Expecting a stadium to give us a good team was an impossible dream

Minnesota Twins fans flocked to Target Field on Opening Day 2014.   Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

It didn’t take Minnesota Twins fans long to give up on the 2014 baseball season, judging by today’s MPR News story about yesterday’s attendance woes at Target Field — one game.

The 35,000 who showed up represented the smallest crowd at Target Field since the place opened.

The Twins aren’t a good team; that much can’t possibly be a surprise to the region’s baseball fans, who also abandoned the team in the ’90s at the Metrodome, long blamed for diminishing the “baseball experience.”

Who to blame for this? Where to start?

“Was building Target Field a mistake?” That’s what my colleague Mike Olson asks in Today’s Question. No, it wasn’t. It’s a great ballpark, it’s outdoors, and going there is a pretty fun experience.

What Mike is asking, however is: Was Minnesota sold a bill of goods in the decade-long stadium debate? The word “competitive” was thrown around pretty liberally at the time, suggesting that if the Minnesota Twins wanted to field good teams, it had to compete with the New York Yankees and big-market teams when it comes to revenue.

Few people at the time seemed to ask the question: “What do you mean by competitive?”

At a hearing in 1996, then Twins president Jerry Bell said it meant not bleeding red ink. The team, he said, was more than $30 million in debt.

There was, actually, very little talk about actually field a good team. It was more about keeping a team from exercising an option to get out of a Metrodome lease if attendance fell below 80 percent of 1997’s average attendance.

Competitive wasn’t about wins. It was about money. The team had no parking revenue, and no suite revenue at the Metrodome .

“From what I can tell, the owners have to see the financial rupture they’re facing. They can only lose money for so long and then they have to sell the team,” then Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe insisted. “This is a reasonable way to approach the problem — it is basically a financial issue.”

There’s plenty to argue about on the question of whether taxpayers should have bailed out the Pohlad family, but the clear debate at the time was simply this: Minnesota either has a baseball team (warts and all) or it doesn’t.

The team consistently painted a romantic picture of baseball, rarely failing in legislative testimony to invoke the image of an elderly woman in a nursing home, watching her Twins on TV, one of the few high points in an otherwise depressing existence. That the Twins have since moved all their TV broadcasts off free TV since then is a bigger moral failing than not winning enough games.

But it was never a reasonable goal to be able to keep up with the Yankees and their ability to spend money. Teams in big markets are coming up with new ways to grab more revenue, too.

The Twins certainly had a moral obligation to field a better team than it has. But it spent much of its payday on keeping catcher Joe Mauer and then budding star Justin Morneau. Their contracts violated every tenet of “Moneyball,” the Oakland Athletics’ (the team that beat them on opening day yesterday) formula for fielding a good team on a small budget. But the Twins had no choice. It would have been a political disaster to get a taxpayer-funded stadium and then let Mauer and Morneau go.

A series of disastrous baseball decisions followed before general manager Bill Smith was fired, replaced by onetime savior Terry Ryan, who’s made a few bad decisions since then.

But the Twins are following an age-old recipe for rebuilding the competitive nature of the team in a weak division: Restocking the farm system with talent and then being patient. The team could have made the same mistake other teams have made: Bring in decrepit, over-the-hill players the fans would recognize and try to fake it.

In the end, it remains a stain on the game of baseball, though, that a season begins without hope. That one isn’t on the fans; that one’s on the league which can’t for the life of it figure out what every other sport has figured out — that teams should all be playing by the same economic rules.

That we expected any other result in the face of that reality, though … that one is on us.