Big city sports are in a constant state of flux, in terms of who's relevant and who can really capture the imagination of the locals, but rarely are things as topsy turvy as they have been in Minneapolis the past few years.
Seven short years ago, the Vikings were the toast of the town, boasting star power that few other NFL teams could match, with Daunte Culpepper, Randy Moss, John Randle, Cris Carter, Robert Smith, et al. You couldn't walk 20 feet downtown without seeing a Vikings jersey. A division title was a foregone conclusion (blasphemous to think otherwise!), a Super Bowl APPEARANCE considered to be a relatively underwhelming expectation, let alone a Super Bowl win. This area lived, breathed and ate Vikings football.
Not too far behind were the Timberwolves, a team that had come tantalizingly close to breaking through, sporting one of the most widely recognized stars in the world in Kevin Garnett, with a promising supporting cast that included Terrell Brandon, Chauncey Billups and Wally Szczerbiak. They had lost the past three years in the first round of the playoffs, but THIS year was the year. The potential was too tempting to ignore. There was nowhere to go but up.
The Twins, on the other hand, were a disaster, a laughingstock. A losing record their past 8 seasons. Their latest big free agent signing was Butch Huskey. Matt Lawton was their only all-star. They finished the year 8 games behind Kansas City. Rumblings of moving the team to Charlotte had yet to subside. The word "contraction" entered the local lexicon. The team was a wide stain on page 7 of the sports section.
Now, the tables have completely turned. The Vikings' most popular players are offensive linemen and a running back that hasn't played a down of professional ball yet, bringing the fanbase to a level of apathy it hasn't seen in at least 25 years. The Timberwolves just traded away its greatest player in franchise history, after years of disappointment, and are left with a bunch of rookies and bit players. Needless to say, the word "rebuilding" doesn't exactly capture the area's imagination.
The shining beacon of hope? The Minnesota Twins. Quite the turnaround.
Division winners in four out of the last five years, including an incredible, history-making run in 2006 where won the division on the last day of the season. Once-in-a-lifetime talents and a myriad of all-stars, with names like Santana, Hunter, Mauer, Morneau, Cuddyer and Nathan, making the Twins the most likeable, easy to root for team in town. They do things the "right way": they develop their own players, make smart savvy trades, their players hustle and run out ground balls, they don't exclusively rely on letting other teams develop their players so they can snatch them away with a cartoonishly huge contract. Their reputation is heralded league-wide as "the right way to do it."
The Twins front office isn't stupid. They know all this. Not only has the organization reached consistent success on the field, they've matched that with an outstanding ad campaign (I've got some extra Joe Mauer sideburns laying around here somewhere), and they even got that pesky new ballpark built. So, I'm willing to bet that they know and understand the current condition of the local sports climate. It's theirs for the taking. The Twins could potentially OWN this area for years and years. All the ingredients are there.
The question is, why haven't they done anything about it yet?
They've at least had the foresight to sign their one absolute-home-run-sure-thing Joe Mauer, a local guy who oozes marketability, plays arguably the most important position on the field, and, oh yeah, he won a batting title. But lets face it, you'd have to be Kevin McHale to screw that up. What's concerning is, the front office seems to be content with just Mauer locked up. Justin Morneau is equally important to the Twins, in just as many ways as Mauer. The same could be said for Torii Hunter, who many fans perceive to be the face of the franchise. Michael Cuddyer's value to the lineup and to right field was proven the past couple weeks when he went on the disabled list; the team struggled mightily without him, leading to an embarassing sweep at the hands of Toronto. Joe Nathan is again proving this year he's one of the best closers in baseball. And of course, Johan Santana, whose importance to the team has gotten to the point where it just goes without saying, will command the most money out of anyone, as well as the most attention from other ballclubs. Point is, every single one of these guys is important in their own unique way.
I'd imagine most front offices would look at something like that and get slightly overwhelmed. Too many stars, too much money, too little time. In my eyes, the Twins should be looking at this as their greatest opportunity for as long as they've been in Minnesota. There is a drastic lack of star-power, a woeful amount of apathy, a gaping hole in the Minnesota sports scene. Dare I say, a lack of hope. The Twins have a chance to change all that. They've proven they can with their play. They know they have the right guys to do it. Now can they keep them all?
Based on their relative inactivity towards this situation, I'm not sure they really understand the ramifications, both short-term and long-term, if they're only able to sign a couple of these guys, or even god forbid, NONE of them. If that happens, we're back at square one. Same old Twins, too cheap to do anything, while a billionaire owner leans on a crutch labled "small market", the trust of the public lost possibly forever. The team would essentially be saying, "This is as far as we can go, and we're going to make it as hard as we can to root for your favorite team."
This is their chance to make a statement, to instead say "We give a crap, we're going to be good for a long time, we're contending for a championship with THIS team and THESE guys, and we're not screwing around. No more of this Butch Huskey, Sidney Ponson, Bret Boone bullshit. We're going to prove to the fans that we give a crap."
The Twins' time is now. But do they realize it?