Startribune.com digital sports editor Howard Sinker used to cover the Twins and now shares season tickets with friends in Section 219 of Target Field. He blogs about baseball from the perspective of a long-time fan who loves the game, doesn’t always believe the hype and likes hearing what others think. Howard sometimes talks about sports with Cathy Wurzer on MPR's Morning Edition.
A few scattered thoughts, thinking as a fan here:
*I watched the last few innings of Yu Darvish's almost-perfect game Tuesday night and was struck by all the Houston fans who were rooting against their team. The guy behind home plate, in the Astros cap, doing exaggerated strike-three calls, really stood out.
Here are my questions for you: Is that a natural reaction to seeing a rare event? Did the Houston fans jump ship because their team is that bad? What would you do if a pitcher would take a perfect game into the late innings against the Twins? (And what did'ja think of seeing A.J. Pierzynski catching Darvish? Or are you finally past thinking about A.J.?)
*Baseball on the radio is a great thing, and the XM Radio and MLB At-Bat app get heavy use during the summer in the Section 219 world. On the bad days, there are a lot of words spoken that don't tell you much about what's going on. On the good days, you find Toronto's new team of Jerry Howarth and former Twins/Jays/Tigers pitcher Jack Morris.
Howarth was the Jays announcer when I was writing about the Twins and his demeanor (on and off mike) is the closest thing I know of to the late Herb Carneal. Listening to him with the crusty and opinionated Morris is a fun listen. For a fun side note about Howarth and Morris, which goes back to their minor league and college days, go here.
*While few people are expecting the Twins to be good, many of us are at least holding out hope that some of the fundamental soundness returns to the team. That was definitely not the case on Opening Day. What stood out most was Chris Parmelee's wild-swinging at-bat against wild-throwing Al Albuquerque with the bases loaded, two outs and a rally in motion in the seventh and Joe Mauer's inability to get down and block Josh Roenicke's wild pitch in the eighth that gave Detroit its final run.
And there were other things. Pedro Florimon's passive try to catch Mauer's throw to second that let Jhonny Peralta steal in the second inning, which led to a run, and Vance Worley's near-misplay on Victor Martinez's soft grounder in the third were two others that stood out. Also in the eighth, nobody covered third on Andy Dirks' sacrifice with runners on first and second -- a hard bunt between third and the mound that could well have resulted in a force.
I'm thinking about that in contrast to one play on the other side: Torii Hunter's clean, takeout slide of Brian Dozier on Miguel Cabrera's first-inning grounder. That went a long way toward Detroit scoring two runs in the top of the first instead of one. Against better teams -- and that would be most of 'em -- the Twins will have to be much more on their game than they were in the opener. They benefited from the decision to pull Justin Verlander after five innings, and we had reason to expect more against the Detroit relief crew than two runs and 12 left on base.
*The secondary ticket market is a great thing in troubled baseball times, especially if you're looking for good seats on short notice. The Section 219 household opener is today and we're in the Legends Club, third row -- at just over $19 per ticket. I'm not endorsing one vendor over another, but there are deals out there.
This is what the outfield seats at Target Field looked like a couple of innings into Wednesday's night miserable baseball game:
Now, let's give the Twins the benefit of the doubt. It drizzled all day, clearing up and turning into a fairly nice night an hour or so before game time. And school's in session and the Royals are in town and ... blah, blah, blah.
Friends, this isn't working. If you wanted to go on StubHub and buy tickets at the last minute Wednesday, you could find a batch of tickets for $.01. Yes, that's a penny (plus a 10 percent surcharge -- $.001? -- and the $5.45 download fee..) At around 4 p.m., there were four tickets in the Legends Club listed for $5 each. Yes, that's five as in one-two-three-four-FIVE.) There were 2,500 or so unsold tickets on the 'Hub, all of which counted as part of the "attendance" of 28,139. Basically, you could have taken advantage of the one-cent sale and sat pretty much where you wanted, as long as you looked like you belonged.
In our row of 20, it was me 'n' Julie and the delightful couple who have the seats next to use and a party of four further down the row of 20. By comparison, we were packed in. By the seventh inning, the front three rows next to us in Section 220 were empty. Totally empty. We counted nine people in the no-alcohol Section 311 early in the game and figured that one fell off the wagon when we counted only eight a couple of innings later.
Here's the problem for the Twins: Attendance figures are being padded significantly by tickets already sold for 2012.
How will they sell those tickets for 2013?
My friends, who have varying degrees of baseball intensity, weighed in when they saw the above photo posted on my Facebook page:
"Holy Cow, that is bleak."
"Wow, that's sparse."
"Glad to see the new stadium was worth the investment."
"Seems like only yesterday I was hearing how a new stadium would allow the Twins to 'stay competitive.' What they didn't add was 'with the Indians.' "
And here's the best-face scenario from a season-ticket holder friend:
"Only difference, and it's a big one, the Metropolitan Club is a nice place to hang out when the game is too frustrating. I hate to admit it, but tonight I was one of THOSE people who watched very little of the game but had a great night at the ballpark chatting with friends. So wrong. But so fun. I'm sorry Grandpa. I'm sure he's rolling in his grave!"
One other fan-experience observation: Last year, we wanted to go out to dinner before the game at the Town Ball Tavern, the nice bar/restaurant in the left-field corner. We knew we pretty much needed to be there when the gates opened in order to get seated, even though it was a weekday night and not a particularly high-interest game. Last night, we did the same thing, getting to the restaurant about an hour before game time and having a number of tables to choose from.
I'm not talking baseball right now. If you want to watch Ryan Doumit's three-error inning, go here and skip to the 1:20 mark. I'm talking about observations and soft data. The Twins appear to be doing a pretty good job of dispiriting their fans.
Obviously, fans who just want to support a winning team are staying away. The more observant have spent another season wondering about the team's injury management, its pitching and defensive failures and much of anything that speaks to things getting better soon. The most intense have wondered about roster moves, recently focusing their nth degree analysis on why reliever Anthony Slama isn't being given another chance to see if his minor-league dominance can translate to the majors and why Chris Parmelee wasn't used in the outfield at Rochester, if that's where he has the best chance to play for the Twins. And we all marveled at the Nishioka thing a few weeks back.
When you can frustrate everyone from the advanced-statistics posse to the guy who asks which league has the designated hitter -- a question we heard last night -- it's a sign that the fan base is going, going ...
Putting my money where my blog is, I'll tell you that I'm involved with three sets of season tickets: My scorecard for 2013 has me keeping one, cutting back on another and bailing on the third. Am I alone?
Right now, I think the Twins can win back most of their fans by going boldly into 2013 with a makeover that could take many shapes. If they tarry and pretend that all is good enough at 1Twins Way, they run the risk of being just another pretty ballpark with plenty of good seats available.
These last half-dozen games have been a reminder of how the Twins will typically fare when they play teams that don't stink.
I figured I'd be as direct as possible there, if only because (judging by some of the comments from my last post) some people think the Twins are merely a quick fix away from contending for something.
Philadelphia and Milwaukee are by no means excellent teams. Both are a half-dozen games under .500 in their National League division. If you need more, here goes: In the dozen games on either side of beating the Twins 2 out of 3, the Phillies have lost 11 of them. The Brewers came here and won 2 out of 3 after getting swept by Kansas City.
Friends, even with fine play from a number of parties -- both expected and unexpected -- the Twins are still under repair from allowing their infrastructure to crumble. Their handling of Ben Revere and Trevor Plouffe, against a backdrop of skeptics, appears to be paying off. Even with the strikeouts, I would rather have Josh Willingham's numbers than Michael Cuddyer's. Scott Diamond's success is a stroke of unexpected good fortune. Brian Dozier should be better for playing his way through struggles. And the Glen Perkins/Jared Burton combo in the bullpen deserves more leads to hold.
The Joe Mauer paragraph: Yes, if someone offered me a No. 1 catcher with a .415 on-base percentage, I would take him and pay him a lot even if I knew he was leading the league by grounding into 14 double plays. I would encourage him to take a rip at more first-pitch fastballs, but maybe that's just me. I might harbor some frustration that he's not on pace to hit 20 home runs, but I'd try to keep that frustration at the same level as my frustration over not winning the Powerball.
The Justin Morneau paragraph: I'm really happy that Morneau is fit enough to be an everyday player and he makes the infield better as first base. I'm glad that he's mashing the ball against right-handed pitchers (a .393 on-base percentage and a .607 slugging percentage). I'm also concerned that his Adam Dunn-in-2011 numbers against lefties -- six hits and two walks in 66 plate appearances -- are collateral damage from his collection of injuries. How he figures into the Twins figure, in the next couple of months or the next couple of years, is a question that I can't answer with any certainty. Given his production and his place on the payroll, I assume the Twins would consider the right offer from a contender, even if Terry Ryan and the others can't say that out loud.
The Denard Span/Matt Capps/Francisco Liriano/Jamey Carroll/Ryan Doumit and more paragraph: Like it or not, those guys (and others) should be available for the right offer. The Twins have traded bit players in the past for substantial help. They need to do it again.
The Twins need to sell at the trading deadline and be aggressive players in the free agent market. I promise, they are not a tweak or two away from anything, and I promise that the front office knows that. After three years, selling the ballpark experience of Target Field will ring hollower against a backdrop of close-to-100 loss seasons.
Now on pace to lose about 97 games, the Twins should already recognize they need to stem the tide of fans drifting from buying tickets to watching from the sofa -- or doing something else entirely.
They can ride oversized yams, meat balls and craft beers only so far.
Well, we got the Papa John's 50 percent discount Wednesday because the Twins won the night before, so the household pizzas really did have Josh Willingham's name on them. And we'll probably hit Leeann Chin in the next few days because those ticket stubs from a victory are good for 2-for-1 deals for a week. Combine those deals with the almost half-price seats in the Legends Club that we picked up for the Willingham walk-off, and Twins tickets are still a great value, don't you think?
At least in a coupon-clipping sense.
We were ready to be really frustrated on Tuesday. Remember how they were hitless in 10 at-bats with runners in scoring position going into the ninth, and then -- after getting the first two guys on base -- Ben Revere popped out bunting and Joe Mauer came within an shifted infield of adding to his GIDP (grounded into double play) total.
And then Willingham made it all go away -- and came back the next day, with his kids in the stands, to drive in three of the Twins four runs in the Liriano/Burnett/Gray shutout of troubled Oakland.
Back to Tuesday's game, though. More than anything else, it was a game that made me wonder about the Twins' future. How will the twins continue to keep fans engaged and buying tickets through the struggles the organization has brought upon itself? The promise of discounted food only goes so far, after all. The most noticeable thing about the Tuesday game was how empty the stands were by the time Willingham hit his home run.
The announced crowd was 31,781; the actual crowd was smaller and I'm sure the number of people in their seats at game's end was no more than half of that number.
People took in their seven or eight innings and took off. Given the 2012 product, I totally understand -- although we did wonder why so many fans stayed through the top of the ninth and then left before the Twins had their final at-bat. I mean, if you're in for that long, you might as well stay to the end.
Unsouring the fan base will be a major challenge. What will the Twins do with the $23 million (or more) that almost certainly will come off the payroll during or after the 2012 season. (Those are the contracts of Carl Pavano, Jason Marquis, Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano.) What else could be freed up when the Twins become sellers at the trading deadlines in July and August? And can the Twins use that money as wisely as they did in picking up Willingham and, to a lesser extent, Ryan Doumit?
Knowing that others -- Justin Morneau, Nick Blackburn, Jamey Carroll and Tsuyoshi Nishioka -- are signed only through 2013, will the Twins combine their richness in next week's amateur draft with a payroll bump for next season to juice the schedule for recovery?
Here's a list of potential free agents for 2013. It's an interesting list to play with, and sometimes you (you = Pohlads) need to spend more than you might like to keep people buying those $7 beers in the short term and bringing back those who are drifting away.
I have confidence in Terry Ryan's ability to make more good decisions than bad ones: Willingham + Doumit + Carroll + Burton > Marquis + failures sniffed out during spring training. I want to have confidence in the revamped front office to do better in developing talent, a test that will be passed or failed by looking at draft results and the progress of players still a couple of years away from the majors.
It's an interesting time, even if it's not what most of us imagined for the Twins. It's also a dangerous time if things continue going so wrong.
What do the Yankees, Red Sox and Twins have in common? They're all 0-3.
The difference between the Eastern teams and the local team is in the likelihood of losing 100 games or so.
Even before things started to come unwired toward the end of spring training, the debate over the weakest team in the AL Central always included a heavy dose of Twins talk. That was before Justin Morneau was relegated to DH and two of the expected five starting pitchers opened the season not in the rotation.
A team without much margin for error, even to reach .500, was being forced into make-do mode before the first pitch in Baltimore.
Add to that the compromises that had been struck by design and the recipe is there for an awkward season that could turn the Twins into successors to the pre-Rubio Timberwolves in how they are perceived in Minnesota.
Some of the compromises were on glaring display during the opening series of losses to the Orioles.
*When Morneau is the full-time DH -- a best-use decision for his health -- it means that Ryan Doumit has to use a glove. When he was signed as a free agent, the Twins made it clear that it was for his bat, not his defense. On Friday, he misplayed a deep fly ball into a triple -- taking a bad route and having the ball go off his glove -- that helped Baltimore stretch its 2-0 lead into 4-0. Ben Revere was the starting right fielder in the next two games, a compromise because his subpar arm is more suited for left, the position that Josh Willingham is playing, Gardy said, because Willingham is more comfortable there. (If you missed it, Willingham mishandled two balls for errors on Saturday.)
*The starting rotation is compromised by its reliance on hope: Hope that Francisco Liriano's spring training is more indicative of how he'll do than his 2011 season, that Scott Baker would be healthy and Carl Pavano would return to something close to his 2010 form. Saturday's start for Liriano was promising -- until the second inning. Baker, who should be the strongest starter, is out with arm problems and Jason Marquis isn't ready yet because of the attention he's properly paid to his daughter's health. Add to that Liam Hendricks' food-poising bout and Pavano's lack of velocity on Opening Day and the Twins are 5-for-5 in rotation issues just three games into the season. Are we going to have to hear about 2012 as Perfect Storm, the sequel?
*Over the winter, Terry Ryan opted to duplicate the painful path of 2011 in regard to looking for relievers. The Twins opted against the numerous veterans who were on the market -- save for re-signing Matt Capps -- in favor of another venture to the discard rack for guys no longer wanted by their previous employers. A bunch of them didn't make it out of spring training; a couple of them didn't look so good in Baltimore. Just after the TV guys were talking Saturday about Jared Burton's track record of not giving up home runs, two guys took him deep. Matt Maloney turned 1-0 into 3-0 on Sunday, in part because of a glaring mental mistake that resulted in a double steal. (See: Doing the little things right.) You were warned that a good March means little in April. Anyone remember Keith Comstock? Joe Klink? Tom Klawitter? Don't make me recite three decades of names.
Beyond those compromises, the Twins spent the opening series making three Orioles starting pitchers with mediocre (at best) career records look like C.J. Wilson, Jared Weaver and Dan Haren, the three Angels pitchers whom the Twins are scheduled to face at Target Field this week. Will the Twins will make those three look like Sandy Koufax, Bob Feller and Bert Blyleven? And for all of the appreciation of Anthony Swarzak's work on Sunday, if he wore Orioles colors, we'd be talking about him in the same terms that we've used for that team's starters.
Also, Gardy had issues with Danny Valencia's defense, Burton and Joe Mauer's inability to grasp the scouting report on Nick Markakis (No changeups, darn it) and Maloney's failure to watch runners. Combine that with a top-of-the-order that got four singles in three games and the other statistical shortcomings that should shake themselves out, and you have 0-3 with the next 10 games against postseason-built opponents.
Allow me to cherry-pick some numbers for a second: The Twins managed to finish 36 games under .500 in 2011 despite a midseason stretch of winning 30 out of 50 games. Take away that middle third and the Twins, counting this year's opening series, have a .287 winning percentage (33-82) going back to the start of last season.
For those of you who need to bring a math question to class this week, try this: A team that plays .287 baseball over a 162-game season suffers how many losses?
I'm not saying it will be that bad. The 1991 Twins lost nine of their 11 games (with Jack Morris going 0-3, 6.38) before getting straightened out and winning the World Series. The 1987 Twins, the other Series champions, gave up more runs than they scored and had a .358 winning percentage on the road.
Teams can find ways to overcome their shortcomings, so you'd be jumping to conclusions by kissing off the season with 159 games to play. (Offstage voice: OK, I'll give it another week.)
I am saying that the first weekend of games gave us very little about which to be optimistic. Will the first week of home games be any different?
You're not foolish to wonder.
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