Twins count on 'Baby Bulls' for home run thrills now, success later
They won't win a pennant. They probably won't even play .500 baseball. And for a while most fans won't be able to tell their players without a scorecard.
But the fact remains that one of the chief ingredients of the Minnesota Twins this season is the excitement of youth. Running a close second in interest is the city's new $55 million Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, where 70 degree temperatures are held in place by a Teflon-coated Fiberglas roof.
Manager Billy Gardner was a pick and shovel ballplayer who spent time with seven different big league teams in the space of 11 years. He survived only because he played every game as though it was the final game of the World Series. Along the way he found time to marry a former Miss Connecticut.
What the Twins seem to have are a lot of talented young players who are just getting their first coat of polish - a learning process teams like the Dodgers and Yankees prefer to conduct at the minor league level.
But at Minnesota, where owner Calvin Griffith has never had any trouble developing stars, long relationships are often a handshake. Griffith, to hold down costs, has a history of trading his stars or letting them become free agents rather than paying today's huge salaries.
''Let 'em learn while they play'' seems to be Calvin's motto. And while the tendency of most baseball executives is to reject that theory as unworkable, Minnesota's current crop of youngsters seems equal to the task. So does Gardner, who went to spring training this year without one player in his 30s.
The Twins, who seems to have done most of their shopping in the Charles Atlas Department Store of Power Hitters, have already made quite a few opposing teams miserable with the long ball.
''We are going with kids this year, and kids generally make a lot of mistakes ,'' Gardner said. ''But with the power we've got, we can be down and still come back. If we get the normal improvement we expect, we'll be a better team in the second half of the season than in the first. Our pitching isn't too bad, and ultimately it all comes down to pitching and defense anyway.
''We'll be trying to play .500 baseball, because that's always the takeoff point for a young team,'' he added. ''But I also think we can settle for less and still have a good year if our kids continue to improve. The one thing I won't do with my No. 4, 5, and 6 hitters is stay with them too long if they get into a slump. Rather than embarrass them, I'll either drop them 'way down in my order or else sit them down for a while.''
The ''Baby Bulls'' most often mentioned in Gardner's lineup are first baseman Kent Hrbek; infielder Gary Gaetti; and outfielder Jim Eisenreich.
Hrbek, whose eight home runs lead the American League at the moment, is a left-handed power hitter who looks like a young Ted Williams to Twins' officials.
In addition to having the highest batting average (.379) in organized baseball last year, Kent led the California League in slugging percentage (.639) , on-base percentage (.453), and fielding percentage at first base (.990). He struck out only 59 times, which matched his base-on-balls total exactly.
Minnesota can't seem to decide whether Gaetti, who filled in for a while for the injured John Castino at third base, is more like ex-Twin Harmon Killebrew or Sal Bando. But just being mentioned alongside such names is enough to thrill any rookie. In Minnesota's first series of the season with Seattle, Gaetti went 7-for-10, including three home runs. Like Hrbek, he can also field.
What everybody likes about Eisenreich, in addition to his power (23 homers last year in the minors) is his range in center field. Jim will catch a lot of line drives in the alleys that most outfielders can only wave at, and his arm is outstanding. Despite those credentials, Eisenreich himself reportedly was surprised when the Twins didn't send him out for another year of seasoning.
Although most Minnesota fans were upset when the Twins traded all-star shortstop Roy Smalley to the Yankees, they do have a good glove man to replace him in rookie Len Faedo, whose fielding will probably keep him in the lineup despite a questionable bat.
As for coping with a pitching staff that doesn't look that strong on paper, Gardner says he hopes to solve part of that problem by going frequently to his bullpen.
''Sometimes, if a kid is in a jam, I'm going to let him pitch his way out of it just to see what he can do,'' Billy explained. ''I won't be telling him to use this particular pitch or that particular pitch, either, because I've always felt pitchers should go with whatever they think is their best weapon. But with such a young staff, I'll also have somebody ready in the bullpen.''
Meanwhile, home runs should continue to fly off the bats of the Baby Bulls frequently enough to make it an interesting season.