A Tribute to the Twins
[Editor's note: Al Doyle has agreed to join our staff at Baseball Analysts. Al has been a regular contributor to Baseball Digest since 1986. He has also covered the Mexican League for the Mexico City News. The veteran writer's first appearance on this site was as a guest columnist - Baseball Is More Than Superstars - in June. Please welcome Al aboard.]
Even though the Twins were swept by the A's in the American League Division Series, the organization deserves credit for making a strong comeback from the brink of contraction in 2001.
My fascination with the team goes back to 1999. I was in Minneapolis a number of times that summer, and what better way to spend a few hours than catching a Twins game? Tickets were always available, as the Twins finished the season with a 63-97-1 record.
It would be an understatement to describe the summer of '99 as hard times for the franchise. This was the era when fans could buy a season ticket to the upper deck bleachers for $99 and receive a bat autographed by Kirby Puckett or Tony Oliva. The practical-minded Twins front office figured that hot dog and peanut revenue from fans in the (very) cheap seats was better than nothing. The Metrodome is a loud, vibrant place when it's full, but crowds of 12,000 emphasize why domed stadiums and Astroturf are far inferior to outdoor baseball.
Talent on the roster was as sparse as the attendance. The offense was especially weak, as the starting lineup seemed to be a collection of number 7 and 8 hitters with little thunder in their bats. Ron Coomer's 16 home runs led the "Twinkies," while Marty Cordova's 70 RBI were tops in that category.
The team batting average of .264 was tolerable, but the Twins finished last in the majors in home runs (105) and runs scored (686). That left the pitching staff with little margin for error.
Staff ace Brad Radke deserved better than a 12-14 record, as his 3.75 ERA was fourth best in the American League. Young pitchers Joe Mays (6-11, 4.37 in 171 innings pitched) and Eric Milton (7-11, 4.49, 206.1 IP and a no-hitter) showed promise and provided hope for the future.
The bottom of the rotation was the problem. LaTroy Hawkins' 10-14 record came with a 6.66 ERA, while Mike Lincoln went 3-10 with a 6.84 ERA before he was sent down to Salt Lake City.
Rick Aguilera was superb as the closer (3-1, 6 saves, 1.27 ERA) when his $4.3 million contract was sent to the Cubs in May. Mike Trombley did an adequate job in that role until a late season slump dropped his record to 2-8 with a 4.33 ERA and 24 saves.
Two games from 1999 stand out in my memory. The first was on August 24 against the Red Sox. It was a Tuesday, which is significant.
That was the year of the guaranteed Tuesday win promotion. If the Twins lost on Tuesday, your ticket was good for another game. Pedro Martinez at the peak of his prime (23-4 that season) was on the mound for the Red Sox. If there is a sure thing in life, Pedro facing the light-hitting Twins was it.
Pedro was everything that could be expected and more. His fastball was 95 to 97 MPH with plenty of movement, and his 85 MPH slider consistently painted the black. The Twins were overwhelmed, as Martinez struck out 15 in eight innings, giving up just an unearned run and four hits as the Red Sox won 7-1.
The lone Twins run came when Jacque Jones struck out on one of Pedro's untouchable sliders. The sharp-breaking pitch bounced away from catcher Jason Varitek, who fired the ball down the right field line as he attempted to throw out Jones at first base. Jones ran all the way to third.
Denny Hocking came up and hung tough with Martinez, who threw everything on or an inch off both corners. The Twins utilityman battled masterfully, fouling off pitches and laying off tempting tosses that just missed the strike zone. Pedro finally busted Hocking inside, and the underdog managed to dribble a slow roller down the first base line to score Jones.
That at-bat stuck in my memory, as I knew manager Twins Tom Kelly was a stickler for fundamentally sound baseball, and Hocking demonstrated it. A few months later, I was writing an article about the most versatile players in the majors for Baseball Digest. Since Hocking played every position but pitcher and catcher, I arranged a phone interview with him.
Every interview should go as well as that discussion did. Hocking was friendly, eager to talk about baseball, and he generously shared his knowledge. I was wrapping up my questions when he threw me a bonus.
"Wanna hear about my best at-bat of the season?" Hocking asked.
"I sure do," came the reply.
"It was at the Dome against the Red Sox," Hocking said. "We were facing Pedro. . ."
"I was there!" I screamed. "You really battled him. Tell me about it."
Hocking proceeded to describe the long, nerve-wracking AB and the end result - not much to the undiscerning eye, but a fine piece of hitting against a dominating pitcher.
"It was just a little grounder to first, but that was my best at-bat of the year," Hocking concluded. "It got the run home."
That interview brought back memories of the game. Jones played centerfield (Torii Hunter had the night off) and made a spectacular leaping catch against the wall when the game was out of reach. Despite the circumstances, the Twins hustled, backed up throws and had their heads in the game.
Having grown up watching the Cubs play losing, fundamentally inept baseball and spending most of my adult life in Brewers and Rockies territory, I had seen far more than my share of lethargy and late season defeatism. That definitely wasn't happening with the Twins.
"These guys may not have tons of talent, but they sure give you an honest day's work," was what was going through my mind as I left the Metrodome. Something told me this team had a brighter future. With that free ticket from guaranteed win night, I attended the last home game of the season against the Tigers on September 30.
Despite a three-run pinch hit bomb from Midre Cummings, the Twins lost 6-5. That loss - the sixth in what became an eight-game losing streak - dropped the team's record to 63-95. Never mind a .500 season. It would take a couple of wins just to creep over .400.
It was what is often described as a "meaningless" game between two losing teams. Chad Allen batted fifth for Minnesota, and his stats (10 HR and 46 RBI in 481 ABs) say volumes about the state of the offense. Infielder Brent Gates (3 HR, 38 RBI, .255) started at first base in one of the last appearances of his career, and this was one of the very rare instances where a player in that normally power-packed position batted ninth.
I worked my way down from the cheap seats to a prime spot right behind the Twins dugout. Despite the continual frustration of a losing season, determination was etched on every player's face. They came to win. Don't tell them it was a meaningless game unless you wanted a bloody nose and busted teeth.
The young Twins played hard, running out grounders and being alert and focused on defense against the Tigers. How could you not pull for these guys?
Their salary budget might look like George Steinbrenner's petty cash account, but the Twins organization wasn't going to accept sloppy play. Minnesota native Kelly cultivated and enforced that mentality, and it eventually paid off.
The front office and scouting department found some sleepers and shrewd draft picks, and minor league managers and coaches emphasized fundamentals and smart play. The Twins turned the corner in 2001, leading the American League Central division in the early going before fading to a 85-77 finish. It was the first of what has turned into six consecutive winning seasons.
TK resigned after the season, claiming he wasn't sure if he was willing to put the effort required into managing. That excuse sounded questionable, as it came from someone who gave five quarters worth of toil and preparation for every $1 he earned.
How about a big name to replace Kelly? That's not how the Twins do things, as they wanted a guy who understood the organization's philosophy. Coach and Kelly protege Ron Gardenhire was chosen, and he has led the team to four postseason appearances in his five years as manager.
As usual, the Twins got to the playoffs in their unpretentious, grind it out manner again this year. Utilityman Nick Punto became the starting third baseman in May. Solid defensively, Punto hit a single home run in 459 ABs, which is extremely unusual for a power position.
Radke provided the inspiration and example by continuing to pitch despite a torn labrum. A season-ending injury to lefty sensation Francisco Liriano meant as many as three rookie pitchers were in the starting rotation, but the Twins still won the A.L. Central with a combination of solid relief pitching, a revamped offense, and "Twins baseball," verbal shorthand for intelligent, fundamentally sound play.
Advancing runners, proper positioning on defense and making clutch plays. Pitchers throwing strikes, coaxing groundouts and working at a steady pace. This is "dull" to those whose concept of baseball is limited to the Home Run Derby mentality. When the Twins are playing well, it's baseball choreography of the highest level.
When it doesn't happen - as in all three games of the ALDS, which saw the Twins make a number of uncharacteristic errors, failures to advance runners and lapses of judgment in the field - defeat is usually the result. Even though the team didn't advance in postseason play, the Twins are proof that baseball is more than bidding wars for free agents.
"It's not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog" is a saying that applies to the Twins organization. I'll take these scrappy little mutts over the pampered show dogs any day.