Before the uneven parallel bars became the national pastime, there was baseball. Granted, there was nobody to say "Let the games begin," and many of the people who normally would have been in Anaheim Stadium were off at team handball, but the California Angels and Minnesota played an important series last weekend to determine who would lead the American League West at the top of the pennant stretch.
In the AL West, which has been a sort of Limpiad all season, any team that loses as many games as it wins has a chance. But if the Angels and Twins, the only teams in the division over .500, are still fighting it out in the last week of September, it should at least be interesting. They offer a great study in contrasts: old vs. young, rich vs. poor, disappointing vs. surprising, uptight vs. loose.
Because they split the four-game series the division lead changed hands four times, with the Twins emerging half a game ahead. But as one of our major poets, Reggie Jackson, shouted to Minnesota manager Billy Gardner during b.p. one day, "Hey, Billy. Robert Frost. Miles to go before we sleep."
About the only people who expected the Twins to get this far were the Twins, a band of merry men, four of whom are rookies, eight of whom are in their second year, and another eight of whom are in their third year. Two years ago, Minnesota was a laughingstock, losing 102 games. Now the Twins do the laughing.
On Thursday night, for instance, they were beaten 14-2 by the Angels to fall out of first place. They could have moped, but during the fourth inning, when California extended its lead to 14-0, Gardner set the tone for the evening by calmly tearing John Butcher's pitching chart into pieces.
When Mickey Hatcher came in from leftfield after the inning, he went into a monologue that broke the team up. Later Hatcher said, "I think what I told them was 'We got 'em right where we want them, we're wearing them down, they're getting tired, the fans are leaving, and the concessions are losing money.' I guess you had to be there at the time."
The Twins may lead the majors in cutups, and they observe some bizarre rituals. There's the Hood, a hideous mask made of tape, which belongs to the last batter to strike out three times in a game, and there's the Sombrero, which goes to the last pitcher to give up three homers in a game. Mike Smithson, current owner of the Sombrero, tried to talk Gardner into leaving Frank Viola in Thursday's game after Viola had given up two home runs.
The Twins laughed off their two-touchdown loss and the next night came from behind to beat the Angels 4-2 and regain first place. Kent Hrbek and Tom Brunansky drove in the big runs, Butcher and Ron Davis worked out of jam after jam and 5'7" Houston Jimenez, who puts the short in shortstop, made a pair of nice plays. "You have to like these kids, the way they bounce back," said Gardner after the game.
And you have to like Gardner, who's seen the Twins through some very hard times. Gardner, 57 and nicknamed Slick, leads a rather fascinating life. He's married to a former Miss Connecticut, he does p.r. for a meat company in the off-season, he plays a mean game of pool, and while in Minneapolis he stays in the Super 8 Motel.
He is also stern without being strict, and his players swear by him. If one of them is going through a slump, Gardner will probably tell him about the time 34 years ago in Sioux City.... "They used to keep a pig out there in left. I hit a ball to the wall in left center, and while I'm running around the bases, the pig walks over and eats the ball. The umpires huddle at home plate, and you know what they decided? They decided to give me an inside-the-pork home run."
Kidding aside, one of the major reasons for the Twins' improvement has been their pitching. They traded right-fielder Gary Ward to Texas for Smithson and Butcher, who have 20 wins and 311‚Öî innings between them. Smithson brought with him a belief in throwing inside that has caught on with the rest of the staff. Viola, 7-15 last year and 11-10 for '84 through Sunday, has benefited from the aggressive style, and Gardner says, "He'll be the best lefthander in the league next year."
The outstanding offensive statistics belong to Hrbek, who is hitting .329, third in the league, with 17 homers and 73 RBIs. He got hot last month after his mother, Tina, suggested he might be dropping his shoulder. Gardner calls him "the best first baseman I've seen in 39 years." At 24, Hrbek is still a big kid whose real passion in life is not baseball but professional wrestling.
Although the four games ended the Twins-Angels season series with Minnesota holding a 9-4 edge, the teams are beginning a real rivalry. "I think it's more than two teams fighting for first place," says Twin third baseman Gary Gaetti. "They don't think we're as good as they are, and we think we are."
There were no out-and-out hostilities last weekend, but there were several physical double plays and a number of brushbacks. In the first game, Angel second baseman Bobby Grich dropped his knee to block the bag as Kirby Puckett slid headfirst on a successful pickoff attempt. The next day, Jackson called to Puckett in the vicinity of the batting cage, "I shouldn't be showing you this"—and then went into a spikes-first slide.
On Saturday the Angels regained first place with a 4-2 victory. The hero was none other than Jackson, who hit a three-run, opposite-field homer in the fourth. It was Jackson's 17th of the year and the 495th of his career. But the Twins were back in first on Sunday, winning 4-2 thanks to ex-Angel Brunansky's two-run homer and RBI single.
Says Jackson, "It's like I told Billy Gardner. We're rolling down the freeway at 65, the two of us, neck and neck. Maybe you'll swerve in front of me, and I'll fall behind. But I'll stay right with you, and before we get to the tollgate [freeways don't have tollgates, but why stop now?], I'm going to know what kind of chrome you've got, deluxe or cheap, what your license number is, what kind of hubcaps you've got. I may even get close enough to lean over and see what it says on your speedometer. And if you break down, I'm not going to stop and help you. I'm not even going to wave."
In other words, the race is on.