Low-budget Twins baffle baseball's prophets

The scene at the Humphrey Metrodome defied the natural laws of baseball.

Here were the world champion New York Yankees, with a payroll that could refloat the Titanic, down to their last strike against the incumbent ragamuffins of the America League, the Minnesota Twins.

The crowd of 23,000 was standing and applauding rhythmically, but almost bashfully. The arena, half full, harbored more prayers than pandemonium. If you want the truth, the crowd felt out of character. The Minnesota team has been losing for eight years. A year ago its entire annual payroll sank to $16 million, which today might buy you one shortstop and a small omelette. The Twins for two years have regularly appeared on baseball's endangered species lists, headed for oblivion if baseball decides to lop off four of its franchises to bail the industry out of its loony extravagance in player salaries.

The Yankees werein town to open a three game series Yet here was Brad Radke, the Twins' best pitcher, staring in at the Yankees' Jorge Posada with two out in the ninth and the Twins' leading 2-1 - leading the American League's Central Division and baffling every baseball prophet in sight. Quite suddenly the long-vanished Big Game was back on the lips of the Twins' oppressed stadiumgoers this week. The Yankees were in town with their footlockers full of gold and their lineup charged with World Series icons like Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, and Andy Pettitte.

The Twins countered with whom? With Luis Rivas, Jacque Jones, and A.J. Pierzynski, among other strange syllables. Yet now after eight innings of totally absorbing baseball it was Posada's turn to be baffled, because Radke, tiring but feeling every pulse of his role as his insurgent team's war horse, threw a change-up that turned Jorge into a pretzel and a strikeout.

Radke is a slender, laconic fellow who nevertheless punched the air with his fist when Posada struck out. It was the Twins' 18th victory in 24 games. (The team is now 19-7, with the second-best record in all of baseball.)

This from a team whose ownership saddled it with a penny-squeezing payroll of $25 million, the lowest in baseball. The citizens who underwrote the well-vilified Metrodome are now wary of being sucked into spending money for one more stadium - baseball's standard extortion strategy for making billionaire owners richer.

And yet the night of the Yankees, the fans caught Radke's rare streak of emotion. They declined to leave the stadium. They stood swapping high-fives with strangers in a mellowed-out revival of the giddiness of their last World Series 10 years ago.

The drama of the Twins-Yankee series grew deeper - and oddly uglier - two nights later. The Twins won two out of three, but the last one was scarred by an eruption of garbage from the left-field stands, directed at former Twin Chuck Knoblauch. The crowd of 36,000 was horrified by the aberrant behavior of a couple of dozen of cornfed hooligans, and that the umps were actually on the verge of forfeiting the game to the Yankees.

But something is happening out here in the pines and the prairie, and you don't have to subscribe to fables to see it. The Red Sox' Pedro Martinez saw it. "Toughest team we've played," he said a week ago.

Bert Blyleven, the former pitching star who won 287 games and now broadcasts on the Twins' network, saw something that lifted him back to 1987. It was the year when the Twins' team on which he played won the World Series with suddenly maturing young men named Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti, Frank Viola, and a few vets like Blyleven.

"The names they have now are Corey Koskie, Doug Mientkiewicz, Christian Guzman, Torii Hunter, and Eric Milton," he said. "They're all getting better at the same time, and they come from behind to win a lot of their games, and that builds belief.

"There's almost nothing like that feeling in baseball," he continues. "They're young guys who know each other well. They saw all those empty seats last year and the year before, and heard themselves laughed at on the talk shows. But here's a guy like Mientkiewicz [Mint-KAY-vich]. Big guy who came up with a hitter's reputation two years ago, and took forever looking at pitch after pitch. He hit .229. They sent him down to Salt Lake last year, and he started to swing the bat. He hit those homers to win the Olympics for the American team. And now he's found something deep inside of himself. He walks up there hacking, and he carried the team for a week."

Is that how a star is born? A good-looking, popular young ballplayer overnight ignites the fans and rises from obscurity. It's one way. By early May, Mientkiewicz, now armed with new resolve and a new relationship with his manager, was hitting .407 and driving 420-foot home runs.

The manager, Tom Kelly, himself has experienced a rebirth. This is a guy who'd won two World Series and later turned down an offer from the Los Angeles Dodgers. He's an often sour duck, hard to love, but one of the defenders of the faith in baseball, unflinchingly loyal to its traditions and mossy old orthodoxies, scornful of hotdogging players and especially scornful of young players who come to the majors unprepared and cavalier.

He saw Mientkiewicz as one of those. A year ago Mientkiewicz, hitting well in the minors and removed from Kelly's snarls, told a newspaper he was happier playing in Salt Lake City. Kelly phoned him. He wanted to know if that was the limit of Mientkiewicz's ambitions. It wasn't. Show me, Kelly said in effect, this spring. Mientkiewicz did, and it has been a spectacle.

Radke and Milton can win in the majors. So can Joe Mays and Mark Redman, who round out the starting pitching. The relievers are solid. Guzman yields to almost no one in baseball at shortstop. Matt Lawton is an all-star. David Ortiz and Koskie can muscle the ball.

Will the Twins still be competitive in September?

"Why not?" Blyleven said. "What's wrong with fairy tales?"

Nothing. But 420-foot homers are better.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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