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Saving the Twins outshines everything else as Carl Pohlad’s legacy

In death, as in life, Minnesota Twins owner Carl Pohlad proved a magnet for criticism and bile.

Ron Gardenhire, Carl Pohlad
REUTERS/Eric Miller
Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire toasts with Twins owner Carl Pohlad celebrating the team’s 2006 American League Central Division title.

In death, as in life, Minnesota Twins owner Carl Pohlad proved a magnet for criticism and bile. When his obituary appeared Monday on the website of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, some of the initial reader comments were so nasty and insensitive that the newspaper quickly chose to review them before publication.

Of all the words that could be used to describe Pohlad, who died Monday at age 93, “beloved” probably would not be used outside his immediate family and friends. He was a billionaire ranked by Forbes Magazine as the second-richest man in Minnesota, but his notorious frugality with his baseball team – at least when it came to signing his own players and potential free agents – left him an easy target for frustrated fans who branded him a skinflint.

Frankly, some parts of Pohlad’s legacy are difficult, if not impossible, to defend. In 1997, he threatened to sell the team to Don Beaver, a North Carolina businessman who talked about moving it to Charlotte, N.C.. Beaver lacked the financial backing to do it, and the whole thing was a sham, contrived in an attempt to con the state Legislature into funding a new stadium. Pohlad’s credibility took a hit he never recovered from.

Then, in 2001, Pohlad eagerly latched onto baseball Commissioner Bud Selig’s controversial contraction plan, a $150 million gold watch that would have killed Major League Baseball here, probably forever. The Twins’ attempt to break their Metrodome lease was blocked in court (thank you, Judge Harry Crumb), and the most recent era of Twins success began with the 2002 AL Central Division title. That, and the revelation Pohlad lent money to the financially strapped Milwaukee Brewers (a Selig family enterprise), further eroded his standing in the eyes of many Twins fans.

Public saw only his business side
So for many of us, it’s hard to separate feelings about Pohlad the businessman and Pohlad the person, especially if the businessman is the only side of the man we saw. We never knew the Pohlad who took care of his loyal employees and did little favors for people, stories you’ll likely hear mourners tell at his funeral on Thursday at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis. If Pohlad had a fan’s enthusiasm for baseball, the kind that makes you act emotionally and impulsively, we never saw it.

In fairness, there would be no Twins team for people to complain about if Pohlad hadn’t bought it from Calvin Griffith in 1984, when the franchise was supposedly headed for Tampa. Many of you fondly remember the World Series championships in 1987 and 1991 – which, by the way, represent two more titles than the Vikings, Timberwolves, North Stars and Wild have won, combined. Without Pohlad, those memories might belong to someone else. Even those who despise the man should give him credit for that.

And whether you supported the ballpark funding legislation or not, that stadium rising from the lot behind the Target Center ensures two things that should bring comfort:

1. The Pohlad sons will not be selling the team anytime soon. If Jim Pohlad learned anything from his dad, it’s that you don’t sell an asset before it fully appreciates. The worth of the franchise jumps significantly the day Target Field opens in 2010. Selling it before then would be phenomenally stupid.

2. If the Pohlads do decide to flip the franchise three to five years down the road, a moneymaking new stadium probably guarantees the Twins stay put, even if the buyer is not a Minnesotan.

In the statement released by the Pohlad sons, the key line reads, “We want to assure everyone that we will continue Dad’s work and his legacy – just as he would have wanted and as he has prepared us to do.”

So it’s unlikely the Twins will morph into the Yankees and drop $100 million on a pitcher, or bring in Manny Ramirez. But if the Pohlads are smart, they’ll use some of the increased revenue from the new stadium not only to bump up the payroll, but for philanthropic endeavors that do public good and place their father’s legacy in a favorable light. 

Rejiggered deal could lead to Pohlad tribute at new park
Don’t be surprised if the Twins and Target Co. rejigger their naming rights deal to honor Pohlad, perhaps renaming the plaza leading to the park. We can argue all day about Pohlad’s merits and weaknesses as an owner.

But for now, as the Pohlad kids prepare to bury their father, let’s remember that he kept baseball in the Twin Cities. You can’t consider yourself a major-league sports town without baseball, and those of us who relish such things should be grateful. Above all else, that is Carl Pohlad’s legacy.