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Twins: Franchise in flux
by Jay Weiner and Kevin Duchschere

Three Twins officials -- president Jerry Bell, general manager Terry Ryan and senior vice president of business affairs Dave St. Peter -- convened in a Metrodome conference room late last week to discuss the 1999 season and the francise's uncertain future.

The discussion with four Star Tribune reporters was a mixture of optimism -- most of the 17 rookies to play this season offered hope for better days -- and pessimism -- a new stadium remains a long shot, casting doubt about the team's future in Minnesota.

Terry Ryan, general manager  

A year ago Terry Ryan wearily fielded questions about whether he would be asked to return for another season as Twins general manager. This season Ryan appears more relaxed, more self-assured, more focused on a future that is now a clearly defined youth movement.

Ryan and manager Tom Kelly sent 17 rookies into games this season, and most of them survived. Although the record showed no improvement, the youngsters provide a modicum of hope.

Asked if he felt more secure about his future, team president Jerry Bell interrupted, saying: "He should, if he doesn't."

"We had some good things going here for the better part of the summer. June, July and August, we started to make some strides, and all of a sudden in September, we have a hit a wall and it's quite unfortunate because that is pretty much how the year may be remembered," Ryan said. "For the most part, we've had some people step into positions where we've rushed many players this year. . . . There's some hope here that we won't be looking for somebody to take Joe Mays' spot or we won't be looking for somebody to play left [where Chad Allen had a good rookie season]. We think that [Cristian] Guzman should be our shortstop of the future. [Corey] Koskie looks like he may be our third baseman of the future. So we've answered some questions.

"We've got a long way to go. . . . We don't have much power. But our pitching staff is in halfway decent shape. That hasn't been the case here for a long time. Now, all of a sudden, we're looking for position players. And they're a little easier to find on any market than pitching. . . . We've got a halfway decent core of players here that I think we can build around."

Ryan said the Twins' payroll next season will probably mirror this season's $16.8 million figure. He said other organizations spend twice as much as the Twins do on scouting and minor league development. Still, it is clear that Ryan has tired of feeling sorry about being a small-market team. He believes it's time to get past that, although he admits:

"If you've got a veteran team like Baltimore or New York, none of these [rookies] would have been on this team. But we've never been Baltimore or New York, so forget that and just take for granted that we're the normal Minnesota Twins, and we'd have had three or four of these guys make this club anyway. . . . The other thing that I think we can look at this year, there are a couple of teams in the game, Cincinnati and Oakland, for instance, that do not have huge payrolls. We can't use that as an excuse any longer."

Ryan's thoughts on a variety of subjects:

  The possibility of finding a legitimate No. 3 and No. 4 hitter within the organization: ''It depends. We do [have possibilities]. It depends on how they're going to react and what step they're going to take. . . . [Matt] Lawton. [Todd] Walker. [David] Ortiz. It depends which direction we go. We need some of the players in the organization to take the next step.''

  • Todd Walker: ''I think after you gauge what he produced last year for the organization, I think everybody that is affiliated with the organization and has watched us play, was maybe hoping for more. That's one of our concerns. And mine in particular. I would have liked to see more out of Todd. Doubles are nice [Walker had 37], but the RBI and the power, home run output, they're not what I was hoping for.''
  •   Matt Lawton: ''Similar [to Walker]. I'm going to stick up for him here. When he got hit in the face, I don't think it's unusual for a guy to take a while to come back. . . . But those two guys, there was reason to believe from what they've done in the last couple of years that we were going to get a little more offense out of both and it didn't happen.''
  •   David Ortiz: ''It's been pretty well documented over the last month or two that he has some work he needs to do on defense, and he's got some things with that swing that need to be addressed. And they are addressing them on a daily basis down there. What we are seeing here is a little invalid because he came up here and had to sit for 10 days. . . . Dave has pretty much proven himself at Triple A and all the minor league stops. Now we find out whether or not he can play here.''

    Ryan on several of the organization's top prospects:

  •   Catcher Matt LeCroy, who batted .303 with 10 homers in just 119 at-bats at Class AAA Salt Lake City: ''He's going to tell us [whether he's ready for the major leagues]. I shouldn't have let Joe Mays make this team and we shouldn't have let Eric Milton make this team -- until they proved when they came into camp, they did so well. And same with Chad Allen. They're the ones who make the decision easy for me and Tom [Kelly]. When they produce like that for him, then he'll come to me and say, 'Is there anyway we can keep this guy?' I'd say 'How the heck could I keep him off?' ''
  •   Luis Rivas, a 19-year-old who could push for a starting job somewhere -- shortstop, second base or outfield -- in the near future: ''Rivas is a good player that will be in the picture, in the very near future. . . . He can do a lot of things. One thing that we want to make sure is that he doesn't lock himself into shortstop because if Guzman is the guy, you want to make sure that Rivas has enough versatility to move over to second or, he actually was signed as a center fielder. So we have a little versatility with him and, of course, he's only 19. He was the rookie of the year in Venezuela last year at 18. There's a chance that this kid could do a few things.''
  •   Michael Cuddyer, the 1997 No. 1 draft pick: ''He's probably a couple of years away. He's a pretty good player. He's going to be in the Arizona fall league this year, which will speed up his progress and probably start at Double A. Once they get to Double A, if they have success, you know darn well they aren't very far away then.''
  •   Michael Restovich, the hoped-for power hitter of the future who is from Rochester, Minn.: ''He's a little further behind. His outfield play needs work, and he hasn't quite figured out how to turn on that fastball. . . . He's in California now and I'm going to be very interested in seeing how he does against this higher caliber because the Midwest League's a nice league for a 19-year-old kid and he had a good year. Now if he continues to have that kind of year, he's convinced me that he's on a little faster track than maybe I thought. There's a lot of things to like about Restovich just because he's 6-4 and 230 pounds and he can run.''
  •   On his job performance: ''I don't feel good until we get this thing right. I feel good for the kids that came here. . . . they've survived for the most part. I don't feel good about it because we're not where we need to get. Ultimately, the standings indicate what kind of job you did. We're down where we don't want to be again.''

Jerry Bell, president  

The conference room phone kept ringing. The tentative deal to sell the Twins, contingent on a new St. Paul stadium being built, was going down. Jerry Bell was the man in the middle, and has been for the past five years. A former suburban playground director, former Metropolitan Council staffer, former Dome director, longtime Twins CEO, he acknowledged that, on operations, the Twins will probably be in the black this season, with expenses at about $45.5 million and revenues at about $47.5 million. The carrying costs of owner Carl Pohlad's debt would push the team in the red, he said. He also allowed that as much as a new ballpark would enhance the Twins' viability, a stadium is not the panacea; restructuring the economics of the game and the relationship between big-and small-market teams is the answer.

He described the competing interests of teams with large media revenues in big markets and teams like the Twins.

"We had this discussion a few years ago, even before some revenue sharing was approved. It was pointed out [by large-market owners] why should a large-market team -- and I don't want to point out [Yankees' owner] George Steinbrenner because he wasn't the only one who felt this way -- but why should he contribute to a smaller revenue team when it would simply enhance our financial position? I said, 'Fine, we will agree to a minimum payroll.' I was trying to make a point that we're not in this just looking for more money to help the owner but to be more competitive. The large-market owners turned that down."

Still, even if political miracles occur and the ballpark gets approval from St. Paul voters, the Legislature and Gov. Jesse Ventura, the Twins will have to spend at least three more seasons at the Dome. Won't that continue to drag down the franchise?

"If the referendum passes, you can rest assured that David [St. Peter] is going to be looking for a whole bunch of new season-ticket holders. Priority seating in a new ballpark would clearly be determined by those who own the seats in this ballpark. So you'll have a fairly good indication of the interest in a new ballpark right away. The deal with Mayor [Norm] Coleman also has other thresholds, of selling 20,000 tickets and some private suites. So while it sounds like a very big nut to crack, with the requirements in the deal, it isn't that difficult moving into a new ballpark."

He went on to talk about the role of Carl Pohlad's personality in all this.

"I think if you take polls, Carl's an issue, but in reality not a big issue. If you took a poll of the Legislature, it would probably be a big issue. I think the general population is still thinking the way they should. And that is: 'What's it going to take to make the Twins competitive? I want to be a baseball fan, I don't want to be a business of baseball fan. I don't care about Carl Pohlad one way or the other unless someone else is going to make us a more competitive team. Then I care.'

"But that's not going to happen just with a change of ownership; that's going to happen with a change of environment. . . . A stadium is a huge piece of it. But no, it's not the only way. Baseball recognizes that. All we have to do is take a look at Seattle. They have a gorgeous new facility. But [in trying to sign Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez] they still have economic issues to deal with."

Dave St. Peter, senior vice president of business affairs  

As vice president of business affairs for the Twins, Dave St. Peter has one of the most difficult jobs in professional sports: marketing a team that is not only a perennial loser, but one that can offer its fans no guarantee that it will be playing in Minnesota beyond next season.

The basic numbers for the Twins this season looked acceptable: more than 8,000 season tickets, a home attendance of a little more than 1.2 million. But a closer look revealed about 3,000 of those season tickets were $99 packages for upper deck general admission. And no-shows significantly reduced the actual attendance.

"At the end of the day, clearly, I think we had a lot more paid attendance than people suspected, but it's been well document that obviously we sold a hell of a lot of discounted season tickets," St. Peter said. "We did an extensive survey of our season-ticket customers, and I can tell you that we made some strides in that area. I think most people feel better about games. Unfortunately that core group of fans has shrunk. And for us to really get that core to where it needs to be a couple of things need to happen. We've got to have hope. I think hope has returned to a certain extent. There's a better feeling about the club today than there was a year ago. What I can't gauge is just what impact the ballpark referendum is going to have on our fans. I think they're growing weary of this whole stadium debate, and they're very concerned about the stabilization of the franchise."

Surveys showed that a majority of fans purchasing the $99 season ticket attended only five to 10 games this season, according to St. Peter. He said many fans apparently purchased the package just to receive the gift -- an autographed Kirby Puckett bat. The $99 promotion helped contribute to the average price of a Twins ticket this season of about $8, according to St. Peter. That, he says, is about half of most other American League teams. St. Peter calls the $8 average "unacceptable" and promises that will change.

"We've spent a lot of time for years trying to ensure the affordability of Twins baseball, and that isn't going to change. What I think we need to do is work very, very hard to try to bring in as much revenue as we possibly can from ticket sales. I think as an organization we've probably been too quick to discount [tickets] in recent years because of the challenges we face. We're going to try to retain, or maintain the affordability of our pricing structure, and probably not be as aggressive in offering additional discounts over and above the existing pricing structure."

St. Peter said the $99 package will remain, but he indicated the incentive sort of gifts -- like the Kirby Puckett bat -- will go to those buying full-priced season tickets.

"We have to do a better job quite honestly of taking better care of the people who are full season-ticket holders. And that's where the incentive is going to go and that's where it should go. . . . The bottom line, there are some people who are buying [the $99 tickets] to literally come to games, and I think because of that, you'll probably see a package similar to that, minus the Kirby Puckett bat."

St. Peter's thoughts on marketing this year, and next year:

"I think the one thing that we failed on this year enough of was to brand our young players, to brand the Chad Allens, the Cristian Guzmans and the Torii Hunters. . . . Next year we're going to sell our schedule. We have flat out the best schedule I've ever seen us have. You going to have a night where you have Sammy Sosa playing here on Saturday night and Mark McGwire playing on Sunday afternoon. I think we can sell that. We're going to sell the affordability of this thing and the family entertainment."