Aside from their usually puny stolen-base totals and habitually disappointing finishes in the American League West, the Minnesota Twins are best known for:
•Leading the league in guys who go ice-fishing in the off-season;
•Playing in an acutely blue, oversized dish cover out of which baseballs fly like homesick angels;
•Having a press guide whose most important feature is its pronunciation key (See: Gaetti—Guy-ETT-ee; Hrbek—Her-bek; Lombardozzi—Lahm-bar-DOAZ-ee).
One of the Twins' better-kept secrets is that they are the division-leading Minnesota Twins. Despite all you've heard about the Royals' regal arms and Oakland's slugging prodigies, K.C., the Athletics and the Angels are all chasing the Twinkies in the AL West.
What gives? The off-season bullpen additions of Jeff Reardon from the Expos and Juan Berenguer from the Giants, plus the acquisition of eccentric leadoff hitter Dan Gladden, all acquired by a precocious new G.M. and handled by a refreshing new manager—that's what gives.
True to the tradition of Harmon Killebrew, the Twins are among the league's top home run producers (118 through Sunday, tied for fifth in the AL). However, they have usually found it difficult to do anything else. After the hopelessly overworked arms of Frank Viola and Bert Blyleven, the Twins have been notoriously pitching-poor. They were also dependably slow on the bases and low in the standings. But this year, to their surprise and delight, Minnesotans are seeing hit-and-run plays, stolen bases and starters who are pitching less and enjoying it more.
Just before the All-Star break, the visitors from the Land of 10,000 Lakes completed an eastern swing through the Bronx and Baltimore. The worldly patrons of Yankee and Memorial stadiums, when asked to name a Twin, any Twin, responded most frequently with A) "Kirby Puckett" and B) "Whatshisname—that first baseman they got."
Indeed, centerfielder and human-fire-hydrant Puckett carried the Twins early this season, and his .332 batting average is fourth-best in the league. As for Whatshisname—Horseback? Oh yes, Hrbek—well, Kent has 23 dingers and might be the best-fielding 250-pound first baseman in history.
Other than that, the Twins' anonymity is well-deserved. First of all, Minnesota is up there somewhere, over Iowa but under Manitoba. "Back East," says designated hitter Roy Smalley, whose daughters, Laura and Catherine, are, yes, twins, "people assume Minnesota is all tundra. But it's gorgeous." Moreover, Minnesota hasn't won its division since 1970 or a pennant since '65.
Last Sept. 12 the Twins were plodding along 20½ games out of first when owner Carl Pohlad, a hard-boiled banking czar, decided he had had enough and axed manager Ray Miller. To finish the season, Pohlad made Tom Kelly, 36, the youngest skipper in the majors. However, Kelly did have 15 years of minor league experience.
Suddenly the Twins were a different team. Despite nonexistent relief pitching, Kelly's heroes played over .500 but not over their heads. Where Miller had been distant and tended to punish players by sitting them for long periods, Kelly will play a guy through a slump. "Night and day" is Hrbek's description of the difference in managers. When it came time to select a full-time skipper, Twins brass made a show of bandying about such heavyweight names as Jim Frey and Billy Martin—then announced they were sticking with Kelly.
Before the opener of that recent Yankee series, Kelly was mildly out of sorts in the clubhouse. Bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek had omitted Kelly's name from the list of people throwing batting practice. "They don't think I should be doing it, but I enjoy doing it," he said. Unlike Miller, Kelly doesn't spend much time in his office. He would rather be looking over the shoulders of the gin-rummy players, telling them what and what not to discard.
With no BP, Kelly had to content himself with rapping a few fungoes at his eight-year-old, Tommy, who was in uniform this day. Last year Tommy got a standing ovation before a game in Baltimore for a series of sparkling catches in the outfield. As they played pepper, Kelly Sr. chatted about the team.
"Mr. MacPhail and I have an agreement. He gets the players and I get the most out of 'em—Tommy, that should have been a backhander."
Pohlad made Andy MacPhail the Twins G.M. last November. At 34, MacPhail is the youngest G.M. in the bigs, but his baseball bloodlines are exquisite. His father, Lee, once a G.M. for the Yankees and Orioles, retired as American League president in 1983. His grandfather Larry, a volatile, controversial executive, pioneered night baseball as G.M. of the Cincinnati Reds in 1935, and is in the Hall of Fame. MacPhail made the deals for Reardon, Berenguer and Gladden, and he pushed hard for Kelly as manager.
"Handing the reins to the youngest G.M. and the youngest manager in the game—that took some courage," says Kelly. "Keep your feet apart, Tommy. And use two hands!"
Just then, Yankees pitching coach Jeff Torborg walked past the Kellys on his way to the outfield. "You got a righty and I got a lefty," said Torborg, commenting on the vagaries of genetics (Torborg throws righthanded, Kelly left). "Figure it out."
Less mysterious is how, at week's end, the Twins were 12 games better than last year. The difference has been the bullpen. After 93 games last season, Twins starters had pitched 21 complete games. After as many games in 1987, that number was 10. Following a complete-game win over the Yankees July 6, Viola said, "I almost forgot what it was like to pitch in the ninth."
That's not to say there haven't been some spectacular failures. A string of catastrophic outings early in the season bloated Reardon's ERA to 10.80. In one particularly sorry four-game stretch, Reardon blew three of four save opportunities by allowing the tying run to score. Instead of the Terminator, his old nickname, he began to be called the Equalizer. Since June 6, however, Reardon is 3-0 with nine saves.
In the second game of the Yankee series, after New York had whittled a 7-0 Twins lead to 7-6, Berenguer gave up the tying run, then, on two consecutive wild pitches, the winning run. Kelly, who believes in getting his men right back in the saddle, summoned Berenguer again the next day, and Calamity Juan threw 33 pitches. Only 30 stayed in Yankee Stadium. The Twins lost 13-4.
At least they were earned runs. For once, the rap on Minnesota as a roster full of one-dimensional clout specialists doesn't hold water. Puckett is a Gold Glove in center, as is Gary Gaetti at third. Hrbek, to whom Gaetti ought to loan some vowels, fields his position about as well as anyone in the league. And even if they don't hit home runs, Steve Lombardozzi at second and Greg Gagne at short have given the Twins a sharp double-play combination. (How bad were Tim Teufel and Alex Espinoza, the previous Twins tenants at those positions? They were 13th in the league at turning the double dip in 1985.)
Puckett is flanked by Twins old and new: In right, perennial slugger Tom Brunansky is the quintessential example of the Twins' changing of the guard. He has hit 20 homers but has also stolen nine bases. In left, Dan (Wrench) Gladden has replaced Mickey Hatcher, who was released in March. Gladden plays the outfield better than Hatcher ever could and gives the Twins a leadoff hitter. And a hard guy.
"If he played for another team, I'd hate his guts," says Hrbek, who gave Gladden his nickname. Why Wrench? "Because he reminds you of a guy who took four auto-shop classes in high school," says Hrbek. "Dan could strike out four times and somehow get dirty. The guy is a piece of work."
Later, as a dozen Twins watched the Iran-contra hearings before a game, Gladden said, "I've got to get some Ollie North wristbands." Then he looked around belligerently. "You think I'm kidding?"
It was Thursday, the first of a four-game series against Baltimore, and Hrbek had just learned he wouldn't be playing in the All-Star Game. And it hurt. He was also deserving two years ago but was passed over that season as well. This time, Cleveland's Pat Tabler had been selected ahead of him. "Tabler's a good hitter, especially in pressure situations," Kelly said, "but my guy can play circles around him at first."
"If they ask me next year, I'll probably tell 'em to stick it," huffed Hrbek. Normally there is no more affable an athlete than Herbie, as he is called—not because of any physical resemblance to the Volkswagen of the same name. Hrbek, who maintains his zeppelin-like physique during the winter months by ice-fishing and bowling, has another athletic career lined up after baseball: pro wrestling. "It's my dream," he said.
While Herbie was grousing and the Orioles were finishing BP, Blyleven threw balls up onto the net behind the plate. His sons Tim and Tom, five and three, caught them as they fell. Kelly the manager was pitching to Gladden, who amused himself by animatedly calling balls and strikes. Off to the side, Kelly's son was catching for Todd Blyleven, Bert's 14-year-old, who was lollipopping his throws because his catcher was only eight. "C'mon," complained Kelly Jr. "You can throw harder than that."
Yes sir, the air was positively dripping with tension.
"Tom keeps the guys relaxed," said Blyleven, who is a mere eight months younger than the manager. "He tells us to have fun, because we're not going to be playing the game forever. His philosophy is, When you're winning, take the good with the bad. And when you're losing, take the good with the bad."
That night the Twins won 3-1 as Les Straker, a 27-year-old rookie who spent 10 years in the minors, went seven strong innings. Catcher Tim Laudner's three-run shot to left was the game-winner. (Laudner, who had been 25 for 137, with 11 of those 25 hits home runs, has to be the game's most dangerous .194 hitter.) Reardon entered the game with one out in the eighth, men on second and third, and struck out Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray to kill the threat.
Pulling away from the ballpark, Ron Pearson, a Baltimore cabby and a genuinely nice guy, for a cabby, was asked rhetorically, "How 'bout those Twins!" Pearson perked right up. "They got that Bo Jackson, right? How's he doing?"
Never mind, Ron. Just make it to the airport. The tundra beckons.