Orlando — Surprise teams that suddenly go from mediocrity one year to world champions the next are always tough to figure the second time around. In 1986 the Minnesota Twins lost 20 more games than they won, but last year they stormed to the American League pennant and beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. Did this team catch lightning in a bottle in 1987, or has it really been built for the long haul? Despite a 29-52 road record that was among the worst in baseball last season, Minnesota finished first in the American League West by going 56-25 at home. The Twins then used that same formula to beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, winning all four of their home games.
Baseball history - especially in the last decade or so - says that champions rarely repeat. But folk hero Minnesota manager Tom Kelly's answer to that is simply, ``I don't think it always has to be that way.''
Kelly, who shuffled his pitchers against the Cardinals as though he knew ahead of time what was going to happen, is a hard man not to believe.
Tom, a veteran minor league manager, an organization type who became the Twins' third base coach in 1983 and their pilot for the last 23 games of the 1986 season, is precise in a profession that often breeds ambiguity. He seems to approach every game and situation from a different perspective. Another of his strengths is an ability to get players to make changes while making them think it was their idea.
Kelly is not particularly interested in seeing his words in print; when pressed for answers he relies on old standbys like, ``We play 'em one game at a time.'' Tom is Jimmy Stewart without the hesitation drawl. Whenever possible, he'll direct your attention to his players.
Another of Tom's clipboard clich'es is that no team should ever get too high on itself when it wins or too low when it loses. All of Kelly's opinions are delivered with a straight face and the log cabin integrity of Abraham Lincoln.
Tom would never put a slug in a parking meter, move one of his opponent's checkers when he wasn't looking, or sell you a used car with a leaky transmission.
Although almost every story about Minnesota coming out of Florida this spring is going to question whether the Twins have enough pitching to repeat, few managers are going to have the luxury of four more respected power hitters.
Kelly has two outfielders (Tom Brunansky and Kirby Puckett) and two infielders (Kent Hrbek and World Series MVP Gary Gaetti) who can destroy an opposing pitching staff in one afternoon. Brunansky, Hrbek, and Gaetti hit more than 30 homers apiece last season, and Gaetti drove in more than 100 runs.
But the Twins also have some excellent table-setters in second baseman Steve Lombardozzi, shortstop Greg Gagne, and outfielders Dan Gladden and Randy Bush. And while catcher Tim Lauder doesn't often hit for average, he does hit for power.
Last year Minnesota's most productive designated hitter (after being picked up from Boston) was 39-year-old Don Baylor, a free-agent slugger who has since found a better financial deal in Oakland. While Baylor's home runs, RBI power, and stabilizing manner in the clubhouse will be missed, Kelly thinks he has the ideal replacement in switch-hitter Gene Larkin, who hits for both average and power.
What makes the experts suspicious about the Twins is their pitching staff, which last year ranked 10th out of 14 in the American League. It had a reputation for all the wrong things: a high earned-run average (4.63); only 16 complete games; and a whopping 210 home runs allowed to opposing hitters.
But Minnesota does have this bearded white knight in the bullpen named Jeff Reardon, who won eight games and saved 31. Reardon joined the Twins a year ago via a trade with Montreal, where during the two previous seasons he had recorded a best-in-the-majors 76 saves, and obviously was a big factor in the team's improvement.
There is nothing subtle about the way Reardon pitches. His fastball is in on most hitters before they can react to it, and Jeff can also get people out with a hard-breaking curveball.
The Twins also got a lot of bullpen mileage last year from veteran Juan Berenguer.
For Minnesota to finish first in its division again it will need another super year from Reardon, plus big efforts from at least some of its starters. Two key men, of course, are last year's 1-2 punch of Frank Viola (17-10) and Bert Blyleven (15-12). Other possibilities are veteran Joe Niekro, who was a combined 7-13 with the Yankees and Twins last year, plus second-year man Len Straker, who pitched several outstanding innings against the Cardinals in the World Series.
Kelly is high on rookies Steve Gasser and Jeff Bumgarner, both right-handers. While the Twins talked trade with several clubs during baseball's winter meetings, reportedly no past, present, or perhaps future marquee names were involved.
In a nutshell, then, the Twins will be terribly exciting whenever they are crashing home runs, especially in the friendly confines of the Minneapolis Metrodome. They'll score a lot, so the key once again will be how effective they are at stopping the opposition from doing the same.