Just inside the Twins clubhouse – to the right as you walk in – a miniature zen garden fills the locker stall between those of pitchers Sonny Gray and Joe Ryan. A mini plastic tree and tiny Asian garden statue rest on a pan of white rocks, next to a tiny fountain with bubbling water and another, larger statue. And at the foot, a small gong.
This, Ryan hinted, was Gray’s handiwork; Ryan discovered it in June after returning from a bout with COVID-19. Gray, the veteran right-hander acquired from Cincinnati over the winter, said he wanted a place for teammates to find serenity and relieve the daily pressure of baseball and the pennant race. “I wish I had gotten a real bonsai (tree),” Gray said before a game earlier this month.
Meanwhile, outside Target Field, fans approaching Gates 29 found the opposite of zen and serenity: A Hennepin County deputy sheriff with a black assault rifle strapped across his chest. Half a dozen deputies working detail, three with rifles, provided coverage around the stadium perimeter. One deputy said “dozens” of fans thanked him for being there, though the only people in sight even slightly sketchy were a casually dressed scalper and a guy in a headset preaching about Jesus.
The Twins employed off-duty cops for additional security years before public safety in downtown Minneapolis became a concern, club president Dave St. Peter said. But the perception Minneapolis is unsafe remains one of the reasons Twins attendance is off almost 21% since 2019, the last “normal” season before the pandemic and the 2021-22 lockout – this despite the club leading the American League Central Division for almost four months.
It’s not the only reason, or even the most significant. Inflation, gas prices (falling, but still high) and lingering fallout from the pandemic and the lockout all played a role – not just in Minnesota, but across Major League Baseball.
Per Axios, 23 of 30 MLB teams are drawing fewer fans than in 2019. Overall MLB attendance at the All-Star Break in mid-July was down 6.4% from 2019. And season ticket sales are off 10% across the industry, per Sportico.
Going into this weekend’s series with San Francisco, the Twins ranked 20th among MLB’s 30 teams in attendance, averaging 22,291 per game. That’s about 10,000 less on average than Colorado, the last-place team in the NL West, and about 1,500 less than Washington, last in the NL East.
Through 63 dates the Twins have drawn 1,400,625 spectators. That’s down almost 370,000, or 20.9%, from the same point in 2019 (1,770,455). The falloff has worsened since the All-Star Break, when attendance ran 13.7 percent behind 2019, per Axios.
Last weekend the Twins inducted popular former manager Ron Gardenhire and former players Cesar Tovar and Dan Gladden into the club’s Hall of Fame.That, and the picture-perfect weather, should have brought out 30,000 or so each day. Instead, the games drew 21,781 and 24,802, respectively, in a ballpark that seats a little more than 39,000. And Monday night’s crowd of 18,595 was the smallest since May 26.
Except for a two-game visit by Milwaukee in mid-July, when visiting Brewers fans packed the joint, and Aug. 4, the night of a postgame concert by country star Cole Swindell, the Twins haven’t had a crowd of more than 30,000 since Opening Day. And that’s with a schedule packed with giveaways and special events. Things don’t get any easier with the State Fair upon us, school about to start and the struggling club falling behind Cleveland in the division race.
So, what happened? More than anything, St. Peter said, the inability to sell group tickets over the winter killed the Twins at the gate. Clubs shut down most business operations during the lockout, including ticket sales. St. Peter said that likely cost the Twins 3,000 to 5,000 tickets a night in June, July and August.
“We went from December 1 to the middle of March without a definite (season) start date,” he said. “While we were able to start on time, we weren’t able to go through our normal off-season progression around ticket sales. With the work stoppage, it really took a hit, not just in Minnesota but nationally. To some extent it’s impacted single game sales as well.”
The lockout meant no TwinsFest and a truncated Winter Caravan, limiting connections with fans. St. Peter also cited the absence of Twins games from many streaming services; cord-cutters and households without cable have no way to watch. None of that helped.
Still, there’s no getting around the safety issue. The club surveyed past ticket holders who haven’t bought tickets in 2022. St. Peter said 33% of respondents cited public safety as a factor, with 20% calling it the factor.
And yet, St. Peter said, 84% of fans who attended games this season said they felt safe at Target Field, compared to 6% unsafe and 10% with no opinion. That gives him hope that fans will eventually come back.
“I don’t think it’s fair to put it exclusively on public safety,” St. Peter said. “I’ll say this: I’ve been disappointed in our attendance. I thought we’d be drawing more people. There are some factors, but ultimately, we have to look at ourselves.
“We’ve spent a lot of time looking at the way we’re pricing our tickets, pricing our concessions, the promotional lineup, marketing the team in general. All of those topics are on the table for review and consideration. Because at some point, it’s incumbent upon us to create a value proposition here that fans want to be part of,” said St. Peter. “The worst thing we can do is just blame it on public safety, the economy, price of gas, and the lack of access to games on television. They might have some reality, but they also might be excuses. Organizationally, I can assure you that’s not the mindset.”
There’s one other factor St. Peter didn’t mention, something based on my Twitter feed and conversations with fans: Blunders on the baseball side that turned off potential ticket-buyers.
The club’s clumsy handling of Byron Buxton’s physical ailments and availability on a given day rubbed some fans the wrong way. Buxton doesn’t take batting practice on the field, meaning there’s a chance a family of Buxton fans from Fargo, Chisholm or Sleepy Eye could drive hours to a game and never see him at all if he’s not in the lineup. Who wants to explain that to crying six-year-old?
Unlike the charismatic Bomba Squad of 2019, this club lacks the big personalities and energy fans love. Carlos Correa is hardly Nelson Cruz, and rookie Jose Miranda has more RBI. Also, the bullpen stinks. No one wants to drive 300 miles to watch Emilio Pagan serve a game-losing home run.
The night in June where the Twins hit five home runs off Yankees star Gerrit Cole and still lost hardly inspired confidence, triggering memories of the club’s 18 consecutive postseason losses (14 to the Yanks). Traditionalists chafe at manager Rocco Baldelli following a game plan dictated by the baseball analytics department that often involves pulling the starting pitcher after two turns through the lineup, regardless of pitch count or effectiveness.
St. Peter thinks the new balanced schedule for 2023, with fewer games within the division and series against every MLB club, will spark more interest. And he’s hopeful the Twins will pull out of this funk and make a run at the Guardians, encouraging more ticket-buying in September.
“I’m bullish,” he said. “I don’t take the sky is falling approach. I think over time we’ll chip away at the public safety perception. The economy will stabilize, and hopefully we’ll get back to pre-pandemic attendance levels. We’ve seen it come back in some other markets around the country.”