Minneapolis — What was played in this year's World Series was not simply baseball, it was ``improba-ball,'' with more strange wrinkles than an elephant's knee. There was a costly bad-hop grounder on artificial turf, a pop-fly out that clanged off a loudspeaker, a pitcher who wore earplugs, a succession of light-hitting batting heroes, and a day game (the first in the Series since 1984) played without natural daylight.
Most improbable of all, however, was the winning team - the Minnesota Twins, who may reside in the city where Wheaties, the breakfast of champions, originated, but seldom before could claim that the flakes were manufactured with them in mind. That, of course, might change now that this merry band of baseball bashers has scored a 4 wins-to-3 decision over the St. Louis Cardinals, who were seeking their 10th title.
In doing so, the Twins have brought Minnesotans their first major pro championship in any sport since the old Minneapolis Lakers dominated the basketball stage in the late 1940s and early '50s before moving to Los Angeles. Their success also helps lift the weight of accumulated disappointment from a variety of near-misses - not only in sports (notably football's Vikings, four-time Super Bowl losers), but in the political arena as well, where Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale were presidential runners-up.
As a local columnist revised the joke about the Twins' forebears, the Washington Senators, Minnesota was ``first in taxes, first in heating bills, and second in everything else that matters.''
The 1924 Senators had won the only World Series title in the franchise's often gloomy history. And after a sixth-place finish a year ago, little was expected of the 1987 ``Twinkies,'' even though they play in what one writer calls the third world of baseball, the underdeveloped American League West division.
This year they had the best home record in the majors, but were still the Minne-ha-ha Twins away from the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, with only eight road victories after mid-July.
Detractors painted them as postseason party crashers who didn't really belong. But such slights just fired the emotional furnaces of players like third baseman Gary Gaetti. After the Twins had beaten Detroit for the pennant, Gaetti said, ``I've been reading some people who have said that it's a disgrace to have us representing the American League. The way I figure it, we might as well go ahead and disgrace the whole game by winning it all.''
On the contrary, though, the Twins achieved their victory with impressive hitting spurts and home run power, solid pitching performances, and generally strong fielding play.
True, after winning two playoff games in Detroit, they reverted to form in terms of home-and-away success in the Series. But with the extra home game in the AL park this year, that was all they needed. This was a Series where the home field advantage loomed larger than ever, and for the first time, the home team prevailed in every game.
Asked what it is about the Metrodome that seems to energize his club, manager Tom Kelly said, ``I really don't know. If I did I'd try to take it on the road.''
Basically, the Twins are a slugging ball club tailor-made to play in a park with reachable fences. The Cardinals, meanwhile, place a premium on defense and speed in more spacious Busch Stadium.
What little power the Redbirds do possess was sitting on the bench during much of the Series. Jack Clark and Terry Pendleton accounted for 47 home runs and 202 RBIs during the season, but injuries kept Clark out of action and greatly limited Pendleton's playing opportunities.
Seldom-used reserve infielder Tom Lawless picked up the slugging slack on one dramatic occasion in Game 4, when he took eventual Series MVP Frank Viola ``downtown'' with a three-run homer. For the most part, though, St. Louis had to scratch out runs and hope it could stall Minnesota's high-volume rallies.
After being blown out 10-1 and 8-4 in the first two games here, the Cards took over when the Series shifted to Busch Stadium, scoring 3-1, 7-2, and 4-2 victories as the Twins fell into a collective hitting and scoring slump.
Back in the Metrodome, however, the Minnesotans regained their hitting eyes and drove St. Louis ace John Tudor from the mound in an 11-5 win Saturday, squaring the Series at three games apiece and setting the stage for Sunday night's decisive contest.
Over the years, St. Louis has won more seventh games (eight, including in the playoffs), than any other ream, but its latest such experience in a World Series had been a bitter one - an 11-0 shellacking by the Kansas City Royals in 1985.
The chances of erasing that memory did not look good, either, not with rookie Joe Magrane pitching against Viola, the majors' winningest left-hander over the last four years. Viola had won their Game 1 match-up, when Magrane had sought noise relief from the Metrodome's din by using earplugs.
Then, too, the ``Herbie & Kirby Show'' had gotten untracked for the Twins in Game 6, and that was indeed an ominous development for the Cardinals.
The Cards had pretty much held Kent Hrbek and Kirby Puckett in check in St. Louis, but these two cogs of the Minnesota attack broke loose in Saturday afternoon's game, which of course never really saw the light of day in the Metrodome. Puckett was 4-for-4 and scored four runs, and Hrbek, a hometown boy, crushed a sixth-inning grand slam homer to deepest center field.
Minnesota's jubilant first baseman called it his greatest thrill in baseball and added, ``I wish I could have run around the bases two times instead of one.''
In Game 7, the Twins mounted several big-inning threats, but none ever yielded more than a run at a time in perhaps the most gripping drama of the Series. Cardinal outfielder Vince Coleman, who had been a base-stealing thorn in Minnesota's side, was partly responsible for keeping things tight by throwing out a pair of Twins at the plate.
One of these throws nailed Don Baylor, who, in a replay, appeared to have slid in before catcher Steve Lake could apply the tag. Interestingly, there were two other questionable umpiring calls that served to give the game a somewhat bizarre texture. Both went against the Cardinals, but neither was cause of great protest.
With Viola pitching a masterly eight innings, and bullpen star Jeff Reardon coming in to perform his standard ninth-inning mop-up duty, the Twins really didn't need a bust-out rally this time.
They chipped away, to score a 4-2 decision, with shortstop Greg Gagne getting the game-winning RBI in St. Louis fashion, on an infield single with the bases loaded. That Gagne, who entered the game with a .160 Series batting average, should drive home the decisive run seemed appropriate, given the hitting damage inflicted rather surprisingly at various times throughout the seven games by Twins Dan Gladden, Tim Laudner, and Steve Lombardozzi, and Cardinals Lawless and Curt Ford.
Yes, there was a lot of ``improba-ball'' in this Series, maybe enough to fill a couple of grain silos, and surely enough to give the Twin Cities a new rosy glow of athletic success.