A Minnesota Twins history lesson.
Yesterday, (July 30th, 2021) the Minnesota Twins moved 3 pitchers at the trade deadline, including Jose Berrios. In addition to trading Nelson Cruz the week previous, the moves signify that the Twins are looking to “rebuild” for the future. As one might expect there was mixed reaction on social media. Some hailed the “massive haul” of prospects the Twins got in return, congratulating the Twins on their soon to be success and future World Series titles. Others (like me), who have seen this before, were extremely frustrated.
For some, that word is exciting. Especially when those prospects can be ranked and quantified. We can then use those metrics to measure our future success and start planning championship celebrations, as well as parade routes.
For me, that word makes me shake my head and roll my eyes. Why, you ask?
History. If you have followed the Twins for more than 10 years, you’ve seen this situation before. (Yes, I’m taking a shot at some of the younger know-it-alls). But let’s go back even further.
In December 1919, Clark Griffith purchased the Washington Senators. Griffith was actually the team’s manager, and had grown frustrated with being handcuffed by ownership's lack of spending on player’s salaries, and thus inability to put together a competitive team. In purchasing the team, he could make those decisions himself. The senators won the World Series in 1924. After that season, Griffith became known as the same type of penny-pinching owner he had once been critical of. It was said that Clark was so cheap, he would try to save money by having the stadium lights shut off immediately after a game - even while patrons were still trying to find their way to the exits. He passed that same philosophy on to his adopted nephew Calvin. When Clark died in 1955 Calvin took over the team and moved them to the Twin Cities, renaming them the Minnesota Twins.
Back in those days there was no free agency. Players were essentially the property of the teams that owned their rights. The “reserve clause” was a part of a contract that stated teams would retain the rights to a player even after their contract expired. When their contract expired, players had to either sign with the same team, of they wouldn’t play. In 1970, Curt Flood, a center fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, filed a lawsuit challenging Major League Baseball’s Reserve Clause. Even though Flood lost the lawsuit, an arbitrator’s ruling in 1975 known as the ‘Seitz Decision’ led to the abolishment of the reserve clause and opened the door for free agency.
Calvin Griffith hated free agency and was very much opposed to it. He felt free agency was the ruination of baseball. When players were good enough to demand higher salaries, Griffith refused to pay them. Before he would lose those players in free agency, he traded them away for….prospects. Just like the word suggests, a prospect is a gamble and there was no guarantee the prospects would turn into a player of equal value. So why would Calvin trade his players for prospects, and not other established players of equal ability? Because he didn’t have to pay the prospects as much. Prospects made considerably less than an established major leaguer. It wasn’t ever about trying to “rebuild”. It was a salary dump.
In May of 1978, soon to be seven-time batting champion and reigning American League MVP, Rod Carew, had grown frustrated with Twins’ owner Calvin Griffith and the way he did business. After playing in the ALCS in 1969 and 70 (and getting swept both times) the Twins had fallen on hard times. Since that 1970 ALCS the Twins finished no higher than 3rd in the AL West. Carew had witnessed quite a few of his teammates traded to other teams and were now making considerably more money - Lymon Bostock, Larry Hisle, and famously Bert Blyleven, who flipped off a heckling Met Stadium crowd the night before he was traded.
At that time, Carew was making $180,000 per year. As a comparison, Cincinnati Red’s Pete Rose, a former MVP, was making $375,000 per year. Philadelphia’s Mike Schmidt was making $560,000 per year, and he wouldn’t win the MVP until 1980. Carew knew what he was worth and that he could make more elsewhere. But he wanted to stay in Minnesota and was willing to take less than he would get with another team. After a few rounds of negotiations, Griffith offered a two-year extension at $240,000/ year. Carew was upset with not only the dollar amount but also the term. He was looking for $3.5 million for 5 years. ($700,000 per year)
But it wasn’t just about money. Carew wanted to play for a competitive team. The Twins needed pitching (Sound familiar?) In May of 1978, they brought in former Cy Young winner Mike Marshall for a tryout. Even though he had impressed the coaches, Calvin said he wouldn’t offer him a contract. That prompted Carew to declare that he would never sign another contract with the Minnesota Twins again. To appease Carew, Marshall was signed a few days later, but the damage was done. Sid Hartman, the most positive sports writer in all of Minnesota wrote in the Minneapolis Tribune, "Well Calvin, if Carew goes, you might as well go with him because the last of your fans will disappear.”
Griffith tried to trade Carew that summer and for 12 tense days in June, Twins fans were on edge. Calvin was quoted in the Minneapolis Tribune as saying “We couldn’t see anything satisfactory in the offers we received from other teams.”
In September, Griffith made some public remarks that didn’t help the situation. He was giving a speech at the Waseca Lions club, and didn’t know that there was a Minneapolis Tribune reporter in the crowd. In addition to insulting many of his players, he called Carew a “damn fool” for signing his current contract, and added “we all know damn well he’s worth a lot more than that.” In addition to insulting Carew personally, Griffith made racist remarks. According to the Tribune, Calvin “lowered his voice and asked if there were any blacks around. After looking around the room and assured himself that his audience was white, Griffith resumed his answer. “I’ll tell you why we came to Minnesota. It was when I found out you only had 15,000 blacks here. Black people don’t go to ball games, but they’ll fill up a rassling ring and put up such a chant it‘ll scare you to death.””
In December, a tentative deal was worked out with the Giants. Per MLB “veteran” rules, Carew could reject trades to teams he did not want to play with, and after meeting with the Giants, decided it was not for him.
In February 1979, Griffith had worked out a tentative deal with the Yankees. According to most reports that deal included Chris Chambliss, Juan Beniquez, Damaso Garcia, and a Righetti. (either Dave or Steve, reports differ on which Righetti). According to Sid Hartman, negotiations with Steinbrenner broke down when Calvin held up the deal insisting on getting more prospects. Steinbrenner got frustrated and walked away from the negotiations.
A few days later, Carew was traded to the California Angels for CF Ken Landreaux, RHP Dave Hartzell and 2 prospects, Dave Engle and Brad Havens in addition to $200,000 cash. Many baseball historians believe the New York deal would have been better for the Twins in the long run, but Calvin got his prospects. Carew then signed a 5-year contract with California that paid him $800,000 per year.
In 1982, the Metrodome opened. It would be the first season in the brand-new, downtown stadium. This caused fans to be a bit more excited about the Twins than they had been recently, especially after 11 fairly uncompetitive seasons. The season before (1981), the Twins finished in last place (7th) in the AL West and 23 games out of first place. That season was shortened by a strike. Getting back to baseball, and opening a new stadium, brought some much-needed excitement to Twins fans. Calvin, however, had begun to have thoughts of selling the team. In preparation, he decided to liquidate some of his assets. At the beginning of the season, he traded veteran Roy Smalley to the Yankees for Ron “Boom Boom” Davis, Paul Boris, and Greg Gagne. A month later he traded veterans Rob Wilfong and Doug Corbett to the Angels for Tom Brunansky and prospect Mike Walters. Less than 48 hours later, he traded veterans Butch Wynegar and Roger Erickson to the Yankees for Pet Filson, Larry Melbourne and John Pacella. The Twins finished 60 -102 that season. The worst record in Twins history, until 2016.
Carl Pohlad purchased the Twins from Calvin Griffith in 1984. The Twins won the World Series in 1987 and 1991. Some might argue that the moves that Griffith made before selling the team were part of the foundation of the 87 and 91 WS teams. Which is somewhat true. And in that case, the “rebuild” worked. But some forget, the Twins also brought in some free agents and made trades (Don Baylor, Jack Morris) to bolster the team for playoff runs. After those WS wins, the economics of baseball changed greatly. The strike in 1995 and the subsequent Collective Bargaining Agreements changed the game. Those following CBA’s created a revenue sharing system where the teams with the lowest revenues share in the profits of the teams with the highest revenues. The assumption is that those lower teams would use that shared revenue to improve their team. But those CBA’s do not specify what teams are required to spend the shared revenues on. In other words, they don’t have to use it on player payroll. In addition, salaries in the MLB have grown exponentially. It's created a system of "haves" and "have nots". Larger market teams that make more money can pay big name players higher salaries than the smaller market teams can. In other words, a rebuild in 1982 is VERY different than a rebuild in 2021.
Following the World Series victory in 1991, Twins owner Carl Pohlad told Jack Morris to go sign with Toronto, because he only had enough money for one ‘star’ and that he was saving his money for Kirby. That season the Twins finished 2nd in the AL west. Toronto won the World Series.
In the mid to late 90’s baseball’s realignment put the Twins in the AL Central Division. This Twins rebuild was not as successful. The Twins finished in last or second to last in the division for their first 7 seasons in the AL Central. During that time Pohlad fell in love with Cleveland’s Jacobs Field and decided he needed a new stadium - telling the Minnesota legislature that the 13-year-old Metrodome was obsolete. When they didn’t give him what he wanted, he slashed payroll, threatened to sell/move the team, and eventually volunteered the team for contraction. As a giant middle finger to MLB and contraction, the 2002 Twins went on a run that season winning the AL Central Division. Although Pohlad initially denied volunteering for contraction, he finally admitted it….during the celebration of the ALDS victory over Oakland. The Twins have not won a post season series since.
In May of 2006, the Ball Park Bill was passed. The Twins said the new ballpark would allow them to stay competitive, ie increase payroll. Less than 4 months after ground was broken for Target Field, The Twins let Torii Hunter sign with the California Angels as a free agent. The Twins had reportedly offered him a 3-year deal, but Hunter wanted a longer term. 3 months later, the Twins traded ace, Johan Santana, to the Mets for Carlos Gomez, Deolis Guerra, Phil Humber and Kevin Mulvey. Just four seasons after Target Field opened, the Twins were back in the the bottom third of the league in payroll.
I could go on. Don’t even get me going on the 2019 Bomba Squad, and the Twins not pulling the trigger for pitching at the trade deadline. Why? Because the prospects were so precious and it would have "mortgaged the future." It reminds me of that scene in Top Gun where Maverick can’t pull the trigger. “The shot’s no good”, he says. There was no better time than 2019 to pull that trigger. And. They. Didn’t. If not then, when? And what makes people so confident they will in the future? History has shown otherwise.
Last week, a media member disparaged Twins fans for saying “same old Twins”. I would challenge that person or any other person to explain how this time is different, because history disagrees with you. When I hear the word 'prospect', I don’t hear 'rebuild', or 'future'. History has taught me that word means “less expensive', and 'get something for the guy we won’t pay”. Is our 2021 situation a rebuild, or another salary dump disguised as a rebuild so the fans will buy it? I’m writing this to defend those of us who feel frustrated. We see the same things over and over. History shows a clear pattern and consistent philosophy. I understand that some of you get so excited about all the prospects and how wonderful the Twins are going to be someday. But what happens when/if those prospects mature and demand higher salaries? When will the “window” be open? When will the Twins go “all in”? Under current ownership, I'm struggling to believe it would ever happen.
At some point the Twins have to decide if they are playing for a championship, or participation ribbons. If they’re playing for a championship, they are going to have to do some things that are very foreign to them. Can they win a championship with a payroll in the bottom half of the league? It’s possible, but extremely unlikely. If you want to change something, you have to do things differently. The definition of insanity is doing the same things and expecting different results. As someone who keeps watching this situation play out over and over, I question myself in a similar fashion, as should other Twins fans at this point
Maybe if fans listened to history, the Twins would stop repeating themselves.