Ahh, the upper Midwest. Minneapolis and St. Paul, the sparkling-clean Twin Cities. Thousands of lakes and Scandinavian blondes. The Tonight show on at 10:30 for the real night owls. General Mills and Pillsbury. Telephone books full of Andersons. Against the law not only to sell liquor on Sundays but TV sets, radios, lawn mowers, footwear and luggage, as well. To complete the picture, the Minnesota Twins baseball team should have found in the off season a big, religious Swedish outfielder who can polka and hit home runs. Lacking such a man, but lucky enough to have a Sunday dispensation, the Twins did not stand still. They introduced a new concessions item, bratwurst on a pumpernickel bun, and made a trade with the California Angels for Wilmer Dean Chance.
Chance is a 25-year-old right-hander who won 20 games and the Cy Young Award in 1964 and then slipped a little the next two years because, among other things, the Angels moved to a hitters' ball park, Anaheim Stadium, and took away his left-handed stablemate, Bo Belinsky. The Twins thoughtfully provided Chance with a substitute Bo, one Jim Ollom, a tall, properly left-handed, properly brash rookie from Snohomish, Wash. Ollom won 20 games for Denver last year and, on the basis of that and ten innings pitched in the majors, he decided that he deserved a $15,000 contract this spring. He became one of the few rookie holdouts in history. When he did show up in Florida (more than a week late and after signing for less than he wanted), he and Chance took to each other like brothers, even twins.
Of course, Manager Sam Mele had some other good pitchers. Jim Kaat was the American League's best last year. Dave Boswell won eight games in a row, Jim (Mudcat) Grant had won 21 games in 1965 and Al Worthington and Ron Kline were proved relievers. Moreover, Tony Oliva was a cinch to hit better than .300, and Harmon Killebrew was coming off one of his finest seasons. No wonder Mele's team was considered a good bet for the pennant, along with Baltimore and Detroit.
Then the season began, and now it looks as though nothing but a completely restored Dean Chance, superperformances from Kaat, Grant and Boswell and the reincarnation of Walter Johnson will be sufficient to offset the Twins' bone-head plays. The supposedly pennant-contending Twins seem to be vying with each other to replace Charlie Brown's inept fictional idol, Joe Shlabotnik, as the most undesirable bubble-gum card in America.
April 30, 1967
The mistakes have not always been colossal. Sometimes they were normal bobble-stumble errors. Sometimes they came from inexperience, sometimes from a lack of alertness. But, significantly, the goofs were a continuation of the giveaway style of play the Twins had displayed in Florida, where they gave up an average of one unearned run a game. And there had been other runs equally unearned, although they did not show up that way in the official statistics. For instance, in an exhibition game against the Atlanta Braves late in spring training, with a Brave runner on first, rookie Second Baseman Rod Carew fielded a little squibbler and found himself a few feet from the base runner, who had stopped dead. Instead of throwing to first and moving back toward second to make the tag on the return throw, Carew chose to chase the runner. He got him, but he got one out instead of two. The next batter walked, and the batter after that hit a three-run homer.
On opening day in Baltimore, the first day of a two-week ordeal in which the Twins would face nothing but contenders, Jim Kaat got about as much support as Hubert Humphrey in Rome. Twin Center Fielder Cesar Tovar opened with a double. Rich Rollins followed with a home run to left, or at least it was a homer until Curt Blefary leaped, reached over the fence and pulled the ball back in. Then Blefary fired to second to double up Tovar. Granted, it was an unexpectedly brilliant play by an outfielder once called Clank for the way the ball supposedly sounded when it hit his mitt, but Tovar, as Manager Mele pointed out, should have been only halfway down to third instead of halfway to the dugout. He could have crawled in on a homer, scored easily on a hit off the wall or tiptoed back to second on a catch.
When the Twins took the field they continued the inept pattern. Bob Allison misjudged a fly ball that went for a double, and Carew fumbled a hard chance to his right. Neither was called an error, but they helped the Orioles get four runs off Kaat. And all this was in the first inning.
Later that week First Baseman Harmon Killebrew was the goat in a Minnesota loss to Detroit. He dropped Carew's double-play relay that would have ended an inning. Instead, the winning run scored on the error. Then it was Cleveland's turn to benefit. Tony Oliva, running to his right, badly misjudged a fly ball. The ball landed behind him and to his left for a cheap double—which became a cheap run when the next Indian batter singled. The comedy switched to the offense again. Tovar opened the eighth inning with a single and went to second on an error. Then, although Minnesota was three runs behind, Cesar tried to go to third when Rollins' bloop hit to center fell in, and he was thrown out by an embarrassing margin.
It was, finally, more than Mele could stand. He let the players stay in the clubhouse long enough to get a bite to eat and long enough for most of the crowd to go home. Then Sam herded them back on the field for an extra workout, at 4 o'clock on a Sunday afternoon. Batting practice was needed, perhaps, but it was more a grown-up version of keeping bad boys after school. Oliva, not at all pleased with the unscheduled overtime, sat down on the outfield grass near the right-field foul line. Mele strode onto the field and whistled at Oliva to get on his feet. When two players entered the dugout-to-clubhouse tunnel, Mele sent the equipment manager scurrying to bring them back. Sam Mele was angry.
Mele has gray hair—which should be understandable if you have read this far—and a handsome, deeply lined Italian face that only occasionally is broken by a quick, shy smile. There were no smiles this day, yet he did not kick any water coolers or rear ends either. As the Twins took turns in the batting cage, Sam stood nearby in the time-tested manner of managers—feet spread, hands thrust in back pockets, eyes searching for details. He idly picked up somebody's bat, swung it a few times at an imaginary ball, or head, and tamped down some earth with it. Leaning against the cage, he quietly informed Oliva that he was dropping his shoulder as he swung. Two hours after the game, Sam signaled that the workout was over and the last-place Twins silently filed off the field.
"We're not getting the pitching we should be getting," Mele said. "We've made mistakes, and the mistakes have cost us ball games. But these pitchers can pitch and these hitters can hit. I know that."
Know it or not, and postgame workout or not, the Twins continued on their haphazard way. The height of Mele's suffering came last Friday night in Detroit. On the hallowed ground Ty Cobb once trod, the two teams were responsible for four errors, two wild pitches, 13 walks and a passed ball, but if the Tigers were bad the Twins were worse.
Tovar and Oliva played a scene in the third inning that was reminiscent of Fred Merkle, Babe Herman and Wrong-Way Riegels. Tovar led off with a single and, after his recent base-running catastrophes, apparently decided to play things cautiously. Oliva, next up, smacked a home run to right field and, admiring its soaring grace as he rounded first base, passed Tovar, who inexplicably had come back to tag up. Oliva was called out for passing another runner and his homer shrank to a single in the official score book. In disgust he slammed his batting helmet down by the first-base coach's box as Tovar sheepishly trotted around the bases and scored.
Killebrew let a hard ground ball go through his legs, Oliva overran a fly ball and rookie Jim Ollom, the Twins' third pitcher of the night, forgot to cover home on a wild pitch as Detroit's Ray Oyler scored all the way from second base. Mele did some talking in the clubhouse after the game and extracted certain amounts from two players he declined to name, but whose names got out anyway (they were Tovar and Ollom). "I don't like to fine guys," Sam said, "but it is a case of having to do it."
Despite everything, there were some happy aspects for the Twins, not the least of which was the cheering fact that no other team was off to a particularly blazing start. Zoilo Versalles at shortstop was playing back to his 1965 Most Valuable Player form, fielding nicely and at one point leading the league in batting. Tovar was asleep on the base paths but wide awake at the plate and in center field. He came back the day after the Oliva home-run embarrassment and went four for four.
Rod Carew, a native of Panama who finished high school in New York City, played errorless ball at second base and was an aggressive left-handed batter, not even shying away from lefty fast bailers like Cleveland's Sam McDowell. It began to look as though Carew would indeed make the jump from Class A baseball (Wilson, of the Carolina League) straight to the majors. He was picked off first base twice—to prove he belonged on the Twins—but he looked accomplished on double plays, hit a two-run homer against the Tigers, singled twice against them another day and pretty much demonstrated to Mele that at least there was something to smile about. When Ollom forgot to cover home on that wild pitch, Carew ran all the way in from second to do it for him, though he was too late.
And Dean Chance caught on just like the bratwurst. He was shaky in his first game, against the Orioles in Baltimore, but he insisted that he had good stuff. Last Sunday in Detroit he struck out eight and gave up just one run in seven innings before being lifted for a pinch hitter. His brightest day came in between. The Twins had lost four of their first five, but Chance came back against the Orioles in Minnesota and beat them with a 10-strikeout, five-hit, 3-2 performance in what felt like a must game to the dragging Twins. Harmon Killebrew hit a two-run homer and Carew, naturally, won the game for Chance with a single to center in the bottom of the ninth.
In the clubhouse the Twins were shouting and congratulating each other, and the future seemed suddenly brighter. Chance hugged Carew and Killebrew and accepted a symbolic hot dog from his sidekick, Ollom, who put him down with, "Dean, you messed up. You told me you needed only one run to win."
They were still in the second division, but they were making jokes like winners again.