hrbek spoke too. The Minnesota native and former Twins first baseman recalled that the team's first World Series victory parade had ended at that very spot in 1987. "Ten years ago, almost to the day, we were on these steps," said Hrbek. He added glumly, "There were a few more people out there."

As he spoke, state legislators were serially rejecting proposals to fund a new ballpark with public money. This was in accordance with the wishes of the vast majority of Minnesotans, if you believed the public-opinion polls published in the previous nine months, during which time the Twins found innovative ways to engender ill will with the populace. The running joke among legislators was that Pohlad could offer to build the stadium himself and throw the doors open for free, and still the state would vote no.

The Twins had said they would probably move to North Carolina following the 1998 season rather than remain in the 15-year-old Metrodome, which was built to last 30 years. Never mind that voters in North Carolina had yet to decide if they wanted to build a ballpark with tax dollars, exasperated as they had become with the owner of the Charlotte Hornets, George Shinn, who desired a new arena to replace the Charlotte Coliseum--which is nine years old.

So Minnesota is a microcosm. The new-stadium debate is taking place or has just taken place in nearly every city of any size in America, giving proponents of new, publicly funded sports palaces a simple argument: Everybody else is doing it, so why can't we?

After the Twins' abject rally ended, a solitary new-stadium supporter remained on the capitol steps, his Twins cap literally bearing a scarlet letter. "Seattle is building two stadiums," said 25-year-old Mark Snyder, who earns $12 an hour at a Minneapolis nonprofit organization. "One of those stadiums is for [Seahawks owner] Paul Allen, who makes Carl Pohlad look poor. Why can't we do that here?"

Snyder had lived in Minnesota long enough to know the answer. "Minnesotans look at this as an emotional issue," he said. "They think that sports have gone out of control. Minnesota is saying, 'We'll stand up and say we're not going to take this anymore.'" Two weeks later, after some last-gasp legislative maneuvering by pro-stadium folks, the state said precisely that.

Where have you gone, Pat O'Brien? In the 12 months from May 1991 to April '92, my home state was the sports capital of America, hosting the Stanley Cup finals, golf's U.S. Open, the World Series, the Super Bowl and the Final Four, the last three played out beneath the Teflon roof of the Metrodome in Minneapolis.

CBS televised the Final Four, which opened with a wide shot of the stadium's exterior. "I remember Pat O'Brien set the scene by announcing, 'If it's a big sports event, we must be in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul,'" recalls Sam Sigelman, a producer at local all-sports radio station KFAN. Sigelman laughs sardonically and says, "Today, Pat O'Brien is hosting Access Hollywood, and we're losing all our sports teams."

The last five years have certainly been "quite a deal," as the Minnesotans in the film Fargo would have politely euphemized the sordid events that have happened during that span. First, in 1992, the Stanley Cup-finalist North Stars moved to Dallas, their owner staying one step ahead of a sexual harassment suit filed against him in the Twin Cities--and later settled out of court. (St. Paul has been promised an NHL expansion team in 2000, but that's contingent on the building of a new arena.)

Two years later the NBA Timberwolves moved to New Orleans. "I bought a house there and looked forward to warm weather," T-Wolves guard Doug West says. But the league nullified the deal, and the team was saved for Minnesotans by a white knight named Glen Taylor, who bought the T-Wolves in March 1995 for $88.5 million. Last Oct. 1 Taylor signed 21-year-old forward Kevin Garnett to a six-year, $125 million contract extension, after Da Kid (as he has nicknamed himself) rejected Taylor's initial offer of $103.5 million. This occasioned much statewide hand-wringing, and several waiters and bellhops called local newspapers to out Garnett as a poor tipper.

Six weeks later, on the snowy night of Nov. 13, the state legislature rejected the Twins' final stadium proposal by an 84-47 vote. The capitol switchboard had received nearly 500,000 calls in the preceding three days, and several legislators said after the vote that abortion could not touch the stadium as the hottest-button issue they had ever encountered.

Meanwhile, on Halloween, the Vikings had announced that they too could not survive without a new stadium. They also let slip that their team was for sale, and three barbarians were at the gate: ownership groups from Birmingham, Los Angeles and Toronto.

Somewhere in there, Vikings coach Dennis Green had published his autobiography, in which he said he would sue some of the team's 10 owners if they didn't sell him controlling interest. Asked what his KFAN callers thought of all this, Sigelman said, "They're just tired of what's happening."

I had intended to call George Mikan, the former Minneapolis Lakers great, who still lives in Minnesota, to find out what he made of the state's sports landscape. (I had been told he was devastated when the Lakers moved to Los Angeles in 1959.) Then I read in a new biography of Mikan that he works with aspiring pro sports owners around the country to facilitate franchise relocations. I left the telephone on its cradle, too depressed to make the call. Instead, I set out to interview the principals, among them Pohlad, Taylor, Garnett and Roger Headrick, who's a Vikings owner and the team president.

I spoke to Headrick on the day the legislature shot down the Twins' stadium for the final time. The Twins had argued that the Vikings were trying to sabotage their new-stadium chances and drive them out of town, but Headrick appeared sobered by the bloodbath at the capitol, which he followed all day live on television. "We could certainly take the position that in turning down the Twins, they're turning down professional sports," Headrick said. "They're sick of dealing with a problem that looks as if it has no long-term solution. I mean, how much is enough, and where does it all end?"

How much is enough? As San Diego, Washington, Baltimore, Nashville, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, San Francisco and Detroit all help pay for new or radically renovated stadiums that their NFL teams will move into between now and 2002, Minnesotans appear to have said, Enough is enough.

Where does it all end? In a proud and peculiar and perhaps enlightened state. Along with Pittsburghers (who rejected a proposal to build new stadiums for the Steelers and the Pirates on Nov. 4), Minnesotans are speaking a heretical sentence in turn-of-the-century America: "Stop the sports world, we want to get off."

Pohlad declined to speak to me, and to be fair, the man has taken a beating of late. His home phone and address are listed, and not long ago an escapee from some radio Morning Zoo doorstepped Pohlad's wife, Eloise, and asked her the monumentally tasteless question, "Is he out buying a cemetery plot?"

In the demagoguery of the stadium debate Pohlad was reduced to an irresistible alliterative epithet, billionaire banker. When I mentioned the phrase to Headrick, a New Jersey native, he said, "Oh, yeah, that's part of the culture of Minnesota--pinpointing anyone who is different, particularly in terms of wealth."

Different and wealthy are not compliments in Minnesota, and Pohlad is both, if you believe the famous lines of St. Paul native F. Scott Fitzgerald: "Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me."

As a state, Minnesota is both very rich and very different. It has the highest property-tax rate in the nation and enjoyed a $2 billion budget surplus in 1997. "We are not like a lot of other states," says Taylor, a former minority leader in the Minnesota senate. "We want to be thought of as a very progressive state, but we don't want to be thought of as a big state. We're willing to pay more taxes for certain things, and we're very prideful of those things." He mentions schools and parks but not $411 million retractable-roof stadiums. What is the source of such reasonableness? "It's probably something historical, in our upbringing or from the immigrants who first came here," Taylor says. "It's somehow in the fiber."

Minnesota, as I have written before in these pages, is the Don't Show Me State. The Norwest Center in downtown Minneapolis was designed to be a few feet shorter than the state's tallest building, the nearby IDS Center. Minnesota has 12,034 lakes, but it rounded the number down to 10,000 for the inscription on its license plates. In 1899 a Minnesota resident, the sociologist Thorstein Veblen, coined the phrase "conspicuous consumption," which aptly describes what Minnesotans find objectionable about so many exotic (which is to say non-Minnesotan) cultures. "Ten to 15 years ago, you wouldn't find many limousines in Minnesota," said Headrick. "Now you see a few more. But I'd say most of those are hired by players and some of the entertainment people, who don't come from the same culture."

Taylor is very much from the Minnesota culture. He agreed to my interview request by saying, "Well, you're from Minnesota, I can trust you." ("You betcha," I wanted to reply.) He's a billionaire who seems to belie Fitzgerald's assessment of the very rich. "I don't think I'm different from a lot of people," he said. He still lives in the small southwestern Minnesota town of Mankato, 70 miles from "the Cities," which he speaks of as if they were Gotham. "I like where I was brought up and how I was brought up," Taylor says. "I like the small town. I know the people. I feel very comfortable there. I feel if you go to the Cities, you get lost a bit. I don't belong to any clubs. I think I get the best of both worlds: I can be involved in the Twin Cities' sports, theater and shopping and still get in my car and drive home and know all my neighbors."

Taylor is the largest employer in Mankato. His company, Taylor Corp., prints half of all the wedding invitations in the U.S. "In Mankato," he said, "when I go to the supermarket or I go to the mall, I hear everybody's opinion." He's self-made, and he's self-aware enough to know how decadent the NBA appears to his neighbors. Consider: On top of the $125 million that he will pay Garnett, Taylor recently paid the league $25,000 in fines because Da Kid and his teammates like to wear their shorts an inch longer than the league allows.

Just how sybaritic have professional sports become? While waiting in the Timberwolves' reception area to see Taylor, I read a small item in the Minneapolis Star Tribune's sports section about ex-Wolves coach Bill Musselman, now an assistant with the Portland Trail Blazers, a team owned by the aforementioned Paul Allen.

According to Forbes, Allen is the 15th-richest person on Earth. His fortune reportedly increased by $975 million in the same year that the state of Washington gave him $300 million to build the Seahawks a new stadium. The Blazers have practiced in Allen's home gymnasium before games in Seattle, and they fly to and from games in his $95 million Boeing 757 jet. "You should see our plane," Musselman gloated in the Star Tribune. "They cater Ruth's Chris Steak House on it. And we're the first plane to have a satellite dish."

The second plane (I read slack-jawed) was Air Force One.

That's when I was ushered in to see Taylor. "The biggest problem here is the accelerated salaries," said Taylor, who has reluctantly left his shoe print on the accelerator. "The money that is being spent, and the ticket prices going up--people are upset, and they don't know how to respond negatively to that. They've picked this"--the stonewalling on a new stadium--"as a way to do it."

Taylor sees in Garnett "wonderful qualities that go beyond the court: his smile, his treatment of people, his willingness to get involved, characteristics we all love." But Taylor added that virtually every member of the public who wrote, telephoned or faxed the Timberwolves' offices opposed the $125 million offer. "Almost everybody said, 'You shouldn't have offered him more; the first offer was a very generous one,'" Taylor said. But he noted that other owners had been prepared to pay Garnett as much, and in the end the T-Wolves had little choice but to preempt them. As Taylor had said before, "I've already owned a bad team." It wasn't any fun.

Garnett is. I watched him play on Nov. 1, the second night of the season, in a 106-90 win over Charlotte. At one point he hit a jump shot and then pantomimed sucking on an imaginary cigar and blowing a puff of smoke toward the Target Center rafters. Life was good, and after the game he shouted in the locker room, "Smile, people, it's another beautiful night in Minnesota! It's not even snowing yet!" Told that it was, in fact, beginning to snow, Garnett pulled a long face, which grew longer when teammate Chris Carr told him, "They were joking about you again on the radio this morning."

"Another stinkin'-ass money joke?" Garnett said with a sigh. "I don't want to hear it." Soon thereafter, as Carr chanted, "Gimme a dollar! Gimme a dollar," Garnett disappeared into the trainer's room.

When he emerged an hour later, he politely dismissed any questions about his contract. "That's done," he said. "The fans love me, and I love the fans, and I'll leave it at that."

When he signed the contract, Garnett told a press conference, "It wasn't nothin' about the loot." One was tempted to reply, "No, it was about all the things you can buy with the loot." But that would only smack of envy. After the T-Wolves' 129-113 win over the Golden State Warriors on opening night, Garnett wore a watch that witnesses described as breathtaking: silver (perhaps platinum) encrusted with diamonds. It would be cheaper to strap an atomic clock to your wrist. It bothered nobody, least of all Garnett, that the timepiece was four hours off.

The day before the Vikings played a road game against the Arizona Cardinals on Oct. 5, Headrick was given permission to tour the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks' deliriously lavish new baseball park, a $354 million retractable-roof Colosseum. "There's a hot tub in rightfield," said Headrick. "Beer gardens above the hot tub. They've got a front-row restaurant in left centerfield, suite levels that are paid for and advertised on by Infiniti. They've got BankOne's name on the stadium, panels in centerfield that open up to the outside and downtown. It's unbelievable. It's like an amusement park surrounding a baseball game, and you can wander around and watch things that have nothing to do with the game."

That last feature would have been especially attractive in a new Twins ballpark, because Minnesota hasn't had a winning season in five years. The Vikings haven't won a playoff game in a decade. Headrick insisted that his team, which was 8-7 at week's end, cannot compete long-term with clubs that are backstroking naked down new revenue streams.

When Headrick enumerated the inadequacies of the Metrodome, I couldn't help but wonder who his target customer was--Caligula? "There is no stadium club," he said of the Dome. "The suites are without rest room facilities. The entrance to each suite is directly off the concourse, and there's no private entrance."

All of which explains why the Vikings are now 28th (of 30) in league revenue. "And," said Headrick, "if we don't get some improvement in our situation, either in lease changes that would reduce our expenses or in revenue enhancements in our stadium, or possibly a new stadium, we're going to be 30th pretty soon."

He didn't claim that the Vikings are losing money--an impossibility, since the NFL's Croesus-level TV and merchandising revenues are shared equally by all teams. No, the Vikings simply make $7 million less than the average NFL franchise. Which raises the question: Doesn't somebody, by definition, have to make less than the average? Bill Lester, the executive director of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, which operates the Metrodome, chuckled softly when that question was put to him. "Roger Headrick wants a league like Lake Wobegon," said Lester, "where everybody is above average."

The University of Minnesota mascot is called Goldy Gopher, and the governor of Minnesota, Arne Carlson, has been lampooned on local radio as Goldy Guv'nor for his unabashed sports boosterism. In November, Carlson flew around the state stumping for a new major league baseball stadium on a plane he called Gopher One. After one particularly dire day in the legislature, he called a press conference and looked grief-stricken. His name is carved festively from a single piece of driftwood that rests on his desk, but his words were grave: "I think there's a realization that, Oh my gosh, we could lose the Twins, we could lose the Vikings, and you know what? We may not get hockey."

There was a time not long ago when Minnesotans wouldn't have countenanced life without the big leagues. Hubert Humphrey, the man for whom the desolate Metrodome was named, once remarked that without professional sports the Twin Cities would be "a cold Omaha." Carlson prefers to demean Des Moines in such comparisons, but the message remains the same.

In November a commercial presenting a nightmare vision of downtown Minneapolis--frigid, bereft of life, the wind whistling over fading Twins radio broadcasts--aired incessantly on Twin Cities TV stations, accompanied by a single line of text: "Paid for by the Minnesota Twins." The ad appeared to serve no purpose, except as a raised middle finger to Minnesotans from a team on its way out of town, and even local sports officials weren't buying its hubristic premise. "The North Stars left town," says Lester, whose livelihood depends on keeping professional sports in Minnesota, "and as I recall, the sun came up the very next morning."

"If we want to say, 'This has all become too expensive, this isn't high on our priority list,' then let's just say that," says Taylor, who very much wants the Twins to stay. "Let's not get mad at the owner. Let's just say that we're going to put our money elsewhere and we think that, in doing this, we will remain a very fine state." That is, in essence, what the state legislature said, even as the Twins tried with increasing desperation to cajole, browbeat and guilt-trip residents into thinking that Minnesota couldn't survive the club's departure.

The Twins' ceaseless television ad campaign reached its nadir when footage of a player visiting the bedside of a bald young cancer patient was accompanied by the following sober narration: "If the Twins leave Minnesota, an eight-year-old from Willmar will never get a visit from Marty Cordova." The screen faded to black, and up came the words, "Call your legislator."

Viewers reacted with horror, and the Twins pulled the ad. The featured child, it turned out, wasn't from the western Minnesota town of Willmar, wasn't even from the state--and had died months before the commercial was broadcast. Knowing that the public-relations battle had long been lost, the Twins issued a boilerplate statement that read, in part: "We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused the family."

Exactly how things came to such a sorry pass, and so quickly, is difficult to say. Nobody wants the Twins to leave. Nor does anyone want to lose the Vikings--even if their first four home games this season were blacked out on local TV because they were not sold out. The Vikings are seen by millions of viewers each week that they appear on national television. The football team is one of the public faces of Minnesota, with an oddly international following: 36 fan clubs around the world, including one in Edinburgh.

On Oct. 28, at that Save the Twins rally, I stood with Kirby Puckett, the former Minnesota centerfielder who just six years earlier had almost single-handedly won Game 6 of the World Series. By then Puckett was the most popular citizen of Minnesota. "In '87 and '91 we were the best," said Puckett, a reluctant pitchman for Pohlad, who still pays him $500,000 a year. "It's like people are forgetting about that right now."

But another theory held that people were remembering, that this was a long-awaited day of reckoning. "It makes me sad," says Lester. "This community never got over the baseball strike. It really was like one spouse cheating on another. Our commission supports a new stadium effort, and our objective is to keep professional sports here, and professional sports really are one of those rare things that allow you to build community when we already have so many things that divide it.

"But take the Twins. Forbes just said that Carl Pohlad is worth $1.3 billion. I was at the capitol and heard a legislator say, 'At that point, wouldn't you just give some of it away?' I mean, all of us would."

Pohlad claimed to be doing just that last summer when he offered an $84 million "gift" to the state toward a new stadium. (The "gift" was soon revealed to be a "loan," and Minnesotans have had their hands on their wallets ever since.)

In September, Pohlad reached an agreement to sell the Twins to North Carolina nursing-home magnate Don Beaver, reportedly for $140 million, if he didn't get a new stadium approved by Nov. 30--which he didn't. (Pohlad reportedly can break the deal by paying Beaver $100,000.) Then, in November, at the end of this withering year of hardball, Pohlad said he would donate the Twins to an unnamed Minnesota nonprofit foundation (provided he recouped the $86 million in debt he claimed to have amassed with the club and reaped a sizable tax break for the donation). The foundation would have kept the team in Minnesota, selling it off to a private owner (possibly Pohlad) within three to five years, and a new roofless $250 million stadium would have been built with a delirium of user taxes--so many that a bleacher seat probably would have cost in the low four figures. It was all very complicated, and one legislator aptly called the final stadium proposal "a 30-legged stool."

Nevertheless, Pohlad--who, it must be noted, kept the Twins in Minnesota by buying them in 1984, when they were on the verge of moving to Tampa--now seems to be regarded benignly by some Minnesotans. To many, he is the subject of almost anthropological fascination, an 82-year-old billionaire who would roll the dice with his reputation rather than risk losing more of his bottomless fortune.

One state senator from rural Minnesota likened Pohlad to the senator's own father: Whenever the boy would ask him for money, the old farmer would slowly open his wallet, wet his fingers, remove a sawbuck, hold on to it for an eternity before handing it over and then dolefully watch the bill until it receded out of sight. At one point Pohlad offered to contribute $111 million toward his stadium, money raised from "private sources," an investment he would have recouped in 20 years. In the end, you almost had to hand it to the guy. As the Twin Cities weekly City Pages put it, "The octogenarian owner has shown more pluck in trying to overcome his financial losses than his teams have demonstrated in years."

On the day that I interviewed Headrick, an editorial cartoon ran in the Star Tribune. It depicted a panhandler (presumably Pohlad) holding a tin cup marked twins. Behind him stood another panhandler (presumably Headrick) holding a cup of his own, marked VIKINGS, above the first cup.

Headrick now knows what he's up against in asking for stadium funding, and I can only wish him good luck and godspeed. "I think the public has gotten very jaundiced about it all," Headrick said. "Some now feel that it's just not worth it: If that's the price you have to pay, if you have to have new stadiums, then we're not willing to pay it."

Which leaves us, or may leave us, with professional hockey. There's a poster on the door of my neighborhood liquor store--I see it with increasing frequency these days--advertising St. Paul's as-yet-unnamed NHL franchise. It reads, A NEW ICE AGE IS COMING.

The line never fails to amuse me, and I have news for the owner of that team, whoever he may be: Brother, the new Ice Age has already arrived.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY EDMUND GUY [Collage featuring images of Minnesota's sports teams and Metrodome] COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY EDMUND GUY Legislators joked that Pohlad could offer to build a stadium himself and throw open the doors for free, and still the state would vote no. [Drawing of Carl Pohlad as piggy bank] COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY EDMUND GUY The Twin Cities' decline as a sports mecca began when the North Stars saddled up and rode to Dallas. [Collage of Minnesota North Stars player on horse] COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY EDMUND GUY When he signed for $125 million, Garnett said, "It wasn't about the loot." No, it was about all the things you can buy with the loot. [Collage of Kevin Garnett driving sports car] COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY EDMUND GUY As Headrick enumerated the Metrodome's inadequacies, I wondered who his target customer was--Caligula? [Collage of Roger Headrick wearing Viking helmet] COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY EDMUND GUY A TV ad presented a nightmare vision of downtown Minneapolis without the Twins--frigid and bereft of life. [Collage rendering Metrodome as skull and crossbones]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
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