Commentary

Pohlad was good, bad for Twins

Originally Published: January 6, 2009
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

Carl Pohlad, who ran the Minnesota Twins for a quarter-century on IOUs, postdated checks and loose change, died Monday at age 93. I assume the official cause of death was old age, but rising player salaries probably also played a role.

Pohlad owned his team longer than any current owner other than George Steinbrenner, purchasing the Twins in 1984. Was he a good baseball owner? The answer depended on when you asked the question. He deserves full credit for buying the Twins from owner/dinosaur Calvin Griffith in 1984 to prevent a possible move to Florida, as well as for putting the right people in place to take them to World Series championships in 1987 -- still the top sporting accomplishment for any Minnesota fan younger than 60 years old -- and again in 1991. He deserves bitter curses, and he heard them, for repeatedly threatening to move the team if he didn't get a new stadium, letting the franchise wither for much of the '90s and coldheartedly trying to kill it off during baseball's infamous contraction episode.

He was ever the banker and ran the team as one.

A top Twins executive once told me that Pohlad didn't mind not making money off the Twins, but he was dead set against losing a dime on a baseball team. This approach was occasionally effective, considering the two world titles and several playoff appearances despite one of the league's lower payrolls -- but often frustrating. The Twins developed players only to trade them off when their salary rose too high for Pohlad.

[+] EnlargeCarl Pohlad
MLB Photos/Getty ImagesCarl Pohlad guided the Twins to a pair of championships, but he also held the constant threat of moving the team out of Minnesota.
This approach to running the team as a business was deeply rooted in his past. Pohlad grew up so poor in what is now West Des Moines, Iowa, that his mother did laundry for others to make ends meet. He got his start in business as a young boy by contracting to pick cockleburs -- nasty, prickly weeds -- for farmers in the area, then subcontracting the work to other boys and pocketing the 25-cent difference. He went on to deliver collection and foreclosure notices during the Depression before moving into banking.

Despite his eventual immense wealth -- at one point he was the richest man in baseball, with more money than Alex Rodriguez and Scott Bora put together -- Pohlad stayed close to his roots, pinching pennies so severely he bruised Abraham Lincoln. As he grew old, he seemed to be both the physical and the spiritual inspiration for Montgomery Burns.

And you wonder why the Twins traded Johan Santana rather than pay him $140 million?

Pohlad had his good and bad points as an owner. He hired good people with the Twins (and not just in a baseball sense), and he let them do their jobs as long as they didn't spend too much of his money. Other owners would have fired former general manager Terry Ryan long before he returned the team to respectability, but Pohlad did not. He was patient that way. But his cheap ways likewise made their jobs difficult to perform. He also strong-armed the community into building him a stadium that he easily could have built himself many times over.

The irony is that the man who saved the Twins from moving in 1984 repeatedly threatened to do so himself. In a shameless 1997 attempt to frighten Minnesota into a deal, he threatened to sell the Twins to a North Carolina businessman who said he would move the team to what is essentially Mayberry. When that ludicrous deal fell through and Pohlad still was unable to receive public funding, he volunteered the Twins for contraction after the 2001 season in return for what is believed to be a $150 million payoff.

Fortunately, that contraction plan was blocked. The Twins have flourished since, while the aging Pohlad has played a smaller and smaller role in the club operations. In addition to winning several division titles while developing a solid core of talented players, the Twins also somehow persuaded the community to build them a new stadium, which will open in 2010. Because of typical Pohlad frugality, however, it will not have a retractable roof. Pohlad had more than enough money to pay for such a roof but, no surprise, chose not to.

You can't take it with you, but that didn't stop Pohlad from trying.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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