It may be difficult to believe, but there was a time when baseball almost lost me.
It was the late 1970s-early '80s, the period between the Rod Carew trade (the fallout of Calvin Griffith's infamous Waseca speech — "I'll tell you why we moved to Minnesota. It was when we found out you only had 15,000 blacks here'') and the beginning of the Kirby Puckett-Kent Hrbek era.
The team was bad, the owner was unwilling or unable to evolve, the old Met appeared ready to fall apart and then was replaced by the Metrodome ... it was really difficult to be a Twins fan. It was too easy to wonder if the organization was trying.
Griffith chose to ignore free agency. He essentially punted the draft. A book on scouting published in the early 1980s described a "Twins draft" as an unathletic white guy, probably a college senior, with no or little negotiating leverage — Bryan Oelkers and Mike Sodders and Eddie Bane.
I never accepted Sid Hartman's defense of this — that Griffith had no choice, that it just wasn't possible for him to compete in the free agency era. (It was the early version of "small market" whining.)
I didn't accept it because there were these two teams in the American League, the Kansas City Royals and the Baltimore Orioles, that had at least similar financial strictures and thrived anyway. The Orioles didn't try to outbid the Yankees for free agents, but they won 90-plus games every year. The Royals dominated the Western Division despite a smaller population to draw fans from. The O's and the R's knew what they were doing.
The Orioles went to the World Series in 1979 and lost, went again in 1983 and won. The Royals went to the World Series in 1980 and lost, went again in 1985 and won.
And now? Out in Baltimore Andy MacPhail – who started the process of building the current Twins operation in 1986 — is trying to revive the old "Oriole Way," which is the basic template for what the Twins have been doing for the past decade. He has some big obstacles — the Yankees and Red Sox have a much larger financial advantage over the Orioles than they did when Paul Richards started building the Orioles operation, and it took a long time for that effort to come to fruition.
But at least there's signs of progress there. Kansas City is just a complete mess.
It's a cycle. Teams rise and fall, and few, no matter their resources, can outspend their mistakes. (The Yankees have, but they also don't make all that many mistakes either.) Managerial competency — field manager and general manager — count for a lot. Ownership that allows competent management is rarer than you might think. (There's probably a MBA thesis in that thought.)
There's a part of me saddened by the lowly status of the Orioles and Royals, because the young me thought they were model franchises. But baseball's a zero-sum game; the wins and losses have to even up, and not everybody can win 90 games every season. If the Twins are winning, somebody has to lose.
Perhaps in another 30 years the Twins will be the downtrodden again and those of us still around will wonder why they can't thrive like the O's and R's.