Minnesota baseball economics keep falling

In the early ’90s the Twins had already won the World Series and were beginning their gradual descent toward the abyss when Kirby Puckett’s contract was up.
Still laced in the prime of his career, Carl Pohlad and associates knew the market value for someone as gifted and needed in the baseball world as Puckett.
Before much of anything got started, the Twinkies had already caught a break: They had brought up and developed the best and most valuable athlete in Minnesota history.
The economics of baseball began to inflate in the late ’80s, and by the early and mid-’90s, a guy like Puckett would have attracted something between $6 million and $8 million per season; among the top 10 in player salaries at the time.
Puckett stayed with the bumbling hometown franchise for $5 million before having to prematurely end his breathtaking career in Minnesota.
Even before the first season of this new millennium, an even sadder looking Twins have another dilemma: Brad Radke.
Training camp has just begun and the ace of the pitching staff is without a contract beyond this season. In light of the penny-pinching Twins and baseball’s economics, Pohlad would have to invest anywhere between one-third and one-half of this season’s projected $17 million payroll.
Radke said he is willing to take less than the current market bears for a pitcher of his caliber. That means that the $9 million he’s asking for could be slightly less money than Puckett could have gotten some six years ago.
Other than being the best player on a dismal team, very little can be comparable between the two scenarios.
The one thing that would parallel this ordeal is the signing of Radke.
Once again, the team is in a bind. Can they really afford to keep the staff ace that will do nothing but make the team bad instead of abominable?
The way the organization is being run, probably not, but there is no time like the present.
Radke and Ron Coomer are the team’s lone shreds of consistency. Coomer is a blue-collar, hard-working player, but he doesn’t put butts in the seats like Radke can. With graveyard attendance on a daily basis, fans and players alike need someone who can give the team a comparable chance to win every four or five games.
With Radke, you know you’re going to have the luxury of watching a game that doesn’t last longer than “Waterworld,” at half the price of admission.
The rest of the team is stocked with young, middle-of-the-grain ballplayers. There is no 20-home-run hitter. No .350 hitter. No 40-stolen base, lead-off hitter. No 20-game winner.
In all honesty, this is a team with no present and very little future.
But, for the umpteenth time in the last eight years, they are young.
Youth means time, which Pohlad and general manager Terry Ryan are out of with the fans. This team believes not signing Radke and trading him means getting more run of the mill prospects: marginal at best, atrocious most of the time. That leads to two or three more “rebuilding” years, probably in another state.
That, in turn, would do nothing but add kerosene to a blazing fire. For good or bad, Minnesota has made it clear that public subsidies for a stadium are not going to happen. Trading away the team’s lone icon after he was willing to take less money to stay, and then ringing doorbells for stadium donations could incite rioting of biblical proportions.
Even the 10,000 Minnesotans who attend games will no longer be interested in watching what would be a bunch of Garbage Pail Kids.
It’s that unwillingness to be competitive that Radke would help distinguish. They won’t be competitive with him, but it would send a message that they are willing to pay some people what’s coming to them. The “We’re waiting for baseball’s economics,” jargon can’t stick this time.
If Pohlad and Ryan are serious about turning the franchise around, it has to start here: a quality 29-year-old starting pitcher in the prime of his career who wants to stay.
The Twins need Radke more than Radke needs the Twins. In actuality, the Twins desperately need Radke and Radke wants the Twins.
God help him.

Mark Heller covers men’s basketball and welcomes comments at [email protected]