I’ve had Twins season tickets since Target Field opened in 2010. Not a full-season package, mind you. I don’t see how anyone who works for a living has time for 80 baseball games a year. Or even 40. But I’m now in my 13th year of a 20-game package, and most years (minor inconveniences like pandemics aside), I’ve actually managed to make it to 16 or 17 of them.
This year I’ve had a lot going on, and have had to reschedule (ticket exchange is a nice new benefit in the past couple of years) or miss entirely over half of the games in my package. Combine that with increasing concession prices with limited options (especially for someone who doesn’t eat meat), few other season ticket holder perks I find interesting, and the perennial futility of this particular team, and each year it has been harder and harder for me to justify renewing.
Finally over the weekend, when I missed two games in three days due to more schedule conflicts — mixed with a dash of struggling to care about a team that is once again failing to live up to even modest expectations of success — I decided I was done with it, and I emailed my rep to say I want to cancel for next season.
Last night was my first game since canceling. And what a game it was! The Twins had just finished getting swept in a 4-game series by the division rival Cleveland Guardians, a series that knocked the Twins — who had dominated the division in the first half of the season — down to third place, and below .500 for the first time since April.
But they came roaring back in last night’s game against the lowly Kansas City Royals with three home runs, and by the middle of the fifth inning, the crowd was beginning to notice that Joe Ryan also had a — shhh! don’t say it out loud! — no-hitter going.
By the end of the seventh inning, he still had a no-hitter going, and the excitement in the stadium was palpable. We might be witnessing Twins history… their first no-hitter in over a decade! But Kansas City was not making it easy. Pitch after pitch after pitch was fouled off, and by the time the last out was recorded in the seventh, Ryan had already thrown 106 pitches.
Twins manager Rocco Baldelli is a serious analytics guy. The whole game is numbers to him, to the detriment of fan excitement or even a moment of unpredictability. And one of the biggest numbers is that magic “100” pitch count. Once your starter hits 100 pitches, he’s done, no matter what. So I knew there was no way he was going to let Ryan come back out in the eighth, no matter how much of a case he might be pleading in the dugout.
So it was… Jovani Moran kept the no-hitter going through the eighth, but with one out in the ninth, he walked two batters, then gave up a double. The no-hitter was gone, as was the shutout. In the end, the Twins won, 6 to 3, but it felt worse than a loss.
I woke up this morning still thinking about the game, and getting philosophical about it, and about my waning enthusiasm for this team I have loved (at least, in fits and starts) since I was in middle school and they won their first World Series.
What is the purpose of professional sports? They are entertainment. That is their only purpose.
Fans pay a great deal of money to be entertained, and the people who comprise the “sports industrial complex” — professional athletes, coaches, staffs, broadcasters, etc. — make their very comfortable livings from the money those fans pay.
But guys like Rocco seem to think sports exist for some other reason unto themselves. That they matter in some way apart from the fans.
They do not.
If you are not making the game entertaining for the fans, you are failing at your job. And if you allow the game to be entertaining for the first 7/9, and then make a decision that ruins the remaining 2/9, you’re still failing… even if you win.
But here’s the thing: even if sports did exist for a reason unto themselves, Rocco’s approach is not going to lead to success. A conservative, risk-averse, analytics-obsessed approach can only take you so far. Baseball needs an element of risk, of surprise. Bold, unexpected, sometimes irrational decisions are what make a good team great, or at least make an average team fun to watch.
The best the Twins will ever be with Rocco’s approach is “good.” Yes they touched greatness in 2019, with their first 100+ win season since 1965, and setting an MLB record for team home runs in a season, but something strange was going on in the entire MLB that season with juiced balls or something. Then, of course, that team that was so dominant in the regular season still instantly fell apart in the postseason, because that’s what the Twins do. And that’s never going to show up in your analytics.