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

April 29, 2002
April 29, 2002

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April 29, 2002

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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

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.

This is an article from the April 29, 2002 issue Original Layout

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 21st-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.

--Tom Verducci

COLOR PHOTO: TOM OLMSCHEID/AP Homegrown Jones (tripling against the Tribe) is one of Ryan's picks that paid off.