It was a foolish move. by the time Minnesota Twins third baseman Gary Gaetti stepped to the plate on Friday night with two down in the top of the ninth, the Twins had a 9-5 lead over the Oakland Athletics in the opener of a four-game series between the two top teams in the American League West. But then Oakland reliever Eric Plunk threw a fastball that breezed beneath Gaetti's chin. Two pitches later Gaetti hit a towering two-run blast over the leftfield wall in Oakland Alameda County Coliseum, and the Twins won 11-5.
As soon as the game ended, A's manager Tony La Russa summoned Plunk to his office. "That's one person you don't brush back," La Russa told his young pitcher. "First of all, you never want to stir him up—he stirs that whole team. Second, give him his due respect. Gaetti plays the way the game should be played."
The Twins had been stirred all right, and they ended up winning three of four games from the A's, including an 11-0, 5-0 sweep of a Sunday doubleheader. which left a sellout crowd of 43,154 stunned, and sliced the Athletics' once-commanding division lead of 11 games to four. But Plunk could be forgiven his ill-advised move against Gaetti. After all, it has been almost nine months since the Twins, cheered on by Domesful of businessmen and grandmothers from Hibbing to Hutchinson, won the World Series and became one of baseball's most unlikely groups of October heroes. As the new season began, many people took the champs lightly, and there were times when even the Twins themselves had their doubts.
Back in early May, as the A's seemed to be running away with the American League West race, Minnesota manager Tom Kelly said, "I just hope we haven't been eliminated by the time we play them." At that point, the Twins were 11-18 and in last place in the division, 12 games behind first-place Oakland. Things improved slightly, but then the Athletics arrived at the Metrodome on June 3 and won two of three games, leaving Minnesota 10 games out of first. "A lot of people figured we were done for the season," says rightfielder Randy Bush. "But we don't have emotional highs and lows. Tom Kelly doesn't have big games. The sixth game of the World Series wasn't a big game. He says, 'Do the best you can and have fun." And that's what we do."
July 3, 1988
Some people, however, weren't fooled by the Twins' slow start. "They're relentless," says La Russa. "They fell out of first place two times in the second half last year and could have folded. They never did. They don't say much. All they do is earn respect, no matter whether they finish first or not."
So, three weeks after being slapped around at home by the Monster Mashers of the East Bay, the Twins came to Oakland for last weekend's series, one that even Kelly might have admitted was big. Where were they? Only six games out of first, after having won 22 of their last 30 games. The A's, meanwhile, had just dropped 10 of 17 games.
There was a time when it would have sounded ridiculous to put the "big" label on any series in the American League West. "I think there are still people back east who look down on the Western Division, even though I feel things have evened up," says Kelly. "I think the fans think so, too."
At the beginning of the decade, recalls Gaetti, the A's and the Twins were both such poor attractions that they would sometimes draw 10,000 for a weekend series against each other. Last week's three dates pulled in 112,279. Oakland is expecting to set a team record this season by attracting 2.3 to 2.5 million customers, while Minnesota has already sold more than 1.8 million tickets and may hit 2.4 million or better, which would also be a club mark.
At 5 p.m. Friday a crowd of fans in Twins sweatshirts, some carrying Homer Hankies left over from last fall's World Series, had gathered outside the gates in Oakland. "Everywhere we go, there are 10 people in the stands from Apple Valley," said Twins first baseman Kent Hrbek, who was sidelined with a strained right knee.
Inside the stadium, Kelly sat in the dugout, waiting for the game to start. "Be careful, hotfoots are big this week," he warned a reporter. "Last week, it was shaving cream in the phone. The week before that, it was Dan Gladden's laughing box."
"We are a reflection of the manager," says Hrbek. "We play for the man because almost everyone in this room thinks he's the best. He understands us and how to get us to play hard every day."
"This team is different than any I've been around," adds reliever Jeff Reardon. "We play hard, we have fun. Sort of like a hockey team. Just watch [Kirby] Puckett, Gladden, Gaetti, Hrbek and the rest of those guys go at it every night. And that's all the manager asks. I come in with the bases loaded, he hands me the ball and just says, 'Do the best you can, have some fun,' and walks away. There have been some rough moments this year, but he's never wavered."
It was rough earlier in the season primarily because three members of the 10-man pitching staff" were senior citizens. But that was before the Twins released Steve Carlton, Joe Niekro and Tippy Martinez and worked young lefthander Allan Anderson and former Montreal Expo righthander Charlie Lea—who has finally recovered from the shoulder surgery he underwent in 1985—into the rotation. Meanwhile, the bullpen began to gel around Reardon, who through last weekend had been successful in 15 straight save opportunities and, with 20 saves in all, was second in the league behind Oakland's Dennis Eckersley, who had 23.
A particularly rough moment came on April 22 when the Twins traded rightfielder Tom Brunansky to the St. Louis Cardinals for second baseman Tommy Herr. The deal was unpopular with the Minnesota players because Brunansky had been one of them since 1982 and had hit .259 with 32 homers and 85 RBIs last year. Things got even worse when Herr arrived in the Twin Cities. "The first thing he said was that he didn't like it here and wanted to go back to the National League at the end of the season," says one Minnesota player. "If they're so much better where he came from, how come they've lost the World Series four of the last five years? Now, he's pulled a muscle and says he can't play."
Herr is something of a loner, and he had trouble fitting in with the Twins, who believe in togetherness. This is a team on which two of the biggest stars, Gaetti and Hrbek, still share a room on road trips, even though on most teams players of their stature have provisions for single rooms written into their contracts. "Kent was one of the first guys I met in pro ball," says Gaetti, who first played with Hrbek on the Elizabethton (Tenn.) Twins in the Appalachian League in 1979. "This big load came into the room and bellowed, 'I'm Herbie.' Except for one year in the minors, we've been together ever since."
During spring training in 1981, Gaetti and Hrbek roomed above Kelly, who was then manager of the Class AA Orlando Twins, in a Melbourne, Fla., motel. Late one night Kelly thought his roof was falling in. "I knocked on their door and called for a timeout," says Kelly. "They'd had a few beers and were playing pro wrestling. The next day I held them after practice and hit them ground balls for hours. They were dying, but they would never give in."
Kelly hates to see Gaetti out of the lineup, "because he is so intense he spends most of his time screaming at the other team." Gaetti is also well-read and active politically. He often wears a button on his cap supporting the families of Vietnam MIAs and POWs, a cause he says he became fervently involved in "after seeing a couple of movies and reading several books on the subject and realizing how tragic it is for the families that still don't know if their husbands and fathers are alive."
Hrbek remains good ol' Herbie. When busloads of Minnesota fans showed up at the Twins' hotel in Kansas City in late May, Hrbek sat in the bar and drank beers with them. He, too, is unhappy when he's out of the lineup. "I can't stand watching baseball," he said before Friday's game. "I've got to play. But the way I feel right now, if I were a horse, they'd shoot me."
"What do you mean, 'if you were a horse'? " said Bush.
Though Kelly and La Russa played down the significance of last weekend's series, they lined up their rotations so that the league's winningest pitcher, Minnesota's Frank Viola, 11-2 coming into the series, would go against Oakland's Dave Stewart, who was tied for second in wins with a 10-5 record, in the final game of the doubleheader Sunday. "Some managers would split up the aces," said La Russa. "But that's not the way we go at one another."
The Twins also went at the A's with Bush, who in Hrbek's absence was batting cleanup. Kelly predicted that his guys would "have some fun with that," and he was right. With two out in the top of the first on Friday, Puckett singled and up stepped Bush.
"Is the manager trying to win this game?" one Twin hollered.
"Who is the manager?" someone else yelled.
"Stop Bush, he must be hitting out of turn," shouted Hrbek.
The Athletics took a 5-0 lead in the fourth and knocked starter Bert Blyleven out of the game. Enter Gaetti, who led off the fifth with a long homer off A's starter Storm Davis. Four batters later, shortstop Greg Gagne, who as of Sunday was hitting .319 in June, clubbed a two-run homer to leftfield, and the Twins were back in the game.
Gaetti singled in another run in the sixth, making the score 5-4. Then, in the eighth, Bush homered to right and it was 5-5. The following inning, Oakland reliever Rick Honeycutt did almost everything wrong. He gave up a double, threw to the wrong base, hit a batter, walked another, balked and threw a wild pitch. So by the time Plunk came in and gave up Gaetti's second homer, the game was long over.
On Saturday, Kelly arrived at the park at 8 a.m. and later that morning greeted 28-year-old rookie infielder Kelvin Torve, who had been called up from the Triple A Portland Beavers after seven-plus years in the minors to replace Herr, who had been put on the 15-day disabled list. "I'm finally in the pros," Torve told equipment manager Jim Wiesner, who introduced him to Kelly. "Have fun," Kelly told Torve. "You've worked hard to be here, so make sure you enjoy every minute of it."
Saturday's game was "showtime," as Gaetti later described it. A's rightfielder Jose Canseco singled in a run against Anderson in the first for a 1-0 Oakland lead. Puckett and Bush knocked in runs off A's starter Bob Welch in the third. In the bottom of the inning, the Twins made two errors, and when Anderson didn't get a fastball far enough inside to Canseco, the American League home run leader crushed his 19th of the season. Puckett hit what looked like a sure two-run homer in the fifth, but A's centerfielder David Henderson snared the ball off the top of the wall. In the sixth, Puckett made a brilliant running catch of a Canseco fly ball, and Canseco riposted with a sliding catch of a Gagne Texas-leaguer to short rightfield.
Oakland led 4-2 with two on in the eighth when Eckersley came in to face Gaetti. The Twins had collected some balls that Eckersley had supposedly scuffed with sandpaper, and when the Eck touched his cap before the first pitch, Gaetti stepped out. "Were you thinking about asking for the ball?" a writer later asked Gaetti.
"He's too good for that crap and so are we," Gaetti replied. "If he gets me out, it's because he's good."
Eckersley got him out, but only when Henderson chased down his 400-foot fly ball at the warning track. A Gene Larkin double cut the Oakland lead to 4-3, and with the bases loaded and two out, Kelly decided to pinch-hit the lefthand-hitting Torve for Gagne against Eckersley, who is death on righthanded batters. "Go up there, do the best you can and have some fun," Kelly told the stunned Torve.
Torve struck out on four pitches, and Eckersley had another save. "I don't like to say this in June, but that was a big win for us," said Athletics third baseman Carney Lansford.
The Twins were hardly daunted by the loss. Gladden hit Curt Young's first pitch of Sunday's doubleheader over the leftfield fence, the fifth time this season he has started off a game with a homer. Lea shut out the A's for six innings—he now had allowed only two runs in his last three starts—as Minnesota pounded out 15 hits. The Twins added 13 hits in the second game to complete the sweep.
Gaetti had a three-run homer and two singles in the first game of the doubleheader, and his series totals were three homers, three singles, eight RBIs and four warning-track shots. "With all due respect," said La Russa, "I'm sick of watching him."
But the onrushing Twins found Gaetti's performance only too stirring.