The last time the Twins were coming off a season of at least 97 losses, General Manager Terry Ryan could see signs of progress everywhere.
It was 1999, and a squad featuring 23-year-old Torii Hunter had finished 34 games below .500. At his annual end-of-season meeting with then-owner Carl Pohlad, Ryan gazed ahead to a new century, outlining his reasons for hope.
"I said, 'Carl, I know this is going to sound odd, but we had a good year,'" Ryan said. "Our payroll was about $15 million. The average age of [several key players] was about 24 years old. It was a good year because all those guys didn't go backwards."
The tone was markedly different last October, during meetings between Twins CEO Jim Pohlad and then-GM Bill Smith. After winning six division titles in nine seasons, the Twins inflated their payroll to a franchise-record $113 million and finished 63-99, making it the second-worst team in Twins history.
It wasn't only the 99 losses. The entire organization, often lauded during the previous decade as one of the best in baseball, showed signs of crumbling.
Reeling from injuries, the big-league team was a fundamental disaster. The Twins committed 119 errors -- their highest total since 1985 -- and looked like a circus act on the bases.
Players called up from the minors were ill-prepared and overmatched. Veterans lavished with long-term contracts -- Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Denard Span, Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn -- spent long stretches on the disabled list, and manager Ron Gardenhire questioned his younger players' accountability.
When the season ended, Jim Pohlad gave no hint big changes were coming. But on Nov. 6, he fired Smith, who was at the helm for the team's 94-68 finish only one year earlier, putting Ryan back in charge.
"There were a lot of us who really felt like we let Bill down, so that was a tough night for me, personally," assistant GM Rob Antony said. "And when Terry walked in the next day, he had that look."
Ryan, 58, had cited burnout when he stepped down in 2007 after 13 years on the job, but he was all business again, determined to turn things around -- immediately. He proved he could rebuild the team once.
The question is: Can he do it again?
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The stakes are much different now, of course. The Twins aren't playing games in front of sparse crowds at the Metrodome. They are entering their third year at Target Field, where they have sold out 140 of 164 games, including the 2010 postseason. But every empty seat last September -- and there were swaths of them -- was a reminder how quickly public confidence tumbles.
The Twins capped their season-ticket mark at 25,000 full-season equivalents their first two years. But this year, there is no waiting list, as about 23,500 full-season equivalents have been sold. Who knows how far that number could fall with another 90-loss season?
Maybe that's why Ryan refuses to call this another rebuilding project. He's happy to reminisce about the way the team blossomed in 2001 but doesn't see how it relates to 2012.
"This is a whole different scenario here," Ryan said. "This isn't anything like that. We've got two MVPs on this roster."
Yes, but Mauer and Morneau combined to miss 173 games last year. They'll combine to make $38 million again this year, and no one knows what return the Twins will get on their investment.
Ryan won't stomach suggestions that the team has financial restrictions. The Opening Day payroll will be about $98 million, $15 million less than last year, but it's also the second-highest mark in franchise history.
"We had a lot of holes, and most of them are things that we could address," Ryan said. "You lose [Michael] Cuddyer, you go out and get [Josh] Willingham. You trade [Kevin] Slowey, we got [Jason] Marquis.
"We had trouble at shortstop, we got [Jamey] Carroll. We're looking for a DH/catcher, we got [Ryan] Doumit. Almost every area, every major concern, we tried to fill.
"I can't see where this is a rebuilding project. We retooled, I guess."
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The circumstances might be different, but Ryan will lean on experience gained during his first tenure. The Sporting News named him baseball's Executive of the Year in 2002 and '06. He never really left the team, serving as a scout and key adviser to Smith for four years, but Ryan's return to GM was the Twins' most important move of the offseason.
"Maybe the biggest compliment you could pay to Terry came from [Commissioner] Bud Selig," said Jerry Bell, chairman of the Twins executive board. "He told me, if he was going to start a baseball organization, he'd start with Terry Ryan as the general manager."
It would have been hard to convince any Twins fan of that in 2000. Ryan's first six years as GM each brought losing seasons.
In 1994, when then-GM Andy MacPhail left for the Cubs, the Twins were three years removed from their last World Series title and still had a core of Kirby Puckett and Chuck Knoblauch. But they finished below .500 in 1993 and '94 and saw Kent Hrbek retire after that strike-shortened 1994 season, and in Ryan's first season as GM, the Twins tied for the worst record in baseball, finishing 44 games out of first place in 1995. The next year, Puckett's sudden retirement after eye problems really sent the franchise reeling.
As the losses mounted, Ryan held true to the values that have come to define him: loyalty and a steadfast belief in scouting and player development process.
No team has had more continuity. Twins farm director Jim Rantz has held his position since 1986. Mike Radcliff was the scouting director from 1993 through 2007, then became vice president of player personnel. Since 1986, the Twins have had two managers, Tom Kelly and Gardenhire.
When they finally turned the corner, in 2001, baseball's owners put them up for possible contraction. During that uncertain period, the Blue Jays tried to hire Ryan as their GM, but he declined, believing it wasn't the right time to leave.
"The last thing he wanted to do was be the leader who jumped ship," Antony said.
That same devotion helped steer Ryan back to the job last fall. Once the Pohlads decided to replace Smith, they told Ryan their preference was to make him GM again.
"Obviously if he would have said no, and they had opened up a search and went outside the organization, there's a good chance a lot of us aren't here," Antony said.
But Ryan said yes, extending the organization's trademark stability. Antony, Radcliff, Rantz and the others remained in their positions. Former assistant GM Wayne Krivsky rejoined the family as a special assistant. And it didn't take long before their good friend Smith was back in the fold, too.
Ryan hasn't said how long he intends to remain general manager this time. He has said it could be one year and it could be 10, but there have been no hints that this is a short-term thing.
"To a man, we're hoping it's closer to 10 than one or two," Antony said. "I can guarantee you that."
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Ryan certainly hopes the team's reversal doesn't take that long.
The turning point during his first tenure came in 1998, when the Twins decided to stop going halfway with the rebuilding process. They had tried fleshing out their roster with aging veterans -- Bob Tewksbury, Greg Swindell, Otis Nixon, etc. -- but finally realized they could win just as many games with kids from their own system.
Ryan traded Knoblauch to the Yankees for Cristian Guzman, Eric Milton and Brian Buchanan, who would later be shipped to San Diego for Jason Bartlett.
Under Ryan, the Twins had a knack for finding unheralded gems in other minor league organizations. Other trade acquisitions include Johan Santana, Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano and David Ortiz, who didn't fully bloom until he reached Boston.
"There's no one who's done a better job of getting players out of A ball than Terry," Krivsky said.
But Ryan's first four months back on the job produced one trade -- the deal that sent Slowey to the Rockies for minor league pitcher Daniel Turpen. Colorado turned around and traded Slowey to Cleveland, but why hasn't Ryan done more dealing?
"It's very difficult when you don't have -- I'm not going to say leverage, but -- options," Ryan said. "Some of our players up here [in the majors] were hurt last year. Some of the players down there [in the minors] were hurt, and everything just started to go [backwards]."
Regardless how many games the Twins win this year, they need to rebuild their assets so Ryan can go back to work as a trade artist. For example, if Denard Span and Ben Revere both thrive, while outfield prospects Joe Benson and Aaron Hicks take another step closer to the majors, the Twins could deal one to a team desperate for a center fielder, such as the Nationals.
That's how farm systems are replenished. That's how Ryan did it the first time. The Twins also can restock in the June draft, holding the No. 2 overall pick and five of the first 72.
So Ryan has returned at a crucial period in franchise history. One day in mid-March, he was studying the Blue Jays taking batting practice before a game at Hammond Stadium, when a fan walked up to shake his hand.
"Terry Ryan's back in charge, so I'm breathing easy!" the fan said.
Ryan scoffed and said, "Breathing easy? I wish I was."