Birmingham Post-Herald
January 14, 2002  

Twins fans look for a savior

Will it be Birmingham's Watkins?


It wouldn't be so bad to be a Minnesota Twins fan if it weren't for the bruised feelings, the years of buying expensive tickets from a man who's already a millionaire, sitting in a stadium that blocks out the cool Minnesota night with a gray ceiling and watching a team that won the World Series twice turn into a team that hasn't won their division in more than 10 years.

Fans of the Twins are hoping Alabama native Donald Watkins, a wealthy lawyer-turned-businessman, will change their fortunes. They hope Watkins, who has become the odds-on favorite to buy the team, can restore optimism to the Twins, a club that seems to be forsaken by everyone but the fans. They want Watkins to let them forget the current owner they have come to hate.

The fans have watched as the Twins' owner, Carl Pohlad, who saved the team 15 years ago, tried to sell it back to Major League Baseball and send a team with 41 years of history to its grave. Baseball has announced that it plans to do away with the Twins and the Montreal Expos in a cost-cutting move. A question exists whether the two teams will even play this season.

And for Twins fans, that possibility is painful.

"They've given me so much," said John Boyle, 24. "I've been buying their stuff my whole life. It's kind of hurtful."

Boyle has run the Web site, for almost four years now, starting it when the future of the Twins started to shake.

"The owners don't seem to care about the fans," Boyle said.

How could Pohlad simply make the Twins disappear after he learned to love baseball through the team that won the World Series in 1987 and 1991, Boyle asked. But just as the Twins fans were about to torch the raft and send their team to sea, Birmingham businessman Donald Watkins entered the scene.

"One reason I'm really excited about him is the outpouring of support from fans," Boyle said. "Fans really matter to him. That meant a lot to me."

Boyle's voice dips when talking about Pohlad, but rises when talking about Watkins, although he admits he was a little bit skeptical of Watkins at first. Here was a man who was not only going to buy the team, but he was going to build a stadium, which Major League Baseball had publicly insisted on as a requirement to have a team. Watkins has since won him over.

Other skeptics have had similar reactions, said Darren Wolfson, producer at KFAN-AM, a Minneapolis sports talk radio station. Twins fans are in a state of shock that someone could buy the team and give Major League Baseball all it wants without asking from any money from the public, he said.

"This is as good as it gets," Wolfson said.

When Major League Baseball recently cleared the way for Watkins to start negotiating with Pohlad, messages started popping up on the Internet message boards for Twins fans.

ToriiHunterRules48 wrote, maybe a little prematurely, a message titled "The Twins are Saved!!!!!!!!!!"

It read: "I knew it, we all knew it. And WE STILL KNOW IT. Donald Watkins is going to buy the team. Praise the Lord HALLELUJAH."

Boyle doesn't want to see the Twins become yet another Minnesota team to vanish. He has seen the Minnesota North Stars leave Minneapolis over a disagreement about public money only to have them win a championship in Dallas and have an NHL expansion team, the Minnesota Wild, come after taxpayer's money was used to build a new arena.

"I'm a Twins fan. I really don't want another team," Boyle said.

There is no lack of company for Boyle in the camp that is extremely mad at Pohlad for seemingly letting his team go into oblivion. A Web-site setup similar to Boyle's called, said, "If the Twins are eliminated, Carl Pohlad will certainly become the most hated man in Minnesota sports history."

But, there are still questions in the minds of the fans. The Twins have had suitors before who have gotten hopes up only to dash them.

Three years ago, self-described Massachusetts tycoon Socrates Babacas had interest in buying the team, promising to build a new privately funded stadium complete with two-dollar hot dogs. But Babacas backed out.

Fans don't know for sure if they can trust Watkins — he hasn't answered questions publicly whether he has the money to buy the team or not and has neither confirmed nor denied published reports that he has $1.5 billion.

"I think the people are going to start to come around," Wolfson said. "At first the fans were a little leery because it seemed too good to be true."

Watkins has used his charm to woo over the fans. Wolfson called Watkins "very articulate" and "energetic" and said he has given fans a new optimism. Watkins visited the Mall of America in Minnesota last month and was greeted by a healthy crowd of fans even though it was on short notice.

Fans were angered again at Pohlad after Watkins' trip. Minnesota newspapers reported that Bud Selig, commissioner of Major League Baseball, owed a Pohlad-controlled company money, leading to what some thought was a conflict of interest, since under the contraction rules Major League Baseball would be giving Pohlad money to fold the team. One Internet message reflected the hate for Selig, who fans think colluded with Pohlad to fold the team.

"I think that Selig and Pohlad's antics are going to result in Selig gone and Watkins as the new owner of the Twins. Both results are a good thing for MLB."

But, Wolfson said, Watkins' charm might not matter to the fans as much as his money and saving the team.

"I don't think people care if it's Donald Watkins or whoever. They just care if in three or four years they are sitting in a new stadium on the river outside. Fans want to watch baseball with the stars above," Wolfson said.

There are fans who believe Watkins may have single-handedly saved the small but proud franchise. Boyle thinks at the very least, even if Watkins doesn't buy the team, or Pohlad doesn't want to sell it, Watkins gave the fans one more season to play.

If the sale does go through, would he be considered a savior?

"He would be everybody's," Wolfson said.

Boyle said if the sale to Watkins goes through, he'll still keep his Web site up, though his cause will have been won.

"I look forward to the day that I don't have a cause."

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