Marathon Man

Beyond a long window that offered a panoramic view of the Minneapolis skyline, the end-of-the-workday exodus was already under way. Traffic was snarled on the streets stretching all the way downtown. Dave St. Peter had his back to the window, and he was looking and sounding like a man whose day was just getting started. St. Peter has a big, open, Midwestern face—it could be the face of a small-town high-school principal or insurance salesman—and he somehow manages to come across as both relaxed and impatient. He also looks like a guy who needs to duck into the men’s room several times a day to address his permanent five o’clock shadow. 

“My dad was an accountant,” St. Peter said. “And I love my dad to death, but I knew I didn’t want to be an accountant. I wanted to do something I was really passionate about. I grew up a huge sports fan, and I was just hoping I could end up doing something along those lines. I used to think that maybe I’d be a sports information director somewhere. I can definitely tell you that there was never a day, never a moment, when I could have imagined I’d be sitting where I’m sitting right now.”

Where St. Peter is “sitting right now,” and where he has been sitting since November 2002, is in the president’s chair at the Minnesota Twins’ Metrodome offices. On a late afternoon in early March, he was up to his elbows in preparations for his eighteenth season with the ball club, at the end of his rope with the ongoing wrangling over land acquisition for the team’s new ballpark, and still managing to do a pretty convincing impersonation of a man who loves his job.

St. Peter’s story is the sort of improbable Horatio Alger yarn that seemed to have vanished from American business in the age of hotshot MBA programs and the get-rich-quick booms fueled by Wall Street and the Internet.

St. Peter graduated from the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks in 1989 and set out for the Twin Cities with a marketing degree in hand and the modest goal of simply getting his foot in the door somewhere. He had been raised in Bismarck, North Dakota, the middle kid in a family of five children (he has two brothers and two sisters), and, like a lot of people just out of college, he was ambitious but a bit vague regarding where exactly his dreams might lead him.

Despite his long tenure with the team, St. Peter is still only forty years old, which makes him one of the youngest team presidents in Major League Baseball. Other than a very brief stint with the North Stars in 1989, he’s never worked anywhere else, and, over the course of his Twins career, he has, by his own account, spent time in “every corner of the organization.”

“Coming to the Twin Cities was in itself a huge move for me,” St. Peter said. “You’re talking about a kid who used to think that going to Fargo was a big deal. I didn’t know anybody and didn’t have the slightest idea what to expect when I came here, but I always felt that if I could get an opportunity nobody would ever outwork me and I’d get noticed.”

He got his break with the Twins when he was offered an unpaid internship in the marketing department in 1990. Mark Weber, at the time the team’s director of promotions, was the guy who originally brought St. Peter into the fold, and he remembers the qualities that distinguished the new kid right out of the blocks.

“Teams didn’t do as much in terms of promotion back then,” Weber said. “We had a very small staff; there were three of us, including Dave, so he got thrown right into the fray. He was responsible for a lot of the communication with players in terms of pre-game activities and working with some of our corporate partners. After a week you could already see that he had what it took to succeed in what is a very challenging environment. He had a great work ethic and tremendous passion.”

Talk to anybody involved in baseball at the Major League level and he’ll invariably mention the 162-game season and the ridiculous demands it makes on everybody in an organization. “The number of hours you have to work in that business is beyond comprehension,” Weber said. “During the season you’re often at the ballpark from 8:30 in the morning until 10:30 or 11:00 at night. It can be an incredible challenge and it’s definitely not for everybody. But right away you sensed that Dave could both survive and thrive in that atmosphere. I’m not going to claim that I knew he was one day going to be president of the team, but I definitely felt that wherever he ended up he was going to be successful.”

 

Halfway through St. Peter’s internship the club offered him a full-time position. There was a bit of a hitch, though—the job wouldn’t be within the front office, or even within the confines of the Metrodome. What the Twins were offering was a decidedly unglamorous managerial position in the team’s Twins Pro Shop retail outlet in Richfield.

“I’ll admit that I had to sort of pause and ask myself if I really wanted to work in retail,” St. Peter said. “But I also recognized that this was an opportunity to actually get paid, receive benefits, and be a part of the Twins organization, so ultimately it became a pretty easy decision.”

St. Peter ran the Pro Shop from the summer of 1990 through February of 1992. By all accounts sales went through the roof. St. Peter acknowledged as much, but deflected credit. “That had a whole lot less to do with me,” he said, “and a lot more to do with Kirby Puckett, Jack Morris, and the rest of those guys who won the World Series in ’91.” He admitted, though, that his stretch in Richfield was a wholly positive experience. “In terms of managing staff, developing customer-service skills, and really learning to understand our fans at a very grassroots level, it was invaluable,” St. Peter said. “Those Pro Shops are a ticket outlet, but they’re also a place where the average guy stops in to buy a cap or to complain about everything from ticket prices to the lousy pitching performance the night before. That experience really helped me to learn how important this team is to the community.”

After St. Peter’s success in Richfield, the team offered him a newly created position—communications manager—in the front office. In many ways, the move represented a recognition on the part of the organization that the game was changing dramatically. “This was really the first time the Twins had a media-relations person devoted exclusively to the business side of the operation,” St. Peter said. “This predates the stadium issue, but if you really look at it, we were ahead of the curve. I took that job in 1992, and since then there has probably been as much or more stuff written about the business of baseball as there has been about the game itself.”

St. Peter’s move into the Twins’ front office, and his subsequent rise through the ranks, came during the most challenging period in the team’s history, both from a franchise standpoint and in terms of systemic turmoil throughout the business. The growing economic disparity between the big-market and small-market teams led to the impasse between the players union and management that resulted in the 1994 strike and the first-ever cancellation of a World Series. The increasingly grim economic realities hit the local franchise particularly hard; attendance declined as the team endured eight straight losing seasons from 1993-2000. And, as flashy new ballparks (and revenue juggernauts) opened all around the Major Leagues, the Twins found themselves embroiled in an agonizingly protracted and frequently contentious battle for a new stadium of their own.

The low point for the Twins came in the autumn of 2001, when Commissioner Bud Selig announced that the team was being targeted for contraction—this following the club’s first winning season in almost a decade.

But the next year the team pushed the contraction threat to the back burner in spectacular fashion, by winning the Central Division before losing the American League Championship Series to the big-market Anaheim Angels. St. Peter assumed the presidency following that season, and the team has been on a roll ever since, winning three of the last four Central titles and stockpiling talent up and down the organization.

“There’s no doubt that we went through a very dark period as a franchise,” St. Peter said. “We sort of hit bottom with the contraction thing, but we had a stretch in the late ’90s nineties where I can tell you pretty candidly that there was a lot of apathy in terms of our product. We’d had a lot of challenges, with [general manager] Andy MacPhail moving to the Cubs, the early retirements of Hrbek and Puckett, and the failed stadium efforts. It was pretty scary to think that we opened the decade winning a World Series and ended it with a lot of people maybe wondering whether they really cared about the Twins anymore.”

With Jerry Bell giving up day-to-day management of the franchise to focus on getting a new stadium built, the challenge for St. Peter and the Twins’ front office was to stabilize the business operations and get the focus back on the players and the game itself, and away from the divisive politics surrounding the stadium push and the sport’s ever-exploding economics. St. Peter gives the 2001 team a lot of credit for the organization’s ultimate turnaround. “There are very few guys left from that team,” he said, “but that year we unveiled our ‘Get to Know ’Em’ ad campaign and then got off to a 14-3 start. The combination of those things went a long way toward restoring some credibility for us with our fans. That team really connected with people, and that season created an incredible amount of momentum as it relates to marketing our team and building our identity around the players. That was a very conscious decision on our part, and we’ve been able to build on that momentum year after year. Of course that only works when you’re as blessed as we have been to have guys who are not only good players, but who are also accessible, who are tremendous spokespeople for the franchise, and who have for the most part been—knock wood—wonderful role models.”

St. Peter also has praise for the often-reviled owner of his ball club. “I’m sure his patience was tested plenty of times,” St. Peter said. “But Carl Pohlad stayed the course through all the chaos. He’s been incredibly loyal to his staff, and that’s created real stability within the organization. If you really look at it, in the last twenty-plus years we’ve had two team presidents, two general managers, and two field managers. We have the longest tenured scouting director and farm director in all of baseball. What that all boils down to is continuity; we have a lot of people who’ve been in this organization and in their positions for a very long time. We know each other, and over time we’ve developed an agreed-upon philosophy about the way we go about things both on and off the field.”

 

Most baseball fans have a pretty good idea regarding the basic responsibilities of the manager and general manager of a Major League team. The president, however, occupies a hazier sort of position in the public’s mind. So what exactly does the president of the Minnesota Twins do?

The answer, if you’re Dave St. Peter, is a little bit—and sometimes a lot—of everything.

“I’m sure it varies from team to team,” St. Peter said. “But at the end of the day, I think the core responsibilities are the same. You’re responsible for managing the baseball team as a business and as a public trust. And in the Twins organization, the business and baseball operations have always been one and the same, so I work very closely and collaboratively with [general manager] Terry Ryan. We deliver Terry a budget and try to give him the dollars and resources that are going to allow him to put a competitive team on the field. It’s Terry’s job to work within that budget and manage the personnel of our baseball team. But if we’re going to be successful we have to be able to work well together and bounce stuff off each other. Very rarely is Terry recommending something to ownership that I’m not on board with, and vice versa. I think we do a pretty good job of working together in lockstep.”

That, it turns out, is a seriously shorthand version of St. Peter’s job description. His co-workers will tell you that the team president is a guy who likes to be involved in every area of the business, from ticket sales and corporate sponsorships to advertising and promotions.

Patrick Klinger, the Twins’ vice president of marketing, was hired by St. Peter in 1999, and like his boss (and pretty much everybody else in the organization) his first gig with the team was as an intern. “Dave knows more about every element of this operation than anybody around,” Klinger said. “I don’t think there’s a job in the organization he couldn’t do. For a guy in his position he’s as committed as anyone I’ve seen. Even as his responsibilities have grown, and with all the ballpark stuff, he’s still very involved in the day-to-day operations and wants to know what’s going on in every department. He also has a lot of good ideas, and doesn’t mind getting down in the trenches and getting dirt under his fingers. There isn’t anybody in the office who works longer hours. Dave’s good at preaching balance, but he’s not very good at practicing what he preaches.”

St. Peter admitted as much, but insisted that he’s working on it. He and his wife Joanie have three pre-teen boys, and this year, he said, he intends to help coach Little League. “I may end up missing a game here or there,” he said. “I’m trying to find ways to create more balance and be there as a dad, but the reality is that I’m going to be here most of the time. It’s just the nature of the job. From the very beginning it was drilled into me that eighty-one nights a year what’s happening down here is the most important thing going on in the state of Minnesota.”

Given that grind, you’d think that a guy in St. Peter’s position would have frequent occasion to look at the folks in the Vikings’ front office with a little bit of envy, but he just laughed at that notion. “I’ve never understood how you could play just one game a week,” he said. “I literally can’t imagine working for an NFL team. It would be like having ten weeks of vacation. I say this all the time: The NFL is a country club. The baseball season’s a marathon, and that’s a badge of honor for those of us who thrive on this atmosphere. It’s all I’ve ever known, and what we’re going through right now is the best time of the year. There’s nothing better than spring training and the anticipation of opening day.”

 

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