Clark Griffith was called "The Old Fox."
Soon, his son Calvin, the 70-year-old owner of the Minnesota Twins, may justifiably inherit that nickname. After spending six years in a furious funk over the rich-get-richer trend of his sport, Griffith seems to have found a way to whipsaw the fates and end his baseball days with a coup.
Trades on Tuesday and Wednesday of four of his team's few respectable players--Doug Corbett, Rob Wilfong, Butch Wynegar and Roger Erickson--have made Griffith Minnesota's leading public pariah. He was in contention even before those deals that, mostly, got minor leaguers in return.
In answer to the TV poll question, "Should Griffith sell the Twins?" the results here were 1,084 "yes" and 103 "no."
Seldom does a major league team go into open revolt, but, on Tuesday night, the Twins cursed General Manager Howard Fox to his face when he ventured into the clubhouse. Obscene remarks were yelled about the entire Griffith family.
"What is Calvin, 70 years old?" fumed reliever Ron Davis, "They ought to put him in an old folks home. He's just like Charlie Finley, gettin' rid of all the (high) salaries, getting cash in return and then he'll sell the club."
"If I was a fan, I wouldn't pay $2 to see us play," added ex-Yankee Davis. "In New York, the park would be empty now, but here the fans are too nice.
"You don't build a team by getting rid of your No. 1 shortstop, No. 1 second baseman, No. 1 starter, No. 1 catcher and No. 1 bullpen pitcher," said Davis, including shortstop Roy Smalley, traded to the Yankees last month, in the team's disintegration. The next night, Davis was the losing pitcher. Asked if it bothered him, he said, "Calvin doesn't worry if we lose, why should I?"
"I look around the clubhouse and the biggest name we've got is (coach) Johnny Podres," says pitcher Brad Havens, one of 13 rookies among a total of 15 Minnesota players making the major league minimum salary of $33,500. "It's like a clearing house around here."
"Where is this club headed?" Wynegar was asked.
"New Orleans?" he asked in return.
"It's the great purge," said John Castino, pointing out that, of the seven highest-salaried Twins on opening day, five are now gone. The most conservative estimate of the saving in salaries to Griffith is $1.5 million, and that includes the pay of the new cast of characters.
"Oh, yes, that's right," said Griffith of the savings figure.
Asked if his team were unhappy, Manager Billy Gardner says sardonically, "Oh, they're happy. These guys would lose 20 in a row, then maybe they'd be happy . . . I'm going to get a new scorecard. None of the names on this one are right."
On the surface, Griffith seems to be the benefactor of others. The Yankees' Rick Cerone breaks his thumb, and the next day they get solid veteran Wynegar. The Angels need pitching, so Griffith sends them mystery-pitch reliever Corbett who, in 127 games in '80 and '81, had a 2.21 ERA and 40 saves.
However, deep down, Griffith is only helping himself.
The Old Fox II, adopted son and nephew of the grand master, has a game plan with four interlocking parts. It can't fail.
First, Griffith has made or saved that $1.5 million in trades this spring. Asked about other players he's traded cheap or lost recently--like Rod Carew, Larry Hisle, Tom Burgmeier, Bill Campbell, Lyman Bostock and Ken Landreaux--he says, "I added up the salaries they've made since they left. I'm $30 million richer than if I'd kept 'em."
Second, after years of nagging, Griffith got the Twin Cities to spend $55 million for the new 55,000-seat Metrodome with its 9.5 acres of dome made out of two layers of fiberglass. Griffith even managed to moan and groan until Minneapolis was convinced it had to beg him to move into 20 acres of downtown real estate. The owner wailed about increased overhead, about bad parking. He was taking the risk, he said. And they believed him.
In an amazing concession, the stadium commission gave Griffith an unprecedented escape clause. If, in any three-year period, the Twins don't average 1.4 million fans, Griffith can break his lease.
Now, low and behold, it turns out that, within the same walking distance, there are 3,000 more parking places around the Metrodome than there were in Bloomington. Traffic flow has been perfect. Unlike other dingy domes, the Metrodome is attractive and a hitters' haven. As for that overhead, Griffith only says, "I've never seen so many red coats." Those ushers cost a pretty penny.
Incredibly, Griffith, whose payroll was the lowest in baseball before the trades, has gotten away with charging the highest ticket prices in baseball. Every seat is $8, except for 10,000 remote center field upper deck bleachers that cost $4.
Griffith has timed his purge perfectly so public opinion can't touch him. "The building itself will draw (crowds) this year and next," says Tom Mee, the Twins' public relations director. "It's a cushion against this type of reaction."
Because of this attendance cushion, Griffith has--third prong of the plan--the chance to trade every established player he owns for the best AAA prospects. And, give Griffith credit, after a lifetime in the game, he and his scouts know talent. The unknowns he has grabbed--power-hitter Tom Brunansky, fast ball specialist John Pascella, lefty Pete Filson and Yankee utility man Larry Milbourne--are the kind that might blossom.
Griffith has a three-year grace period for these children--including his own current first-rate crop of Twins products, like Kent Hrbek, catcher Tim Laudner, Gary Gaetti and Jim Eisenreich--to suffer together and then mature.
"I'm going out on the line," says Griffith of this youth gamble.
Not really. He has it both ways.
If the youngsters form a decent team or a contender, then Griffith will be hailed as a wizzard. Griffith owns them all through their sixth year and none is even eligible for salary arbitration until after a second full season.
If the kids are lousy, then there's no way the Twins will draw 4.2 million to see their games in '82-'83-'84.
Thus, in winter of '84, Griffith, his lease voided, can have the first nationwide auction of a major league team. What am I bid by New Orleans, Tampa, Denver, Minnesota and maybe even Washington?
Griffith would have the last laugh on the big-money Steinbrenners and Turners who, he feels, have driven him out. "It used to be organization against organization," says Griffith. "Now, it's just money. If I take in $9 million here, it's a great year. The Yanks take in $30 million. How can I expect to compete?"
So, the Old Fox II has decided that, since the game has changed the rules on him, then he'll play hardball, too. So what if Minnesota might get stuck, as Washington is now stuck, with a white elephant ballpark, originally built with his team in mind as primary tenant? Old Foxes can't worry about that.
"I hope to be 100 years old when I leave the game and I hope I never have to sell the ball club," says Griffith, being careful not to say that he won't sell. "The doctors tell me I've got beautiful bones, a beautiful heart beat and beautiful everything else."
He's also got beautiful gall.