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This weekend the Twins will begin their quest to recapture the title of American League Central’s resident dynasty of the “oughts”, and will do so against the AL Central’s dynasty of the nineties. Popular perception for Cleveland’s recent domination of the division is that they did it The Right Way™, by developing young players and signing them to long-term contracts. That perception is half right.
It’s true that Cleveland’s talented teams were largely home grown. It’s also true that they further developed the practice of offering long-term, guaranteed contracts to promising young players in return for a hometown discount. On the other hand, some of those contracts, like those for Carlos Baerga, Kenny Lofton or Roberto Alomar, eventually became loadstones around their neck. And the practice of giving away countless prospects, without acquiring the ace starter they seemingly needed, will likely haunt Indian fans until their next chance at a world championship.
Regardless, the front office fielded dominant teams from 1995-2001 and the Indians won six division titles. But guess what else Cleveland did from 1995 – 2001?
Cleveland started spending in 1992, and kept increasing their payroll until 2002. This was almost entirely fueled by their new ballpark, Jacobs Field, which opened in 1994. Previously, they had never spent more than $20 million on payroll. By the end of their run, they had more than quadrupled that number.
Pop quiz, hotshot. What’s the difference between a three-year streak and a seven-year dynasty?
The Twins are attempting to do now what Cleveland did in the late 90’s – renew a dynasty as one generation of players replaces another. Those departures weren’t due to the player development side. They were driven by limitations surrounding marketing and sales. The Twins have relied on the same revenue sources they relied on in the nineties: namely, attendance in a crappy indoor stadium and TV contract in a market that is monopolized by a single regional sports channel.
The new ballpark is one attempt by the Twins to change that paradigm, and the contract negotiations with WCCO are another. Their failed attempt at Victory Sports was yet one more. Whether you think the Twins are justified or not in these endeavors, whether you think the Twins are competent in their effort in these areas, and whether or not you think some moral high ground exists surrounding these issues, you can't argue with one point:
Winning consistently takes money. It's the gas that fuels continued success.
So understand that you can't have it both ways. You can't complain about the Twins being small market, or never signing a big free agent, and also complain about the passed stadium bill, or wax nostalgic about your history with a particular AM frequency. They're two sides of the same coin.
But Carl is RICH!! He's a billionaire, for Chrissakes! He can't take that money with him - why not spend an extra $20 million??!!??"
Indeed, he is rich. And he probably could shake half that much just out of the cushions of his couch. Of course, he could also give that $20 million to the fine arts. Or to homeless shelters. Or maybe children's cancer research. Hmmm....maybe we should let him decide what to do with his money.
Cleveland did it The Right Way™ all right - they used the success of their team to harvest additional sources of revenue, and used that revenue to continue to fuel the success of their team. It's a cycle that feeds itself until the talent dries up. At which point, you scale back, stock the minor leagues, rinse, lather and repeat.
As for our favorite small market team, the Twins success for this year will rest on the shoulders of Terry Ryan, the coaching staff and the farm system. But the Twins success for this decade and the next is resting on the efforts of the rest of the organization, like President Dave St. Peter. This realization is Cleveland's true lesson for small market teams.