We can all agree the spectacle of an iconic stadium makes baseball one of the best spectator sports America has to offer. Major League ballparks, from the old to the new, give fans a sense of wonder when they scan their ticket and enter through the gates. Stadium quality and amenities have become increasingly important since the mid-1990s, and the Twins wanted a stadium that could draw the crowds similar to Camden Yards in Baltimore and Coors Field in Denver.
But in 1997, I think we could all agree that the Twins could have asked for a new stadium with a little more tact and a lot less exploitation.
Today is the 23rd anniversary of where then-director of communications and current team president/CEO David St. Peter rectified one of the biggest PR blunders in franchise history: the Marty Cordova-Ronald McDonald House ad, where the Twins desperate quest for a new field took a turn for the ugly.
The Twins, yearning for a more visually-pleasing ballpark, began an ad campaign to show Minnesotans what they would be missing if the Twins were to pack their bags and leave town. For the campaign, there was a series of 15-second commercials to hammer home the point that The Land of 10,000 Lakes needed their baseball and that Minnesotans should convince their lawmakers of such.
In one of the 15-second commercial, former AL Rookie of the Year Marty Cordova is seen visiting the local Ronald McDonald House and interacting with a young cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy treatment. Had the video’s purpose been to highlight the Twins’ work in the community, the ad would have gone off without a hitch and it would have been a home run for the team’s public image. But that’s not what the footage was used for.
Instead, it was a hideous swing and a miss. A narrator read a dark message to accompany the footage, telling fans,”If the Twins leave Minnesota, an 8-year-old from Willmar undergoing chemotherapy will never get a visit from Marty Cordova.” The spot ends with the narrator encouraging viewers to call their state legislators and pressure them to vote in favor of a costly stadium financed by the public.
The segment was first run on the evening of Tuesday, Nov. 4, 1997. It was pulled the following morning after about a dozen Twins fans took exception to such a repulsive ad and lodged a complaint against it.
John Oliver, the host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, mentioned the ill-received segment on an episode dedicated to the lengths that teams and fans will go to in hopes of breaking ground on a new baseball bowl. Oliver said it was “less like the Make-A-Wish Foundation and more like the Make-A-Threat Foundation.”
Everything about the commercial screamed poor taste. The fact that the kid Marty Cordova was meeting at the Ronald McDonald House died a couple months before the ad aired was the most infuriating aspect of the spot. Carl Pohlad asking for taxpayer money when he was a billionaire who could finance the stadium a couple times over only added fuel to the blaze.
How did we get to a point where the Twins had to resort to this? It did not come out of left field at all. Instead, given the circumstances, this ad came right down the middle.
The advertisement was over three years in the making. In 1994, while the franchise was in the midst of just their 13th season at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, the team officially declared their intention to move out of Teflon Town to the greener pastures of St. Anywhere Else. Pohlad called The Triple H Dome “economically obsolete” less than a decade and a half after the organization hailed it as a state-of-the-art complex in 1982.
Pohlad was not wrong about the economic state of the stadium. The Metrodome was an irrefutable money hemorrhage that swallowed up money the team should have been earning. According to Baseball Reference, the 1994 Twins averaged 23,704 fans per contest, which was just over half of the 46,564 baseball capacity at The Homer Dome.
The attendance numbers and the team’s success decreased at a similar rate, and the team’s eye sore of a ballpark did not help monetary matters one bit. Not even the cinematic classic “Little Big League”, released in 1994, could improve the team’s fortunes.
The tsunami of momentum created by the 1991 World Series win crashed hard and fast. Three years later, the Twins finished the strike-shortened 1994 season 14 games out of first place in the AL Central with a 53-60 record. This quick fall from grace came as a result of declining production from the pitching staff, whose 5.68 team ERA ranked worst in the majors and almost two runs higher than it was in 1991.
All things considered, a new stadium made sense to reinvigorate a team whose championship victory lap had swiftly concluded.
The first location considered for a new Twins stadium was Mill District on the east side of the Minneapolis. In 1996, two years after first declaring the need for a new ballpark, stadium legislation was proposed at the Minnesota state house.
Maybe a beautiful new park on the banks of the Mississippi River would drum up business, get the cash flowing and attract some high level talent to the Twin Cities. However, there was a Pohlad problem.
Pohlad’s initial plan did not succeed with the state legislature denying the bill. Turns out the constituents didn’t want to give their tax dollars toward a stadium worth a couple hundred million dollars when Pohlad, who had a ten-figure net worth, could have paid for the structure out of his own pocket.
Pohlad and the other brains behind the plan had to regroup. What would the next pitch to the 1997 state legislature entail?
Well, they came up with a doozy of a stadium deal.
The rejuvenated plan was nearly as outlandish as the ad campaign that featured the appalling Cordova ad. In closed-door meetings between Pohlad and governor Arne Carlson, the Twins owner vowed to contribute money up-front to get the project off the ground in exchange for selling 49% of the team to the state of Minnesota.
Yes, the government would own nearly half of their state’s foremost baseball franchise. That was an idea that legitimately gained some steam.
How would a partially government-owned professional sports franchise even work? Would they have a say in who fills senior leadership positions? Would government money go towards the team payroll? There’s so many random quirks and caveats in that potential sale and there would be government red tape added to the already complex world of pro sports.
Thankfully, that sale stayed a hypothetical and never passed. That mind-boggling plan went hand-in-hand with the tone-deaf ad campaign to get the results one would expect from such irrationality. The voters most likely didn’t call their state legislators to approve the new stadium plan, as Minnesota’s state legislature didn’t pass any stadium legislation.
On top of that, Minneapolis voters overwhelmingly passed a referendum saying that any stadium plans that required more than $10 million needed voter approval.
The Marty Cordova ad summarized the decade after the 1991 World Series: a lot of mortifyingly bad ideas under the guise of Carl Pohlad. Eventually, those bad ideas started adding onto one another like that “Lovely Day” Allstate ad, leading to even more disdain and a lack of trust in management.