One can only imagine that there was a strong wind heading in the opposite direction. Otherwise, we would have heard the celebrations here in the UK, despite being thousands of miles away. It was the news that Minnesotans dreamed of and had been praying for throughout the offseason: their home town, All American hero will remain a Twin for years to come.
And it wasn’t just Twins fans who were gladdened by Joe Mauer signing his eight-year/$184m contract extension on Monday. His future came to represent the latest seemingly hopeless battle against the might of the mighty. Be it Tesco driving local shops out of business or media conglomerates buying up their competitors, now more than ever there’s a depressing inevitability about the rich getting richer.
As talks over a possible contract extension fell silent, publicly at least, nervous tension began to build. Despite the belief that Mauer wanted to stay in Minnesota and the apparent loosening of the purse strings by the Twins this offseason, the thought that it would end with General Manager Bill Smith emotionally stating ‘we did the best we could, but a deal wasn’t possible’ always remained. The Yankees and Red Sox waited in the wings, vultures with no thought for the romantics, ready to add yet another star to their collection. The cries of ‘say it aint so, Joe’ would have been more heartfelt than ever before.
But no, not this time. For once, the romantics won.
Can we claim it as a victory for the little guy, though? For all the emotion and sentiment, it does come down to cold hard cash in the end. Mauer is an exceptional player and deserves to be rewarded as such; if the Twins couldn’t afford to pay him then he wouldn’t have been wrong for heading to someone who could. The deal was greatly helped by Mauer’s genuine willingness to stay and not to seek the absolute top dollar possible by becoming a free agent at the end of the 2010 season, but ultimately what made the difference was that the Twins, the so-called small-market Twins don’t forget, found $184m to make it happen.
Over the offseason, the leading player agent Scott Boras scoffed at the description of teams being small or mid-market. In his eyes, all MLB teams receive enough shared revenue to compete for free agents and to retain their own players. What stops them is not a lack of money, but a lack of desire to spend it. Boras made these comments while trying to coerce the St Louis Cardinals into re-signing Matt Holliday. He has a strong vested interest in making people believe that teams can afford players if they really want to, piling the pressure back on the clubs who would much prefer fans to lower their expectations and to accept that they cannot compete. It’s therefore natural to treat his comments with suspicion, but maybe the Mauer extension shows that there’s more truth to them than some clubs would like us to believe?
The Twins have raised their payroll this year, a drastic shift in organizational policy that has coincided with the move to a brand new ballpark. Bud Selig’s tenure as the MLB Commissioner has produced much change, but one of the most notable is the proliferation of new stadiums that have sprung from the ground. Since 1992 (when Selig became the ‘acting commissioner’, he officially took the post on a permanent basis in 1998) , twenty teams have built new ballparks and this increases to 24 if you look back to 1987. Of the remaining six ballparks (Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Dodger Stadium, Angel Stadium of Anaheim, Oakland Coliseum, Kauffman Stadium), all but the A’s have extensively renovated their homes in recent years and their future in Oakland is currently under doubt.
The building of new ballparks has been a controversial topic as the projects have involved the use of significant amounts of public funding. Teams have often threatened to leave town if the money wasn’t forthcoming, effectively holding the locals to ransom. The Twins were a prime example of this, even putting themselves up to be taken out of existence as MLB considered slimming down to 28 teams. The argument is always that the team will be unable to compete unless they get a new ballpark through which they can greatly increase their revenue. It’s a persuasive argument, but it comes with one significant condition: once the team gets their new home, the excuses run out.
The Florida Marlins have taken a brutal line to cost-cutting since their 2003 World Series triumph, trading away anyone of worth and lowering their payroll to such a level that Selig and the Players Association took the unprecedented step over the recent offseason of forcing them to make a public commitment to increase their spending . The Marlins’ spendthrift approach has always been tied publicly by the club to their efforts to secure a new ballpark in Florida, which was finally approved in early 2008 (although legal wranglings are still ongoing). Even with low crowds in their current stadium, Florida has struggled to justify spending so little (their opening day payroll last year was $36,384m) in comparison to most of their rivals. If the opening of their new ballpark in 2012 isn’t matched by a significant increase in expenditure, fans and agents will be asking some tough questions.
The effects of revenue sharing and a new ballpark still don’t take away the shock of the Minnesota Twins committing themselves to the fourth largest contract in MLB history.
There’s no doubt that Joe Mauer is a special case. It’s not just that he’s an outstanding player, he’s a native of St. Paul and is idolised in Minnesota as much for his modest and down-to-earth nature as his on-the-field achievements. In short, he’s everything that a fan dreams of for their team; the Twins simply could not let him go because he is the Twins. That’s a very rare situation. Other teams would have some justification in claiming that you can’t draw direct comparisons with their cases, such as the Brewers and Prince Fielder or the Phillies and Ryan Howard, both set to be free agents at the end of the 2011 season.
Still, the thought will always be there in the minds of fans: if the Twins can do it, why can’t we?
The key question is whether the Twins really could afford to do it? No fan wants to see their hero leave, but their main focus is on the team being competitive, winning games and hopefully a World Series or two. The task for the Twins now is to continue to put together a competitive team with the money they have left over and that’s not going to be easy as Mauer’s annual $23m salary will amount to a fair percentage of their overall payroll. Some of the other small to mid-market teams may secretly be hoping that the Twins cannot make it work, but Minnesota have proved to be very adept at working with a limited budget in the past.
All they need now to complete the fairytale is to christen their new ballpark with a World Series and with Mauer in the mix, they’ve got a chance at doing just that.