A second chance for Twins fans

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April 12, 2010 // UPDATED 9:17 am - April 12, 2010
By: John Bonnes
John Bonnes
// The last time the Twins opened a new stadium, the results could not have been worse //

Here is all you need to know about the Metrodome and baseball: on the second day the Twins played there, only 5,213 people showed up to watch the game. That’s how long the Metrodome’s honeymoon lasted. It was over after opening night.

To be fair to the Twins, the Metrodome wasn’t really their idea. The Vikings pushed for it because Metropolitan Stadium was built as a baseball park and a terrible place to watch football. So the Minnesota Legislature, supported by Downtown business leaders, passed a bill to start construction as soon as the Twins and Vikings had both agreed to 30-year leases.

The Twins wouldn’t sign. They were going to lose parking revenue and have to pay more in rent. Twins owner Cal Griffith claimed that the club would need to average 1.4 million in attendance to make the same revenue. So rather than sign a true 30-year lease, he made sure it had an escape clause that kicked in if the team didn’t average that much over any three consecutive years. Plus, he received $1 million to build offices in the new dome from Minneapolis businessmen.

So, in 1982, the Metrodome ushered in a new era of baseball, which everyone hoped would allow the Twins to once again compete with the big boys. When the Twins were negotiating the Metrodome lease, they were also going through one of the more depressing periods in Twins history.  

With the onset of free agency, the Twins were continually losing players because they wouldn’t pay for them. Larry Hisle and Lyman Bostock had both left for free agency prior to 1978. Rod Carew was traded away in 1979 after contract negotiations fell apart. That group of players, so promising that they were nicknamed “The Lumber Company,” had been summarily disassembled before getting any chance to compete.

Maybe the Metrodome would change all that. With no rainouts, Griffith estimated that the Twins would be able to draw another 500,000 per season. He hoped the team could draw two million spectators in a pennant race and consistently surpass 1.3 million.

The exact opposite happened, and it ended up costing Griffith the franchise. On opening night, 52,279 showed up to see the new home. On the second night, the new Dome drew just over 5,000. By the end of the year, total attendance would be just 921,186.

Not that there was much of a reason to show up. Less than a week after the stadium opener, Griffith did the unthinkable in the present age of brand new stadiums (and their revenues): he dumped contracts.

He started with Roy Smalley, who was traded to the Yankees just three days later, on April 10. In early May, he traded away closer Doug Corbett and second baseman Rob Wilfong. And one day later, catcher Butch Wynegar and pitcher Roger Erickson were traded.

In 1983, attendance declined further to 858,939, so the Twins needed to draw 2.4 million fans in 1984 or their escape clause from the Metrodome would kick in. There were plenty of threats that the team might move, possibly to Tampa, Denver or New Orleans. And so that summer became the summer to save the Twins.

Harvey Mackay, the Minneapolis businessman, not only submitted a bid for the team, but organized a public ticket buyout campaign to snap up the cheapest 2.4 million seats. Doing so would chain the Twins to the Dome against their will for at least three more years.

Wolves fans will appreciate the second would-be buyers, Marv Wolfeson and Harvey Ratner. Instead, they ended up buying the 1989–90 expansion Timberwolves franchise.

But the winner was Carl Pohlad, who paid $36 million for the franchise and was hailed a hero for keeping baseball in Minnesota.

So on June 24, 1984, Griffith signed the letter of intent to sell the Twins in a pregame ceremony in the Metrodome and brought an era to an end. But indoor baseball would prevail for another 25 years.

John Bonnes muses about the Twins at his blog TwinsGeek.com.