Twinkie Town Q&A with Dave St. Peter

On Tuesday morning, I was fortunate enough to have a phone conversation with President of the Minnesota Twins, Dave St. Peter.  Thanks to Mr. St. Peter and the Twins for the opportunity.

Jesse:  What's your favorite part of your job?

Dave St. Peter:  Y'know, I would say it's the fact that no two days are the same.  When you work for a professional sports franchise, or really if you're working in sports, you're working in an industry that is really the ultimate in reality programming.  The ups and downs of the season, the anticipation for game time, the anticipation for the start of the season; obviously all of the elements that surround a franchise and the incredible passion that comes from a fan base.  It goes well beyond the wins and losses on the field.  It goes to work in the community, it goes to different touch points with people throughout the region.

Jesse:  There's a lot of excitement that revolves around any sports franchise.

DSP:  At the end of the day, it's the fact that no two people are the same.  You don't really know where a season's gonna go, and with that it's never mundane.  It's never boring.  Any of us that work in sports will tell you that we're blessed to be in an environment that, frankly, isn't a job most days.

Jesse:  You've been very accessible as President of the Twins.  You've done radio appearances, I've read Q&A's with you online, you get a lot of press.  You do have a PR background--do you think your accessibility is a result of that background?  Because I'm not aware of any other team presidents being quite as visible to the public as you've been.

DSP:  Oh I don't know about that.  I think there are many team presidents that are actively visible.  Certainly I come from a communications background so it's something I'm comfortable with.  Every organization, every individual kind of finds their niche and y'know, for our organization we have owners who take a bit less of an active role in relation to the media, and that's by design.  So at times I try to fill a hole in terms of providing some key messaging on some of our important initiatives, but one of the critical aspects of our brand is accessibility.  Certainly from a front office point of view, we feel we have a responsibility to share our story, when asked, to the media and the community at large.  So myself, in the past Terry Ryan, and now Bill Smith, as really the active spokespeople for the club, it comes relatively naturally and frankly it's expected.

Jesse:  I agree--the Twins have a lot of aspects that fans associate with them, things that help give the team it's own unique identity.  But in your mind, what's the number one thing that differentiates the Twins from any other team in baseball?

DSP:  Well, obviously those are your words, that we're different from everybody else, but I think that we know who we are and we know who we aren't.  And what I mean by that is that this is an organization that really, since it came to Minnesota, has been built on player development, it's been built on the draft, it's been built on hiring and keeping good scouts, it's been built on trying to play the game the right way:  fundamentally sound, running balls out, respecting the game.  Some organizations I think sometimes fall outside the lines of who they are, and go different routes relative to the makeup of players that are brought in, or perhaps to free agents, things of that nature.

We've never been a club who's believed that free agency is going to be critical to our success.  For us to win, we believe we have to develop our own players, make shrude, smart baseball decisions along the way; but the essence of our team is going to be player development.  And I think we understand that, and maybe we focus more on it than most organizations.  Not all, but most.

We've been rewarded this decade.  Now, that being said, in the 1990's, after the '91 World Series, we didn't have a lot of success.  It's cyclical.  The key to it, at the top of the pyramid that drives it, is the stability that drives our organization.  Because in order to make that happen you have to have people who believe in it, and you have to give those people the freedom to do their jobs.

The Pohlads deserve most of the credit:  In 1984 they bought the team and since the mid-80's, this franchise, under their leadership, has only had two field managers, basically two team presidents, and now just our third general manager.  That's more stability than probably any organization in the game, maybe with the exception of the Braves, and when you look at our front office, when you look at our scouts, when you look at our minor league personnel, there's tremendous stability and continuity there.  And that's led to success.

Jesse:  That philosophy of building from within, of promoting from within, you're a prime example of that.  You started out as one of the team's retail store managers, is that correct?

DSP:  And I started out as an intern even before that.  I was an intern with the organization in the winter of 1990, and moved into the retail operation as really the first full-time duty I had with the team.  But yeah, certainly the notion of promoting from within, it permeates our front office and it certainly permeates our clubhouse in the sense that we believe in bringing players up from our system.  And a lot of organizations talk about it, but fewer actually execute that and implement that.  And I give the Pohlads credit for that.  They're very loyal people, they believe in letting their folks make decisions, and they certainly believe in helping people and providing leadership opportunities.

Jesse:  Is there any fear that this philosophy could lead to a stale approach to ideas, or is there a lot of consideration that goes into looking for outside talent?

DSP:  There's no question those thoughts enter your mind.  I think ultimately that's my job, in running the day-to-day business, to be sure that we're soliciting fresh ideas.  And we try to round out our front office, not everybody on the senior management team is a life-long Twins employee.  We certainly have a variety of different sources in the way we ensure that we're moving forward in terms of following the best practices around the league, or in other sports, or in other industries.  Understanding that we certainly don't really want to get away from what we believe is the core, or the essence of the Twins brand, it is critical that we continue to seek outside perspectives, and we do that in a variety of different ways.

Jesse:  Another thing about the Twins is that they've been dubbed one of those "small market" teams, and as a result they get a bit of an underdog label because of it, in spite of recent success.  The manner in which that success was achieved is something that I think most fans are pretty proud of, but what makes teams like the Twins and the A's able to find success with that label while teams like Pittsburgh and Kansas City have sustained trouble?

DSP:  First I'd say that you're right, we have a reputation of being a small market team.  We really think that's innaccurate, we're really not a small market team.  We're an under-performing mid-size market.  And when I say "under-performing", we're really under-performing in terms of revenues, because of playing in the Metrodome.  Minneapolis-St. Paul is not a small market.

Jesse:  No.

DSP:  Y'know, the label was there, and it'll probably be there for a long, long time, but I think our revenues are going to drive north due to the new ballpark, and hopefully we'll be viewed more along the likes of Seattle or Arizona or Denver.  But I think the reason for success is, y'know, it comes down to those people again, the stability, that continuity that I talked about.  It also comes down to, once again, knowing who we are and focusing on that.  Our owners have been very patient, certainly through the mid-to-late-90's, and that patience has been rewarded.  Other organizations have maybe been less patient and have gone through multiple regimes.  It's very difficult to get something done when there's always changes at the top.

And another thing I could say is that we've had the benefit of some really good players, and good leaders, and great managers.  Y'know, players deserve credit as well.  We've evolved, we've obviously gone through a couple of different groups of them, but we think we're set up to be competitive for the long term.

Jesse:  Does the recent success in scouting, and acquiring minor league talent that we're able to cultivate, do you think that scares other clubs a little bit in trade negotiations?

DSP:  I think at times it makes it more difficult to make trades.  I'm not gonna lie to you, sometimes it makes it extra hard because we do scouting for other teams.  (Chuckles)  We've run into situations where we've identified certain players that we're interested in trading for, and that tells the other team something, if the Twins think that those players are good.  But we accept that, I'd rather have that issue than the other way around.

Jesse:  (Laughs)  So when you want a player, is there any subterfuge that gets involved, or do you...

DSP:  No, I wouldn't get that carried away.  We have a reputation for being a good player development organization, and certainly having scouts who have a good track record of identifying talent.  In light of all that, in understanding that people understand that, we're certainly not arrogant about it, we remain humble.  We think we made good trades this off-season.  They were difficult to pull off, particularly the Santana one, but at the end of the day we feel the talent we got back for Johan Santana will be beneficial to this franchise.  Of course we're also very pleased with the deal we made with Tampa Bay, so those are just two examples of trades we made in this last off-season.

Jesse:  One of the things the Twins aren't necessarily known for, is being a team that relies a whole lot on sabermetrics as a way of evaluating players.  But obviously, being on the outside, we don't really know what goes into the organizational philosophy of developing players.  Do the Twins employ ways of evaluating players sabermetrically, or is it more balanced toward the scouting side?

DSP:  I think a lot of people assume that it's either black or white, and there's no gray.  I think what Bill Smith, our general manager, would tell you is that by all means we use statistical analysis.  We don't rely solely on it; obviously we're a club that's more traditional in the sense that we rely quite heavily on scouting--a more traditional, old-school way, so to speak.  But what you want to find is a proper balance.  We'll certainly never make a decision based solely on statistics.  We'll also not be likely to make a decision based solely on scouting, but we would lean towards the scouting side and trusting our scouts.

It's really balanced, it isn't black and white.  Any club that tells you they're completely relying on sabermetrics isn't trusting their scouts.  Frankly, we rely on some statistical analysis, but we don't lead with that.  Certainly the lead will always be the scouting side of it.

Jesse:  I had read at some point that stats are great, you can evaluate some players with stats and they can tell you who's good, but they can't exactly tell you how a player is going to develop.

DSP:  That's right.  And there's makeup that goes along with it, just seeing how a player goes about their work, fundamentals, etcetera.  So there's a lot of things that factor into it from a baseball point of view.

Jesse:  How much do baseball teams share with each other--I'm guessing a lot of that depends on how you see yourselves as competitors?

DSP:  We share a lot of information, business side of the organization.  Those practices are shared all the time, on a daily basis, throughout this league.  We're all trying to drive revenue, we're all trying to grow the pie.

On the baseball side, there are certainly discussions amongst baseball people--scouts and minor league personnel and major league personnel, but it is competitive.  Our scouting, and some of our minor league objectives, are held pretty close to the vest.  That shouldn't surprise anybody, we are competitors, we're competing against the White Sox and the Tigers and the Yankees and the Red Sox.  We certainly collaborate, and there are certainly discussions, and it's always done in a very professional manner.  But, y'know, there's not a lot of sharing of scouting reports and things of that nature.  When you engage in discussions about a potential deal or transaction, it's all about relationships just like any other business.  Certainly there's dialogue, but I can't say that teams are actively pooling databases.

Jesse:  Another way the Twins have been different is, like you brought up, is that for almost 30 years they've been playing in a building which was designed to be a football stadium.

DSP:  Yeah.

Jesse:  How long do the Twins expect to be playing in their new home after it opens in 2010?

DSP:  Hopefully long after I'm off this earth.  We're designing this ballpark as a generational...multi-generational, I should say--from my perspective I can't see why this ballpark can't stand the test of time much like, frankly, Fenway Park and Wrigley Field have done.  Much like we think Camden Yards in Baltimore or Progressive Field in Cleveland or Coors Field in Denver

Jesse:  You're looking at it to be one of those fields that really becomes part of the identity of the team.

DSP:  Yeah, and I certainly don't think there's a lot of talk in Baltimore of building a new Camden Yards.  That facility has only been there 16/17 years, but my point is we think these facilities have been built, certainly have been designed, to stand the test of time, and we think that'll be the case here in Minneapolis.  I'm hoping we'll be in this ballpark...we signed a 30-year lease, and I'm hoping we'll go well beyond 30 years.

Jesse:  All those years in the Metrodome, do you think one way or the other it's had any impact on personnel, on the field or off the field?

DSP:  Well y'know, the Metrodome has been a good place for us in the sense, from a baseball perspective, there's obviously the roof and it's been a home field advantage for us as documented over the years.  Less so recently, but in the playoffs certainly in 1987 and 1991, we suited our team to it in trying to develop left-handed power and left-handed pitching at times.  Those folks have had success here over the years.

The new ballpark's dimensions are going to be almost identical to the Metrodome's, so I don't imagine a lot of difference in that philosophy.  We'll continue to look for the next Justin Morneau, and we'll continue to look for the next Johan Santana and take our chances.  From a Twins perspective, the Metrodome has served us well from a baseball point of view.

Jesse:  There's a lot of discussion going around about how much revenue the new stadium is going to bring in.  However much that ends up being, do you expect it'll force a change in how aggressive the Twins are in signing international players or drafting more high-profile college players?

DSP:  Well certainly it's going to put us in a much better position to be active in the international market.  Y'know that's a difficult market, because there isn't any order of slotting and it's, frankly, a complete free-for-all.  We're always going to try to be somewhat responsible to the industry, but yeah there's no question--from a Twins perspective we'd like to become more active in terms of signing players both in the far East as well as Latin America, and even in Europe.  We think there are opportunities in all three of those places.  The new ballpark will give us incremental resources to be able to be more active, and hopefully we'll shore some of those areas up.

We've been very strong in Venezuela, we have our academy now in the Dominican and we feel good about that operation, but I think we'd like to be a little more aggressive there in the years to come.

Jesse:  I'm in England, so I'm sure I could scout some cricket players for you.

DSP:  Right.

Jesse:  Over the last few years the Twins have kept payroll around 50-52% of revenue.

DSP:  Yep.

Jesse:  As we move into the new ballpark, is that ratio going to remain the same?

DSP:  I would anticipate that, as long as the Pohlads own the team, that'll be the target.  It's not a cut-and-dried number, it's simply a target.  We believe that we'll have sufficient revenue to drive a very significant payroll into 2010, even with that parameter.  To that end, I'm not seeing any changes on the horizon in the near future.  Payroll will be a function of revenue, and that's what we're interested in.

Jesse:  The average MLB team, according to what I've read, spends about 49% of revenue on payroll...

DSP:  I think it's fluctuates, Jesse.  I wouldn't hold onto one year, you have to look at things like that over time.  I think the league average is about 50-55%.  It's right in there, that's where our target comes from.

Jesse:  Do you foresee any organizational philosophies changing as we move into the new ballpark?

DSP:  No.  Obviously we're in the middle of rolling with a three-year strategic plan, and clearly--just the fact that we're taking over operations of the ballpark changes the dynamic of our day-in, day-out operation drastically.  But from a baseball point of view, no, I don't.  The biggest change is going to be playing outdoor baseball.  We'll create some opportunities to play baseball in the beautiful Minnesota summer, but we'll also create some challenges early in the season that we have not been accustomed to here.  Having a few more double-headers, having a few more postponements, things of that nature that we haven't dealt with.  I don't think it changes any of our organizational philosophy--I think the worst thing we could do is change our philosophy.  It's worked for us in the Metrodome, managing the business the way we have, and I think that'll serve us very, very well in the new ballpark.

Jesse:  Alright--we'll jump to the word/phrase association.  I'll throw out a name, you come back.

DSP:  Sure.

Jesse:  Delmon Young.

DSP: Raw talent.

Jesse:  Michael Cuddyer.

DSP:  Great guy.

Jesse:  Kevin Slowey.

DSP:  Control.

Jesse:  Francisco Liriano.

DSP:  He'll be back!

Jesse:  (laughs)  Alright, two more.  Brendan Harris.

DSP:  Good hitter.

Jesse:  Pat Neshek.

DSP:  Nasty.

Jesse:  Alright, thanks a lot Dave I really appreciate your time.

DSP:  Thank you, sir.  Good luck to you!

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