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Carolina's loss is no gain for Twins franchise
by Patrick Reusse

(May 8, 1998 - 7:20 EDT) -- There was a ballpark referendum in North Carolina's Triad region on Tuesday. The "yes" campaign wound up with 37 percent of the votes, a slightly higher percentage than John Marty received in Minnesota's 1994 gubernatorial election. The result guarantees that the Minnesota Twins will not be transformed into the Carolina Triplets at the end of the 1998 season.

This also comes close to guaranteeing that the Twins will be playing in the Metrodome for several more seasons. Forget Charlotte. Clark Griffith, the man who would like to be managing partner of a new Twins ownership group, offered an accurate assessment of the North Carolina situation Wednesday.

"This was such a resounding defeat -- this was so huge -- that Hugh McColl heard the message in Charlotte, I'm sure," Griffith said. "The plan in Charlotte is to build a privately financed stadium. Enormous public acceptance would be required -- to buy tickets and personal seat licenses -- to do that. That public acceptance isn't there in North Carolina, as seen by this overwhelming vote against major league baseball."

McColl is the chief executive officer of NationsBank. A few years back, McColl told Bud Selig -- the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers and baseball's acting commissioner -- that he could get a stadium built in Charlotte, if the Brewers could not get a new ballpark in Milwaukee. McColl would have to be the guy to make it happen for the Twins, if owner Carl Pohlad wanted to take in Don Beaver as a partner and move into a new stadium in Charlotte.

McColl has sounded lukewarm on the subject lately. He has had larger matters to dwell on -- executing NationsBank's mega-merger with BankAmerica.

Pohlad's letter of intent to sell to Beaver expired on March 31. "Carl's agreement with Beaver has not been renewed," Griffith said. "He's free to talk to local buyers -- has been free for more than a month. I've talked to some of his people. My offer is there, but I'm not going to be bidding against myself."

Griffith announced during the middle of last fall's stadium debate that he raised his offer to $90 million to buy the Twins from Pohlad. With expansion teams going for $140 million, this was far below market value for a big-league franchise, but also more than a franchise operating for the long term in the Metrodome would be worth.

Pohlad has been a difficult gentleman to analyze. This does not prevent us from trying. One guess for Pohlad not seriously discussing a sale with Griffith has been this: Carl did not want to unload this money-loser at a bargain price, then have the politicians turn around and build a ballpark for a new owner.

"There were many Minnesota politicians sipping their coffee this morning, reading the newspaper and laughing," Griffith said. "They will be saying, 'We told you that people all over the country are turning their backs on taxpayer-subsidized stadiums.'

"I read the newspapers. I listen to the radio and watch television. If my group was to get the team and I started talking about needing a new stadium, I would be just another target.

"I have no magic solution for that (stadium) problem, and I never did. I'm totally focused on playing in the Metrodome. Even in there, when you compare the Twin Cities to any other available market -- not just North Carolina, but any available market -- this beats 'em by a ton."

This is the market of which Clark boasts: The Twins have the cheapest tickets in big-league baseball, yet will sell fewer than 1 million this season and outdo Montreal and Oakland for the worst attendance in the big leagues. The Twins will collect an estimated $4.5 million in local radio-TV revenue, also at the bottom of the earnings list.

Those are numbers that could be bested in a Triad of Mayberry, Hooterville and Dogpatch.

The Twins won the World Series with a $26 million payroll in 1991 -- a payroll large enough to compete and small enough to be handled by more than 2 million people buying cheap tickets to watch baseball in the Metrodome. Seven years later, the Twins have a $28 million payroll -- $20 million shy of the minimum payroll needed to compete.

A winning team that sold 2.3 million tickets (the Twins' average from 1987 through 1993) could not come close to sustaining a $48 million payroll while playing in the Metrodome.

So Smilin' Carl keeps the payroll in the same neighborhood he always has had it, and the Twins lose, and attendance falls, and North Carolina appears to be a dead issue, and the Minnesota politicians are cackling, so now what?

If Pohlad does not sell and is forced to operate in the Metrodome, he has one option: studio baseball. That's what team president Jerry Bell termed it last year. You play the games for the sake of playing the games -- for the sake of maintaining major league baseball in a city and nothing more.

How do you become officially a studio ballclub?

Bob Tewksbury, Mike Morgan, Orlando Merced and Pat Meares are traded before July 31. Savings: $5.5 million. Paul Molitor, Otis Nixon, Rick Aguilera and Terry Steinbach are gone at season's end. Savings: $11 million. Come the offseason, Brad Radke is traded for prospects. Savings: $2.5 million.

Nine players making $19 million are gone, replaced by nine inexperienced players making $2 million. The payroll is down to $11 million.

Play ball. Studio ball.