Ten minutes after the Minnesota Twins had extended their winning streak to 15 games on Sunday with a 4-2 win over the Indians in Cleveland, Twins backup catcher Junior Ortiz sat in the whirlpool and breathed a sigh of relief. In a smiling reprise of Lou Gehrig's famous line, Ortiz said, "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." Minnesota had gone 14-0 with Ortiz on the disabled list; Sunday's game was his first one back on the active roster. "If we had lost today," continued Ortiz, "the guys would have beat the hell out of me. I was afraid to jinx us. I thought I was the only way we could lose."
No, Junior, not even you could stop the rampaging Twins. Their weekend sweep of Cleveland gave them sole possession of first place in the American League West for the first time since the final day of the 1987 season, the year they won the World Series. As of Sunday, Minnesota had trailed its opponents for a total of only eight innings during the streak. Its 15 consecutive victories were only four short of the American League record (last achieved in 1947 by the New York Yankees) and represented the longest winning streak in the majors since the Kansas City Royals won 16 straight in '77. "Now that I'm off the hook," said Ortiz, "I hope we win 40 in a row."
Nothing seems impossible in the year of the streak in the American League West. The division's teams (all seven of which have spent time in first place this year) have produced 11 winning streaks of at least five games, compared with nine such streaks by the major leagues' three other divisions combined. With the Texas Rangers having won 14 straight in May, this is the first season since 1906 that the American League has had two winning streaks of that length.
"Fifteen straight," said first baseman Kent Hrbek after the Twins had escaped a bases-loaded jam in the eighth inning on Sunday and then scored twice in the 10th to beat the Indians. "I can't beat my wife in pool 15 straight times."
June 23, 1991
Some might argue that Jeanie Hrbek provides tougher opposition than the teams Minnesota had been beating. Over the streak's two weeks, the Twins had played only the Indians, the Baltimore Orioles, the Royals and the Yankees, four of the league's worst clubs. Cleveland alone provided seven of the 15 wins. "Let 'em [the critics] talk," says Minnesota pitcher Jack Morris. "They're all major league teams. Everyone plays 'em."
There's a difference between the Twins' streak and the Rangers'. Texas won with a white-hot run of hitting and a healthy dose of divine intervention—and then lost 11 of 12 games after its bats cooled down and its shaky pitching was exposed. Minnesota, however, fashioned its streak with a combination of standout defense, hitting (.300 average) and pitching (2.17 ERA). "We won some real tough, close games," says Twins infielder Al Newman. "I think this team is, overall, much better than the '87 team."
The 1991 version doesn't have the firepower of the '87 Twins, but the starting rotation, the deep bullpen led by closer Rick Aguilera, and the defense are making believers out of the many skeptics who picked Minnesota to finish last, which is where it ended up last season. "The Twins are good; they'll be a factor all year," says Toronto Blue Jay scout Gordon Lakey. Says Cleveland pitching coach Mark Wiley, who should know, "They're near the top of the league in hitting and pitching, and their defense is so underrated. If they stay healthy, they're in good shape."
The Twins were in bad shape the first two weeks of the season. On April 21, they were 2-9. That day, 23-year-old righthander Scott Erickson, who was 0-2, beat the California Angels 4-3. Through Sunday, he had won a single-season club-record 10 straight decisions, and the Twins had gone 36-16 during that span. Since Sept. 1, 1990, Erickson has been the majors' best pitcher, going 15-2 with a 1.52 ERA. Those staggering stats don't impress Erickson. "What good will they do me in my next start?" he says.
If Erickson is not easily impressed, he's not easily daunted, either. When he was a sophomore at Homestead High in Cupertino, Calif., friends persuaded him to go out for football, even though the season was half over. "I'd never played football in my life," says Erickson. "I practiced Monday and started Friday. But I'd watched a lot of football on TV."
As a linebacker and tight end, Erickson got several college scholarship offers; as a pitcher who went 3-6 his senior year, he got none. The New York Mets drafted him in the 36th round in 1986, but he decided to play for San Jose City College. He was drafted in the 34th round by the Houston Astros in '87 and in the 44th by Toronto in '88, but he declined to sign each time. In the fall of '88, Erickson enrolled at Arizona, where he set the Wildcats' single-season record for wins, with 18. He did it, however, with a fastball clocked at only 84 mph—supposedly a symptom of overwork. "No," he says, "I was just lifting [weights] so much."
The Twins took Erickson in the fourth round of the 1989 draft. "I thought I should have gone in the second round," Erickson says. "I took it as a challenge."
A month after joining the Class A Visalia (Calif.) Oaks, he stopped lifting weights and his velocity jumped to 92 mph. He went 8-3 in 1990 in the Double A Southern League before earning a promotion to Minnesota on June 21. "I was shocked," he says. He has since proceeded to shock a few others. This season, Erickson's darting, diving, 90-plus mph fastball has eaten up hitters. "They have no idea where his ball is going," says one scout. "But he knows."
"He's the Big E," says Minnesota outfielder Kirby Puckett, who has also dubbed Erickson "Superman" because of his resemblance to actor Christopher Reeve. "He's a throwback," says Puckett. "Nothing fancy. He just goes out there and does it." Hrbek says he has even more confidence in Erickson than he had in Frank Viola, who won the Cy Young Award as a Twin in 1988.
Says Morris, "I've seen a lot of talented players who don't do anything in baseball because they don't have heart. Scott has heart. You can teach fundamentals and you can teach mechanics, but you can't teach heart. He's intense."
Intense? "On days he pitches," says Puckett, "no one goes near the guy." Indeed, Erickson sits alone at the end of the bench between innings, deep in concentration. "I've got four other days to look in the stands during games," he says.
Ortiz, Erickson's personal catcher, says, "I'm the only one who can talk to him between innings."
Erickson's silent routine isn't his only ritual. On the days he pitches at home, he always eats spaghetti at a restaurant near the Metrodome called Grandma's. "My mom used to make spaghetti before every game I pitched," he says.
In uniform, Erickson always pulls the stirrups of his outer socks down into his spikes, leaving no visible trace of his white sanitary socks. He looks as if he's wearing dress socks and shoes. "The socks are a sore subject," says Puckett. "He'll kill you if you make fun of his socks."
Ericksonian fashion is best described as basic black. "I feel more comfortable in black," he says. "I've always felt that way." His glove is black. His baseball shoes must be totally black. He used to wear Nike spikes, but they came with white stripes, which he would polish black. Now he wears Mizunos because they're specially made for him without the usual white stripes. The word MIZUNO is printed in white on the shoe tongue, but he covers the name with black polish. On the days he pitches—but only on those days—he wears black street clothes to the park. Minnesota pitcher Kevin Tapani calls Erickson's turn in the rotation "the Day of Death."
The man best acquainted with Erickson's idiosyncrasies is designated hitter Chili Davis. "He's one of a kind," says Davis. "Just like me."
Davis and Erickson, two of the few unmarried players among the Twins, share an apartment in Minneapolis, and it's currently the most productive pad in town. Erickson is the favorite to start for the American League in the All-Star Game, and Davis has emerged as this season's best free-agent catch.
The Twins became desperate for another bat when third baseman Gary Gaetti signed with California on Jan. 24. Davis, 31, had been virtually ignored on the free-agent market until Jan. 29, when budget-conscious Minnesota parted with enough money to sign him to a one-year contract (with an option year) worth $1.7 million. At week's end, Davis had 14 homers—two more than in all of 1990—and a team-high 41 RBIs.
"The Angels [for whom Davis played from 1988 through '90] put the word out that I was damaged goods," says Davis, who takes daily treatment for a back injury he suffered last year. "Then they said they couldn't find me in the off-season to check on my health. I have a phone. I have an address. They had me in a hole; no one was interested in picking me up. I wanted to stay near home [in Anaheim Hills, Calif.], but the Twins were five times more interested in me than the Angels. It's a good environment here. Everyone carries the load."
The sharing of the load was much in evidence against the Indians last weekend. On Saturday night, Minnesota fell behind 5-1 after two innings. But Twins rookie third baseman Scott Leius tripled his season RBI total by driving in four runs to spark an 11-7 victory. Rookie Paul Abbott, who replaced starter Mark Guthrie in the second inning, threw 6‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® standout relief innings to get the win. On Sunday, Puckett's homer in the sixth off Greg Swindell tied the score at 1-1. Switch-hitter Newman, batting .111 righthanded at the time, singled off Swindell for a 2-1 lead in the seventh. Minnesota won the game in the 10th after Newman scored on Davis's sacrifice fly.
A big part of the Twins' load has been carried by Morris, 36, a St. Paul native who returned home when he signed a three-year, $7 million contract in February. At week's end Morris was 8-5, but in his last seven starts he had won six games with a 1.86 ERA. "I'm rejuvenated," says Morris, who started every Opening Day for the Detroit Tigers from 1980 through '90. "Without sounding like Mr. Negative, I don't think they ever knew me in Detroit, or recognized what I accomplished."
Morris went 15-18 with a 4.51 ERA last year, but he pitched well over the final three months. Twins pitching coach Dick Such says that Tiger pitching coach Billy Muffett told him this spring, "If Jack had had defense behind him last year, he would have won 20 games." Detroit made 31 errors while Morris was on the mound in 1990; as of Sunday, Minnesota had committed only two miscues with Morris on the mound.
"We needed a guy like Jack," says Twins manager Tom Kelly. "The last couple years here, one pitcher would look at another and say, 'How about you taking care of it today?' The other would say, 'How about you taking care of it?' Jack takes care of it. He takes pressure off Erickson, Tapani, the young guys."
Morris and Davis have added a veteran presence to a clubhouse that has a blend of old and young, quiet and loud. Morris, who dresses next to Erickson for home games, is essentially teaching him the game. Catcher Brian Harper, 31, is with his 15th team in 15 years as a pro. Rookie second baseman Chuck Knoblauch looks about 15 years old, but he has been a steady performer. Pitchers Carl Willis and Terry Leach never say a word. Ortiz, who entertains teammates and the press each day, never shuts up. A few years ago Ortiz, whom Kelly calls "the brains of the operation," had a T-shirt made for himself that read I CAN'T HIT, I CAN'T CATCH, I CAN'T THROW, I CAN'T RUN, SO WHAT AM I DOING HERE? His opinion of his worth has apparently changed; he recently insisted that he was the best catcher in baseball other than Johnny Bench—"but he's retired, I think."
The one subject Ortiz and all the other Twins leave alone is the streak. "No one even talks about it," says outfielder Gene Larkin. Says Puckett, "Most teams would be jumping up and down. Not us. We know this game can humble you."
Harper gives credit to Kelly, 41, who has the ability to be friends with his players—they call him TK—without letting them forget who's boss. Says Harper, "I've been with a lot of teams, including the [National League champion] '85 Cardinals, but I've never seen a team with a better makeup than this one. You will never see a Twins team that doesn't hustle. It's all part of TK's philosophy. All he asks is that we play hard three hours every night. I've been with teams where you had to mope around for 15 minutes after every loss just to show that you love the game. TK's attitude is completely the opposite. Win or lose, it's the same attitude in here."
But only after victories do the Twins receive presents. Following consecutive win No. 12, Hrbek awarded cheap sunglasses to every player as a prize for winning that night. "We're always getting gifts," says Newman. "One night everybody got those rabbit ears you put on the TV. We're definitely an incentive-based team."
Perhaps the streak will provide some incentive to Minnesota fans to come watch their team play. Through 35 home dates, the Twins were averaging only 17,881 people at the Metrodome, less than half their average attendance in 1988. Kelly, for one, has seen signs of renewed interest in the Twin Cities. A few hours before the game on June 12, the phone rang in his office.
"It was some lady," he says. "She said, 'Now, I'm just a fan, but I'm coming to the game and I have one request: Please play [outfielder] Shane Mack tonight.' Can you believe it? We're getting requests. That's what this has come to."