The half-dozen sports operations with the highest profile in the Twin Cities have made mostly predictable changes when selecting new leaders over the previous decade.
The Gophers went young with Richard Pitino in basketball and P.J. Fleck in football. Athletic director Norwood Teague landed on Pitino in 2013 after being turned down by a handful of other coaches. Athletic director Mark Coyle went with Fleck as a logical choice (after firing Tracy Claeys) in 2017, based on Fleck’s success at Western Michigan.
The Vikings have remained old school, with Rick Spielman in charge as general manager and with Mike Zimmer as his coaching hire in 2014 — and with new contract extensions.
The Wild has changed GMs twice in the past two seasons and have gone with veteran NHL executives, Paul Fenton and Bill Guerin. The Timberwolves followed the hiring of a notable veteran, Tom Thibodeau, with Gersson Rosas, a Houston executive linked to previous GM openings.
The organization that went off the main road in the mid-2010s was the Twins, after being our most predictable franchise for 30 years.
“We had been proud of our stability, of our continuity, with what you could call the Andy MacPhail tree,” Twins President Dave St. Peter said Monday. “And for the most part, that served us well.”
MacPhail and his brain trust took over in November 1986 and provided World Series championships in 1987 and 1991. The Twins hit the skids from 1993 through 2000, then experienced an outstanding decade (2001-10) with Terry Ryan and Bill Smith as GMs, and Ron Gardenhire as manager.
The skids returned in overwhelming fashion in 2011. Smith was fired, Ryan returned, new manager Paul Molitor had a plus-.500 team in 2015, and then came 59-103 in 2016. All-time worst in Twins history.
“That season was a disaster from the start,” St. Peter said. “Jim Pohlad, and really his family, decided that we had to pivot. We had to evolve, to become more progressive.”
The first task was to go to Ryan, greatly admired by the Pohlads, in June and tell him there was going to be a change. The announcement of Ryan’s departure came on July 18, 2016.
MacPhail had been named as the executive in charge of baseball on Nov. 24, 1986, the same day “interim” was removed from Tom Kelly’s managerial title.
So, it was four months shy of 30 years that the trimming of Andy’s tree was embarked upon, and the 1-A decision was the next boss of baseball.
The Twins hired the Korn Ferry search firm to help identify candidates. Often, sports franchises are ridiculed for going that route. When the analysis of a game had changed more in the past half-dozen years than in the previous 110, there was nothing wrong with a little modern help.
“We talked with 12 to 15 of the possible candidates brought to us, and interviewed five or six,” St. Peter said. “Once we interviewed Derek Falvey, the consensus among Jim, Bob, Bill and Joe Pohlad was that he came with the plan that we were looking for with the Twins.”
Falvey was a 33-year-old member of the Cleveland front office. He might have been known to Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, but us ball writers out here on the prairie were stupefied.
His competitive background in baseball was as a seldom-used pitcher at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. His main credibility seemed to come from Cleveland manager Terry Francona allowing Falvey to talk pitching with him.
Falvey was hired in early October 2016 and stayed with Cleveland through the heartbreaking Game 7 loss to the Cubs in the World Series. He hired Thad Levine from Texas as his GM during this time.
On the November day both were introduced, Sid Hartman growled a question to Falvey and Levine for allegedly passing themselves off as a “couple of geniuses” trying to replace a great baseball man such as Sid’s friend Ryan.
It was funny — particularly when Levine started his response with, “Sir, I’m as offended as you are” — but it was also an over-the-top example of the media skepticism that afternoon.
Was it possible the Twins had reached into the supply of Eastern-educated, analytically bent, baseball new-wavers and come up with a prize?
Falvey’s Twins will be staging their fourth home opener in this delayed season Tuesday, and the answer to the boldest move taken by a high-profile Twin Cities sports team in the previous decade is: “Yes, the Twins did.”
Mike Radcliff, a Twins scout since 1987, still a senior vice president in the front office and loyal to Terry Ryan as you can get, is among those impressed.
“Falvey is sharp, and he’s in charge,” Radcliff said. “He’s quiet about it, he seeks out opinions, but sit in a staff meeting with Derek, there’s no doubt that he’s the boss.”