A reborn team of Huck Finns in baseball cleats
MINNEAPOLIS — While baseball wallows through its dreary melodrama of millionaire players vs. billionaire owners, the back-from-the-grave saga of the Minnesota Twins has been patiently waiting for an audience.
Here is a baseball team whose players actually get along. They don't smash water coolers when they're benched and appear to be utterly stable people with a fondness for dogs and practical jokes. How amazing is that? In an era when independent tycoons dominate the lineups of most winning teams, here is one that has shattered the laws of nature by harboring no visible prima donnas, hypochondriacs, or egomaniacs.
Just nine months ago the Twins were told to be ready to vanish. They were marked for burial as a big league franchise in an inspired brainstorm by the baseball commissioner's office to improve the profit ledgers and the quality of sleep of the surviving owners. The owner of the Twins, octogenarian Carl Pohlad, joined the scheme. He was tired of watching the rest of the baseball owners collecting their toys new stadiums largely financed by the public while he got none. It helped that he would receive $125 million or so if the franchise disappeared. The interment never took place. A Minnesota court intervened. As a result, something oddly captivating has happened in the American League.
Imagine putting nine Huckleberry Finns on the field and, by early August, being miles ahead of the pack in the central division of the American League and mentioned in all seriousness as a possible contender for the World Series.
And why is that? Being decent guys doesn't mean being ordinary guys. This is a baseball team with a first baseman, Doug Mientkiewicz, so nimble and obsessed on defense that he transforms every game into a rendezvous with the impossible, charging the stands, assaulting the dirt, making plays that almost no baseball choreographer could draw up.
It is a team with a catcher, A.J. Pierzynski, who was so lethargic two years ago that he was farmed out into oblivion. Yet today, energized and mature, he has been reborn as an All-Star, hitting .300. Its centerfielder, Torii Hunter, has converted his vast patch of artificial turf into a trampoline, leaping routinely above the fences to intercept home run drives.
Its closing relief pitcher, Eddie Guardado, revels in the role of "Everyday Eddie." The designated hitter, David Ortiz, is a beefy and willing target for every locker room gag known to baseball, including the peanut butter-in-his-underwear caper usually inflicted by Corey Koskie, the Canadian third baseman who, of course, started life as a hockey player.
Many of these people were brought together by Terry Ryan, the intense general manager whose arrival in the job coincided with Mr. Pohlad's decision to shrink the budget to bare maintenance in the '90s. It got as low as $16 million two years ago for the player payroll, a figure barely adequate to pay the phone bill in most big league operations.
Mr. Ryan rummaged and took heat, but gradually put together a team of scrabbling and ambitious young players with skills and very little grandiosity. In 2001 they produced a winning season. In the most depressing times of the threatened destruction of the team's franchise last fall, they phoned each other, looking for silver linings. By April they were back together, took charge of their divisional race (on top at the moment by 15 games), and haven't looked back.
Astonishingly, the Twins have come this far with practically no help from two of their three best starting pitchers, Brad Radke and Joe Mays, both injured in April and lost until 10 days ago. They have only ordinary home run power, but at times unworldly defense from Hunter, Mientkiewicz, shortstop Cristian Guzman, Koskie and second baseman Luis Rivas.
The rest of their position players give them interchangeable parts that insulate them against injury. The prime relief pitchers, J.C. Romero, LaTroy Hawkins, and Guardado have kept them alive for dozens of comeback victories in the late innings, and the first-year manager, Ron Gardenhire, presides over this ménage with a goateed affability that keeps his players loose and confident.
How have they done it? "What they are," says Clark Griffith, "is a first-rate baseball team. Their pitching is good, and they hit when they have to, but what they do better than almost anybody in baseball is to catch the ball. They play the game hard and the way it was meant to be played. When a pitcher knows he's got that kind of team behind him, he's going to pitch well. And these guys do."
Mr. Griffith is the son of the late Twins' owner, Cal Griffith. He's now a lawyer, aching to get back into baseball ownership. But nobody in Minnesota knows where this team will be two years from now, if it exists. The state's taxpayers are still not white hot about building a stadium, although there's a possibility it will come.
What has come to Minnesota again is joy at the ballpark. Baseball has finally managed to orchestrate an authentic mood of family fun, and not many do it better than the Twins. They play audience games on the stadium's TV jumbo screens, and offer an irresistible mascot, a laughing brown bear who joins home run contests, herds two little bears around the stadium, and shoots mementos into the crowd.
By season's end, the Twins are going to draw some 2 million fans, and all of this has startled the commissioner, Bud Selig, who has settled on a somewhat bizarre explanation of the Twins of 2002.
They are, he says, "an aberration." There are no known aberrations in the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown. Maybe one is on the way.