For the folks who tally the pennies in the Carl Pohlad empire, the weekend the New York Yankees hit town is like the day your paycheck finally arrives. You feel flush again, especially if money has been tight (and when is it not these days?).
The Twins are hoping the four-game Yankees series that begins tonight can invigorate a fan base that has yet to embrace this middling, inconsistent team. Attendance is down about 3,000 a game from last year through the first 28 dates (see chart below).
That’s not surprising, given last season’s payroll dumping, the departures of Johan Santana and Torii Hunter, the influx of kids and no-names, and the way every other team in the AL Central threw around money in the off-season.
Twins President Dave St. Peter said the club anticipated some dropoff after a turbulent off-season, especially compared with the previous one.
“In ’06, we were coming off arguably the most exciting off-season in the history of the franchise,” St. Peter said. “Our season ticket level was over 10,000 for the first time since 1993 and the second time in our history.
“Compare that to ’07, which was arguably the most negative off-season in the history of the franchise. No question that had an impact, as it relates to fan expectations of the franchise. The reality is, this baseball team is competitive, and I think it can stay competitive. Has that caught up with the general public yet? I’m not sure it has. If it does, we’ll be fine.”
Through Memorial Day, the Twins ranked 24th in attendance among Major League Baseball’s 30 teams, averaging 24,052 per game, according to ESPN.com. Only Cincinnati, Oakland, Kansas City, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Florida were worse. Through 28 dates last year, the Twins averaged 27,167.
Attendance rank holding steady in recent years
Keep in mind that since the Twins started winning again in 2001, they’ve ranked 19th to 25th in attendance every season. So they’re about where they usually are, compared with everybody else.
They may see an invasion of Cornhuskers if Nebraska product Joba Chamberlain starts for the pitching-strapped Yankees on Monday night. But even if the Twins draw 160,000 for the series, they’ll still lag behind last year’s pace by about 1,000 per game. For a team that relies so much on its rank-and-file fans for revenue, that could be worrisome, especially if Ron Gardenhire’s gang doesn’t start playing better.
A few things to remember as we look ahead:
1. Most major-league teams draw better in June, July and August, when school is out. The Twins are one of them. In every year but one since 2001, the Twins’ average attendance increased after the 28th home game.
2. Last year’s 28-date total of 760,688 was the Twins’ highest in this decade. Early-season attendance often reflects the previous year’s finish, and excitement over the Twins’ miracle 2006 division title appeared to carry over. This year’s mark of 673,463, though down a lot, is still the third-best since 2001.Here’s the comparison:
TWINS ATTENDANCE AFTER 28 DATES, 2001-08
Source: Twins media guides
But here’s why the Twins could be in some trouble:
1. The current pace resembles early 2006. A bad finish in ’05 that ended the run of three consecutive AL Central titles, and a horrid start to ’06 (the Twins were 12-1/2 games out on May 27), combined to drop the 28-date average to 23,134, almost 3,000 less than the year before. It took Francisco Liriano’s emergence, Justin Morneau’s MVP year, a batting title from Joe Mauer and a Cy Young Award from Johan Santana to bump the average up to 28,210 by season’s end.
2. That 2005 season, when the Twins were out of the division race by late July, was the only one in this decade where attendance declined after the 28th date (see chart).
3. The Red Sox, whose road following usually guarantees at least one crowd of 40,000 whenever they come to the Metrodome, never came close in four games here May 9-12. They only cracked 30,000 once, and the Monday night finale attracted only 18,782 — this for the defending world champions. The fishing opener kept away enough Twins fans to make the Dome sound like Fenway Park West. (By the way: Detroit was here for the ’07 fishing opener and averaged about 1,000 a game more from Friday through Sunday than the Bosox did.)
With gas at or near $4 a gallon, Twins fans from outside the metro area, the Dakotas, Wisconsin and Iowa will be thinking long and hard about whether it’s worth driving several hundred miles to see a team miss fly balls, overthrow cutoff men, botch double plays, hit singles instead of homers and cough up leads in the late innings.
Good, winning baseball is recession-proof. Carelessness isn’t. The Twins have won just enough to remain afloat in a head-banging division, but they’ll need more hustle and less boneheadedness to move the turnstiles.
And they had better do it fast. Remember, because of the Republican National Convention in St Paul, the Twins play only 12 home games after Aug. 20. In ’06, attendance didn’t pick up until late July. That doesn’t leave much time for convincing fans.
“In September, if we’re competitive, we’ll draw big crowds,” St. Peter said.
St. Peter still thinks the club will meet its season attendance projection of 2.1 to 2.2 million. The Yankees come back for three games in August, which helps, and NL West-leading Arizona tops the June interleague schedule.
Plus, next week the Twins will announce a plan for discounted lower reserved and upper club tickets based on gas prices. Whatever the national average per gallon is on a Monday, St. Peter said, will be subtracted from the price of those tickets the rest of the week. They must purchased in advance, by phone or on the Twins website only.