Of Twins and Saints
CHS Field, the St. Paul Saints’ home turf. Courtesy of St. Paul Saints

Of Twins and Saints

Some love for our local ballclubs—those making money and those losing it.

I was tempted to write something about cannabis this month, or sports betting, maybe noncompete clauses, but with our press deadlines right before the end of the legislative session, I didn’t want to write a column that might end up moot on the way to the printer. Those hot-button issues can wait for another day.

Let’s talk baseball.

Two locally momentous events happened in pro ball this spring. Forbes reported that the Twins lost $27 million last year and, that the team was in the bottom five of MLB profitability (or lack thereof). And the St. Paul Saints were sold—in the higher eight figures is the scuttlebutt—a number that the ragtag squad working from a cement bunker by a railroad freight yard a decade ago would have thought unreal.

I’m not suggesting the two things have anything to do with one another, but they’re both notable and worthy of discussion. Let’s start with the good news, sort of. I’m not exactly overjoyed the Saints were sold to Diamond Sports Holdings, a private equity concern that is buying up minor league teams at multiples that make them seem a bit less minor league, but I’m glad they’re thriving. The sale means the end of the Mike Veeck/Bill Murray era in town, and if the new owners don’t leave well enough alone, could it portend leadership and philosophical changes at CHS Field.

It’s been a decade of change for the Saints, first moving from the Tinkertoy Midway Stadium to CHS Field in 2015, then moving from indie ball to affiliated ball as the Twins AAA squad in 2021, and now onto their second ownership group.

As former partner and current executive VP Tom Whaley explained it to me in a downtown St. Paul watering hole, the org has “no big hill left to climb.” He says both the move from Midway and then into affiliated ball could have cost the team its quirky soul, “but we fought for it. It felt like ’93 all over again. We had to prove to people we hadn’t changed.”

They hadn’t, though the sale is actually the greatest risk to the fun-is-good insouciance. If, in a year or two, Whaley, general manager Derek Sharrer, and longtime broadcaster Sean Aronson are still around, it’s a good sign the owners didn’t try to fix what wasn’t broke.

I suggested that the Saints kept the magic of outdoor baseball alive in Minnesota during the Metrodome’s darkest days and were in some way responsible for getting us a simple outdoor ballpark, Target Field, not the domed aircraft hangar many wanted here (and was built in Milwaukee). Whaley would take no credit, but did acknowledge, “Saints fans have always been Twins fans,” and perhaps they did keep the old-school fires burning.

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I’m not exactly overjoyed the Saints were sold to Diamond Sports Holdings, a private equity concern that is buying up minor league teams at multiples that make them seem a bit less minor league, but I’m glad they’re thriving.

Across the river, the news the Twins are losing bucketloads of money is almost less cause for alarm. There will be no contraction ruse or other chicanery to motivate the public, no massive budget cuts to balance the books. Major League Baseball is a board game for the super-wealthy, and the Pohlads are at home in that league. For years, however, we’ve been told by team critics and sports pundits that the family was unwilling to spend themselves into red ink for a championship.

But the Forbes data, and comments by Joe Pohlad in my Q&A with him in the April/May issue, makes it clear that the ubiquitous “cheap” mantra has lost its salience, and maybe should have years ago. While hapless, mostly uncompetitive orgs like the Oakland A’s and Baltimore Orioles cut their way to big profits, the Twins continued to improve Target Field and pad a payroll that far exceeds cash flow. They are 22nd of 30 MLB teams in revenue, Forbes estimates; the Twins probably haven’t broken even since the early years of Target Field. Their loss was estimated to be the fifth-largest in baseball, exceeded only by teams in much larger markets (San Diego, New York Mets, Toronto, Chicago White Sox).

The Pohlad family sees the Twins as part of a legacy and are investing even when it doesn’t make a lot of financial sense or translate to long playoff runs. I’m not an apologist for 30-plus years of playoff irrelevance, but it’s important to get the facts out there.

Of course, the name of the game in baseball is not short-term gains and losses, but franchise value. It’s probably safe to assume the Twins’ value is still rising. No bake sale will be necessary.