Twins paved way for ride back to top

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FORT MYERS, Fla. - It can be done. If the Minnesota Twins, working under severe budget constraints and the threat of contraction, can build a competitive team from the ground up, it certainly can be done in Baltimore.

The Twins reached the playoffs last year with a roster full of young stars who came up through the organization and weathered some difficult rebuilding years. They remain well-configured to defend their American League Central title, though they can expect to get a strong argument from the improved Chicago White Sox.

Though it seems like an amazing success story, general manager Terry Ryan said there is nothing amazing about it. The young, exciting Twins are the product of old-fashioned baseball values.

"It all goes back to scouting and player development," Ryan said. "We've tried it a couple of different ways the last few years. When you have good players, it makes it look like you know what you're doing."

Despite the huge difference in revenue potential, it isn't hard to draw some comparisons between the Twins and Orioles. The Twins won the World Series in 1987 and 1991 with teams that included Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett and many well-known veteran players. They spent the 1990s trying to stay afloat by plugging holes but eventually decided to start over from scratch.

"We tried to do that in the mid-'90s," Ryan said. "We tried to put our finger in the dike. Some of those things worked and some didn't, but we were spinning our wheels."

The Orioles reached the AL Championship Series in 1996 and '97 with a high-priced collection of marquee players, then struggled to remain competitive as the New York Yankees established a new dynasty in the AL East. They would handicap themselves with some bad personnel decisions - most notably committing $65 million to sign free agent Albert Belle - but finally reached the same conclusion that led to the baseball renaissance in Minnesota: The key to long-term success is the ability to weather short-term failure.

"We had an owner [Carl Pohlad] and a manager [Tom Kelly] who were willing to go through some tough years," Ryan said. "Our owner never flinched."

In the case of the Twins, that was a matter of economic necessity. The franchise's limited revenue potential made it impossible to keep spending on big-ticket veterans. The Orioles have more payroll flexibility, but the swift decline of Peter Angelos' veteran team in the late 1990s convinced him that true organizational strength can only come from a solid player development system.

The only question is how long he's willing to wait for things to turn around.

Maybe the Twins didn't have any other choice, but they showed great organizational patience and were rewarded with the emergence of young stars Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones and Doug Mientkiewicz - the nucleus of a solid offense that is tailored to the quirky Metrodome.

"That [patience] is the one virtue you have to possess," Ryan said. "There are going to be years when you win 66 or 67 games. I go back to the year we won 69 [2000]. I thought we had a heck of a year. That's when Hunter and [Joe] Mays and [Cristian] Guzman got their chance to play. We had 17 rookies on that team.

"That's when we got excited that maybe we were on to something. The next year, we went from 69 to 85."

The year after that - last year - the Twins won 94 games and their first division title since 1991. They defeated the Oakland Athletics in the Division Series before losing to the eventual world champion Anaheim Angels in the AL Championship Series.

"You have to give the players an awful lot of credit," said former Twins manager Kelly, who presided over much of the rebuilding process before turning the team over to Ron Gardenhire last year. "They survived. They lost an awful lot of games, but they were very strong mentally.

"It was quite an undertaking for everyone, including our fans. We were drawing 12,000-15,000, and I give those people a lot of credit for hanging in there with us. You don't do this in two or three months. It takes two or three years. It's painstaking, but when they play well, it's very rewarding."

Though the Twins fell short of the World Series last year, the postseason clearly affirmed the value of a development-first approach to winning. The Angels, another team packed with homegrown young stars, knocked the big-payroll Yankees out in the first round, and the Twins eliminated an A's team that features the best homegrown starting rotation in either league.

The Orioles are not yet in a position to boast about their strong organizational development. The new baseball operations team took over a minor league system that was in disarray. The organization was so thin that one national publication did not feature a single Oriole minor leaguer in its lists of baseball's 50 top position prospects and 50 top pitching prospects.

Five straight losing seasons may make it hard to persuade Orioles fans to wait a few more years for a consistent winning team, but Ryan said that's preferable to a plug-and-patch approach.

"The fans will be patient enough," he said. "I can't pretend I know what's going on in Baltimore, but I know Jim Beattie and he knows what's going on. It all goes back to starting down at the bottom where you develop your base. Do you have good scouting? Do you have good organizational coverage?

"Continuity. That's why I tip my hat to our owner. We've had the same farm director for 25 years. We've had two managers in 18 years. We've had the same scouting director for the last 10 years. All of our major league people have longevity. Whether you're a big-market or small- market team, you have to have continuity and stability."

Maybe that's easier to say in Minnesota, where Twins fans have had their faces rubbed in the harsh economic realities of small-market baseball, but Ryan said it is never easy to make hard choices.

"I don't think our fans are any different than anywhere else," Ryan said. "They want to win as bad as anybody in New York or Baltimore or Los Angeles. They know we have less ability because of our revenue stream, but that doesn't cut down on what they want to see and root for. We took some shots. We weren't very good for a long time."

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