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Who let the dogs in? Great weather, empty seats at Twins Opener

With few captivating off-season moves — and gimmicks — the Twins find their smallest home-opening crowd despite glorious spring weather. 

Little Hank became a media star and marketing gold for a team that needed something, anything to distract from a lousy 2013 season.
Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

On Feb. 17, the day after the Milwaukee Brewers opened spring training, an adorable stray dog wandered into the team’s complex in Phoenix with an injured tail and right hind leg.  Club employees took him to an area vet for a cleanup and an examination, then waited for someone to claim him.

Quickly, the Brewers adopted the fluffy white pooch with shaggy gray ears as an unofficial mascot. Someone named it Hank, after Hank Aaron, the Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves Hall of Famer who finished his career with the Brewers. Outfitted with a No. 1 doggie jersey, little Hank became a media star and marketing gold for a team that needed something, anything to distract from a lousy 2013 season and the outing of its star, former National League Most Valuable Player Ryan Braun, as a drug cheat and a liar.

“I was in Europe this week on business and I had four texts from my wife,” Brewers owner Mark Attanasio told the Associated Press in late February, “and three of them were, ‘What can I do to adopt Hank the Dog?’ “

Brewers vice president and general counsel Marti Wronski eventually adopted Hank, who received a rousing hand on Opening Day when mascot Bernie Brewer walked him out on a leash. The Brewers jumped all over this. Fans can buy Hank t-shirts, pins and stuffed animals at Miller Park, with 20 percent of proceeds earmarked for Wisconsin Humane Society. The club even plans a Hank Bobblehead Night on Sept. 13.

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That’s right. A canine bobblehead.

The Twins couldn’t possibly get this lucky because they rarely think this creatively. Had little Hank scratched on the clubhouse door in Fort Myers, some sourpuss undoubtedly would have called animal control.

This is the team, remember, that last April announced an “early entry” program for batting practice — at $15 a head — only to rescind it seven hours later when outraged fans understandably howled. (The Twins blamed an internal communications snafu without admitting it was a bad idea to begin with.)

This is the team that, after moving TwinsFest to Target Field with the demise of the Metrodome, made some vendors set up in an unheated basement hallway during the coldest January in 35 years, then pronounced the whole enterprise a success because tours of the clubhouse complex — the heated clubhouse complex — were so popular. (Surely there has to be a way to rectify this, even if the Minneapolis Convention Center isn’t available. Heated tent in the parking lot? Ballrooms at the Hilton? Since it benefits the Twins Community Fund, incentive to get this right abounds.)

Even Monday, at the Twins home opener, a missed marketing opportunity blared like neon from the upper deck in right-center field. A red-and-white sign proclaimed that area the Arm & Hammer Grandstand. Why there and not the bleachers in left field, where Josh “Hammer” Willingham usually plays and hits most of his home runs? Hundreds of employees, and no one made it happen?

Look: When you’ve lost 90 or more games three years running, like the Twins have, you need something that either gives your fans hope (a major trade, free-agent signing or similar transaction) or distracts them from the morass on the field (my, what a cute little doggie). This winter, the Twins provided neither. Friday’s six-inch snowfall didn’t help. So Monday, the Twins got what they deserved — a crowd of 35,837, about 3,200 short of capacity, on a sunny, 58-degree day. The final: Long Obnoxiously Brutal Winter 10, Twins 0.

This wasn’t any shock. As of 8:30 p.m. Sunday, StubHub still had almost 1,400 tickets available all over the ballpark. The Twins themselves had field-level tickets nine rows behind first base at $98 apiece, plus $12 in fees for a pair.

General manager Terry Ryan is taking the long view, trying to build via the amateur draft and international market while targeting economical-sensible free agents and reclamation projects. Robinson Cano is not coming through that door, fans. The Twins know this will be a slog, and Monday’s 8-3 loss to Oakland offered full view of a flawed team that needs a lot better starting pitching than it showed the first week of the season.

Last winter Ryan spent $84 million to sign free agents Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes and keep Mike Pelfrey, trying to fix a rotation that finished last in the majors in innings pitched and ERA last season. Seven games in, Twins starters managed one quality start and sit last again in ERA at 6.32 ERA.

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“We know we have good pitchers,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “We know they’re going to get results. Maybe they’re overthrowing a little bit, but we like their arms.”

Monday, Kevin Correia allowed six earned runs in 5 1/3 innings, three after a four-minute, 11-second replay review of a Jed Lowrie home run bid in the third that ultimately, and possibly incorrectly, was judged foul. One Fox Sports North replay angle showed the ball curving behind the right field foul pole.

“We aren’t going, as starters, as deep into games as we normally would,” Correia said. “We’re a few pitches away, here and there, of going deep into games.”

 Chris Colabello’s surprisingly good start at the plate — he leads the majors with 11 RBI and has a hit in all seven games — attracted a large media throng pre-game, forcing Chris Herrmann, who arrived from Rochester shortly before noon, to wait for the group to clear before occupying his locker. Colabello is a great story, a former independent league standout who turned down big money from a South Korean team to stick it out with the Twins. So far, so good.

Herrmann is here because three players — Willingham (sore left wrist), Oswaldo Arcia (sore right hand) and Jason Bartlett (sore left ankle) — could not play Monday. Gardenhire balked at playing shorthanded, so the Twins put Bartlett, who struggled playing left field in Cleveland on Sunday, on the disabled list.

That made for an interesting morning for Ryan, still undergoing radiation treatments for cancer. Looking thinner and walking slower than usual, Ryan made the rounds of the media lunchroom before the game in a sharp dark suit. He greeted reporters, scouts and team employees with firm handshakes, but delegated the daily press briefing to assistant G.M. Rob Antony.

Then Ryan took the stairs up three flights to the press box, shaming three of us who were waiting for the elevator. Not wanting to look like wusses on Stand Up To Cancer Day, we looked at each other and headed for the stairs.  Inspiration, not performance, would have to carry the day.

The best news the Twins could hope for came in the Wednesday forecast: Sunny, beautiful and 70 degrees for the second game of the season, a 12:10 p.m. start. Thanks to so-called demand-based pricing, tickets are plentiful and as cheap as $6. Play hooky if you want, just keep your expectations low.