SBJ/July 14-20, 2014/In Depth

Recalling when Minneapolis nearly struck out

As the national spotlight shines on Minneapolis-St. Paul for the 2014 MLB All-Star Game, it’s easy to forget that the Twin Cities came awfully close to losing their baseball team forever in the early 2000s.

In 2001, the Twins were in danger of contraction under a plan by MLB Commissioner Bud Selig to eliminate two teams: Minnesota and the Montreal Expos.

Two factors drove the potential move. First, baseball’s economics had spiraled out of control with regard to player salaries in the mid to late 1990s. Secondly, the Twins had failed to get a new ballpark built to replace the aging Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis.

In 2001, the Twins played in the Metrodome and were in the crosshairs of contraction talk.
Photo by: Getty Images
At the time, there was a feeling of hopelessness in the marketplace and a fair amount of apathy over the Twins’ situation. That added to the challenges facing the Pohlad family, owner of the Twins, to keep the team in the Upper Midwest, said team President Dave St. Peter.

It wasn’t until about five years later, in 2005 after the Twins and public officials finally developed a workable plan to finance construction of a new stadium, that the pressure dissipated. Target Field opened in 2010, preserving MLB in the region for the next generation of fans.

After more than a decade of struggling to come up with a ballpark financing plan, two things happened to turn the tide in the Twins’ favor, said St. Peter, a 25-year Twins employee dating to his days in the team’s media relations department.

One key factor happened on the field in 2001 at the height of the contraction debate. A young Twins team led by Torii Hunter, A.J. Pierzynski, Brad Radke, Christian Guzman and Jacque Jones, among others, got the team off to a hot start, going 14-3 to begin the season. After finishing last in their division in 2000, the Twins surprised many by contending for the title throughout the season before finishing second in the AL Central. It began a six-year run of winning seasons and multiple playoff berths.

“That group of players I really think re-energized the marketplace and reminded our fan base … what it’s like to have a competitive baseball team and how baseball can bring a community together,” St. Peter said.

Secondly, and most importantly, the Twins and Hennepin County officials buckled down and emerged with a stadium development plan that could be approved by the state Legislature.

The Twins initially committed to funding one-third of the construction costs, amounting to $130 million of the original $390 million project. The Pohlads then contributed an additional $50 million for technology and aesthetic upgrades, more public art and concession spaces.

When the county’s $90 million budget for funding road and bridge improvements came up short, the Pohlads stepped up again with another $15 million to help pay for that piece of the project, St. Peter said.

Over the past four years, the Twins have invested $10 million to install another video board at the ballpark, develop Target Field Station (the light rail stop connected to the stadium), and to make other capital improvements.

Completing the financing didn’t eliminate all of the hurdles. The tight ballpark site itself also proved to be a challenge. The 8.5-acre property, one of MLB’s smallest footprints, sits above a federal highway and a railyard. But the resulting design from ballpark architect Populous created a much more intimate facility, St. Peter said.

“Because of that, we ended up with a ballpark with more charm, better sight lines and one that probably fits the scale of our site and the urban grid in downtown Minneapolis much better,” he said.

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