Here is the column I wrote for this week's Extra newspaper that published Thursday. You can see the entire edition online at www.thefmextra.com
Fort Myers, Fla.
I apologize from the beginning. As I write this column, a palm tree sways gently in a tropical breeze not 25 feet from me. I am on the southwest coast of Florida, on assignment for KFGO.
This is spring training for the Minnesota Twins, a six-week exercise in optimism buoyed by a couple of off-season signings that cost the Pohlad family $73 million but mostly by the fact it is March and this particular corner of the Shoot First And Ask Questions Later State is generally 83 degrees and sunny at this time of the year.
I've run into a number of familiar Fargo-Moorhead faces on this year's trip and while these fans seemed mildly pleased pitchers Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes are now wearing Twins uniforms, they seemed downright overjoyed they were on the Gulf Coast of Florida rather than the frozen tundra of the Red River Valley.
Who can blame them? It's been a particularly brutal winter and baseball in Florida means spring is right around the corner. Hope springs eternal, they say.
But you wonder how long the Twins can keep selling hope to their fans. Since leaving the sad-sack Metrodome and moving into luxurious Target Field -- a switcheroo that was supposed to catapult the team to extended greatness -- the Twins won a division championship in 2010 and proceeded to lose more than 90 games the past three seasons. The moves the team made the last couple of years under the sales pitch of improvement turned out most often to be ineffective at best, embarrassing at worst. Vance Worley, anybody?
So how long do fans continue to care? Twins president Dave St. Peter, a Bismarck native and University of North Dakota graduate, gives mixed signals. On one hand he says the team needs to show improvement. On the other he says being eliminated from the playoff race by May the last three years hasn't really stung at the box office all that much.
"I think our fans need to see some progress in 2014. It's been a tough three years. A lot has been written and said. We're not going to get away from that until we take some steps forward on the field.," St. Peter says. "We're optimisic we think that will happen largely because we think we've addressed our starting staff and ultimately we think we'll score enough runs."
In his next sentence, St. Peter says the following after being asked about potential attendace fall-off:
"There's been a modest drop. We're at about 17,000 full season (ticket) equivalents, down from from 19,000 a year ago. Our fans continue to be very patient and very supportive. I still believe we can draw 2.5 million fans, which would put us in the upper half of all the teams in major-league baseball."
So, yes, the Twins have to win to satisfy their fans. But, no, it isn't necessarily costing them dearly in attendance.
Huh? The Twins have long enjoyed a cozier relationship with their fans and the media than the Vikings (hate-love), the Wild (just happy to have a hockey team that won't leave) or Timberwolves (apathy). The Twins are just sort of there, comfort noise in the background of summer. Perhaps we are so overjoyed to actually experience summer that it doesn't matter if the Twins win or lose. The Twins mean summer. Good enough.
But it's also true the franchise is masterful at selling itself as the lovable overachievers, the nice guys who finish last. The last couple of years the team has added the element of hope to its sales pitch -- stick with us, just wait, better days are coming.
And that element is on display at spring training. Young stud Miguel Sano was bashing baseballs over the wall Sunday, top prospect Byron Buxton is a popular media interview and flame-throwing young pitcher Alex Meyer stuns casual fans with his height (6-foot-9) and athletic ability (better than mine).
Can these kids play? Well, we the media told everybody last season that Aaron Hicks just might be the second coming of Kirby Puckett and Torii Hunter and how did that work out? Poor Aaron was back in the minors by August, never to be seen again. He's in Fort Myers, too, but not getting quite the attention he did a year ago.
I get the sense the Twins will be improved this season (how can they not be?), but not markedly so. That will keep the wolves at bay for another year, as we're sold the hope of Sano, Buxton, Meyer and warm summer days to come.
In other words, we're saps.
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