Doug Wolter: Twins fans need convincing
In March, a young man’s thoughts turn to spring.
The Minnesota Twins open the 2014 regular season on March 31 at the Chicago White Sox, and they may be a year or two away (or five?) from seriously contending in the American League Central Division. Twins fans may realize this, too, because season ticket sales are down for Target Field. Over the weekend, team officials admitted that only 1.6 million tickets have been sold thus far — trailing the 1.75 tickets sold at the same time last year. There is some concern that after drawing a peak 3.2 million fans in Target Field’s first year, total fans for 2014 could fall below the number generated in the Metrodome’s last season in 2009.
There are several reasons for this, of course. The Twins have been underwhelming in recent years, and sometimes even worse than underwhelming. Fans who at one time expected the team to play better than its talent quotient (based on all those years when they were able to do exactly that) have since seen the team fall so far below the “Mendoza line” that even a manager of Ron Gardenhire’s ability hasn’t been able to lift the boat. Heading into 2014, the Twins have improved their pitching prospects but their ability to score runs remains suspect. Could it be that fans have surpassed restlessness and have now entered the state of apathy?
It doesn’t help that the Twins play in the AL Central, a weak division but one which also contains the star-laden Detroit Tigers. I read somewhere that some oddsmakers are making the Tigers the favorite to win the World Series. One of the reasons for their optimism — they have no competition within the Central.
One can never be too sure, of course. When veteran Twins broadcaster Dick Bremer was in Worthington a few months ago as part of the Twins Caravan, he sounded very sincere in claiming that the Twins have an outstanding crop of young talent residing in the minor leagues, and when they’re ready — which will be soon — the good guys will contend for championships.
Shades of the early Eighties. Kirby, Kent, Frank, Tom and Gary, and so on.
I followed up on Dick’s comments after the official speech, and he sounded even more convincing. But when it comes to today’s Twins fan, most will only be convinced by what they see on the field. The Twins managed to win division titles in the past by being able to squeeze every drop out of teams of average talent. But there comes a point when good management isn’t enough. Over the past three seasons, the Twins’ talent quotient has fallen well below average, and it’s been impossible to generate that old black magic.
Three straight seasons of 90-plus losses will make even the most optimistic fans grow cynical. And that’s where the Twins are at today.
If the Twins were more like the Tigers, the Yankees or the Red Sox, they’d have gone out and purchased big-name free agents. But that is not their style. They have never been the kind of franchise that likes to lavish multi-year contracts on superstars just to fill the seats. They prefer middle-of-the-road players who they hope are on the way up, not down. So what you have with the Twins in 2014 is their one true superstar, home-grown Joe Mauer, doggedly pursuing his craft in an era of losing.
It is sad when a great player must deal with so much losing. It probably shouldn’t diminish their legacy, but it does. I was still a young man when the great Chicago Cubs shortstop, Ernie Banks, completed a Hall of Fame career having never played in a World Series. To this day, his failure to get to a World Series is probably the most-remembered fact fans associate with Ernie Banks.
My favorite player as a boy was Detroit Tigers outfielder Al Kaline, and I remembered in his later years how sports writers said it was such a shame that he never played in a World Series — until 1968 happened and he finally got his spot on the national stage.
Baseball is the ultimate team game, but the unfortunate thing about that is that no matter how good you are, you can only go so far as your general manager will take you. Oh, you can have a monster year and make a good team look great. But no matter how good you are, you can’t make a mediocre team look great.