Twins in rare contender's role; Hall of Fame to get Mattingly bat

Most years you don't think of Minnesota as anything more than a prop for other American League teams trying to pad their win totals. For example, 1979 was the last time the Twins won more games than they lost. Oh, occasionally they showcase outstanding people like outfielder Kirby Puckett, first baseman Kent Hrbek, and pitcher Bert Blyleven - players any team would like to have. But you have to go all the way back to 1969 and 1970, the first two years of divisional play, to find a time when the Twins won an AL West title. And for the last decade or so, with Kansas City and California dominating the division, they haven't counted for much at all.

Well, things have changed!

While Minnesota's pitching continues to lag behind that of its chief division rivals (the Royals, Angels, and Oakland A's), its batting order is stocked with hitters who can take a pitcher deep. The Twins don't just score a lot of runs, they often manufacture them in bunches.

While most people will probably tell you that Rickey Henderson of the New York Yankees is baseball's best leadoff hitter, in Minnesota the votes go to Puckett, the world's first mobile fire hydrant. Lately, however, because of his RBI power, he has been batting third.

Now that he's learned to handle the inside pitch, the solid 5. 7 in., 205-pounder hits for power and average, has the speed to bunt his way on, and is loved by friend and foe alike. In fact, there is talk that a toy Kirby Bear for kids will soon be on the market.

Puckett, who may be the best advertisement for lifting weights that anyone can find, performs on size 8 feet that appear more suited a ballerina than a ballplayer. But his huge forearms are something else, and his short swing generates so much power that his home runs often are among the longest in the league.

As if opposing pitchers don't have enough to worry about with Puckett, they must also deal with the home run power of Hrbek, Tom Brunansky, Gary Gaetti, and Roy Smalley.

Still much of the credit for this year's surge belongs to Tom Kelly, who was named manager last fall after 15 years of learning and polishing his trade in the minors.

Kelly, who is so unknown that he usually requires a fairly elaborate introduction wherever he goes, is always upbeat, always thinking positively. He also seems to know something about handling a pitching staff.

So far Kelly has done wonders juggling and getting the maximum out of starters like Blyleven, Frank Viola, and Mike Smithson. Tom has also made the most of the Twins' best off-season acquisition, relief pitcher Jeff Reardon, who in the last two years had a total of 76 saves with the National League's Montreal Expos.

The upshot of all this is that with the season more than half over, Kelly still has his team right up there dueling Oakland for the division lead, though both Kansas City and California remain within striking distance. While few people outside of Minnesota expect the Twins to keep it up and actually win the AL West, this division is close enough right now that anything is still possible. Bo isn't `strictly a baseball player' after all

Let's go back to Friday, Sept. 27, 1986; the first time I ever interviewed Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson of Auburn, who had just been brought up by the the Kansas City Royals.

``There is nothing about football that I really miss,'' the No. 1 draft pick of the Tampa Bay Buckaneers told me. ``I don't know why that's so hard for everybody to understand. For the past six years football was a big part of my life, and I enjoyed every minute of it, but I don't miss it. Now I'm strictly a baseball player.''

Last week Jackson said that once the baseball season ends he would like to play for the Los Angeles Raiders, who now have his National Football League rights..

Even though it would mean no training camp and probably an eight-game season at most for Bo, Raiders managing partner Al Davis says it would be all right with him. Royals' management has also given its OK.

But it's not all right with some of Jackson's teammates, who are trying to win a division title and don't need any distractions from a fellow player whose attitude has not always been to their liking anyway.

After hearing Bo say that, ``Any way you look at it, anything that comes after baseball is a hobby, like hunting and fishing,'' veteran outfielder Willie Wilson asked: ``Do you suppose that Lawrence Taylor thinks of pro football as a hobby?'' Taylor, of course, is the 230-pound all-pro linebacker of the 1987 Super Bowl champion New York Giants, and eats running backs for breakfast! Mattingly's bat headed for Cooperstown

Even though he won't be eligible for induction into the Hall of Fame for many more years, Don Mattingly will be sending his bat to Cooperstown soon. It's the one the New York Yankee first baseman used to hit home runs in eight consecutive games recently, tying the major league record set by Dale Long of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1956.

Mattingly's streak began when he hit two homers on July 8, and continued with one each on the 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th. After the All-Star break he picked up where he had left off, blasting two homers on July 16. Then Friday night in Texas he made it seven games in a row when he connected against the Rangers' Paul Kilgus. That broke the American League record of six, accomplished by a half dozen players, most recently by Reggie Jackson in 1976.

On Saturday, he blasted an opposite field shot off Jose Guzman for the home run that tied Long. But on Sunday his bid for the record-breaker was stopped Sunday when Ranger pitchers Greg Harris and Jeff Russell held him to a single and a double plus a ground out and a line out in four trips during a 20-3 Texas victory.

Mattingly, of course, isn't in any hurry to stop using such a ``hot'' bat (he is hitting at a .414 clip for the last few weeks with 73 hits in his last 176 at bats, raising his season average to .342), but he says he will honor the Hall of Fame's request for it ``when I break it.''

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