Chicago's springtime winds swirled wildly last Friday night at
Comiskey Park. A minicyclone picked up Dunkin' Donuts napkins and
Big Ed's Super Saucer wrappers as it toured the stadium,
counterclockwise, depositing the litter in the visitors' dugout
on the first base side. The visitors didn't care. They stood in
the trash and bellowed cheerfully into the wind, untrained in the
ways of big league cool.
The visitors were the Minnesota Twins, losers of 93 games last
year, the bottom-feeders of the American League Central who
finished 26 games behind the first-place Chicago White Sox. This
year--three weeks into the season anyway--they're baseball's most
surprising team. They swept three from the White Sox over the
weekend, to go 6-0 against Chicago. The Twins were 14-3 in your
Monday-morning paper, the best record in baseball. Can you say,
"Worst to first?"
"Who would have thunk it?" says utilityman Denny Hocking, who has
played for Minnesota since 1993, a period in which the Twins
haven't had a winning season. The answer to his question is,
Nobody. At least no sober person would have thought Minnesota
could get off to this kind of start.
The Twins themselves admit that .500 ball in the first few weeks
would have been a worthy goal. For this is a financially
malnourished club, which plays its home games before a looming
sea of empty blue plastic seats. For nearly a decade Minnesota
has had little to entice even the most pedestrian free agents,
except the promise of lakeside living. This past off-season the
Twins' biggest winter acquisition was veteran backup catcher Tom
Prince and his .203 career batting average.
Oh, this is a modest team, all right, with the lowest payroll in
baseball by far, averaging less than $1 million per player, one
quarter of what the New York Yankees pay theirs. The most famous
person on the team is Paul Molitor. Molitor, a lifetime .306
hitter and St. Paul native, is now a coach. The second most
famous person is Tom Kelly. He's the manager, the man who
skippered the Twins to World Series wins in 1987 and '91. (The
following year was their last winning season.) The most famous
player on the team is Brad Radke, a 28-year-old righthander and
a career Twin with a lifetime 78-84 record and a 4.32 ERA coming
into this season. You may remember that he pitched an inning in
the '98 All-Star Game.
Minnesota has a group of modest players, by nature and by
accomplishment. They play a modest style of baseball, little
ball, in which little things are done properly and every base hit
counts. And they've been playing little ball very well. "If you
score four runs, you got a chance to be in the game, if you pitch
good," says Kelly, an expert in little ball.
He has a foursome of starters who can win games without gaudy
run support. Radke, who went 20-10 in 1997, was 4-0 with a 2.23
ERA through Sunday. He's one of the best control pitchers in
baseball, and when a home plate umpire has a consistent and
generous strike zone, Radke can be downright devastating. Last
Friday night, with C.B. Bucknor behind the plate, Radke threw
strike after strike for nine innings, and the Twins won 4-1.
Lefthander Eric Milton was the winner of Saturday's matinee, a
4-3, two-hour-and-15-minute game that was decided by a classic
little-ball play. Milton's 25, a former first-round Yankees
draft choice, and after Saturday's victory he was 3-0 with a
3.12 ERA. He has a wicked fastball, the insignia of the Yankees
(a team for which he never pitched) tattooed on his left
shoulder blade and an M for Minnesota (a team that has signed
him through 2004) tattooed on his right arm. The Twins also have
a talented righthander in Joe Mays and a promising lefthander in
Mark Redman. Righty, lefty, righty, lefty. Opposing managers
can't go on cruise control for a series when filling out lineup
cards against this club.
One more thing about the pitchers: They throw strikes because
they know how to throw strikes and because they have fielders
who can catch the ball. There isn't a sinkhole anywhere in the
Twins defense, and their every-day outfield is among the best
defensively in baseball. Rightfielder Matt Lawton has a decent
arm and range. Torii Hunter, the most acrobatic American League
centerfielder east of Seattle's Mike Cameron, makes an error
every two months. Jacque Jones, playing his home games in that
hermetically sealed dinginess called the Metrodome, under the
weirdest, whitest leftfield lighting in baseball, was ranked
fourth defensively last year among American League outfielders,
with a .994 fielding percentage and only two errors in 345
Still, if Minnesota is so good, why did nobody see this sort of
start coming? Maybe because the Twins were so bad last year, and
they started this season with the same rotation and eight of the
same every-day players they had at the end of 2000. Maybe because
they were 10-19 the last month of the 2000 season. Anything in
all that suggest a 14-3 start to you?
Well, amid all that losing were a few signs of baseball life. In
late September, Minnesota traveled to Cleveland for a four-game
series. The Indians were fighting for a wild-card berth. Their
house was packed and charged. The Twins won two, each by a score
of 4-3, by doing the little things right and helped keep
Cleveland out of the playoffs for the first time in six seasons.
"That series, it felt like we had nothing to lose, and we played
with a lot of fun and a lot of energy," says Lawton. "That has
carried over to this year. That's how we feel now--that we have
nothing to lose."
Then there was the season finale, at Detroit on Oct. 1, and
Kelly's impassioned clubhouse speech before the start of it. At
that point Kelly didn't know if he would be back for a 16th
season at the helm. He'd only recently turned 50, but he looked
and sounded like one of baseball's grizzled and worn old men. He
told his players they were done with their on-the-job training,
that they had good habits and good attitudes but the time had
come to play like established major leaguers. They would achieve
that by making every swing and every pitch and every catch and
every throw meaningful. "Maybe they were listening," Kelly says.
"It's hard to know."
According to the players, they were listening. "What I got from
that meeting," says Jones, one of seven players in the lineup 26
or younger, "is that we've got experience now and that it was
time for us to start playing, that we shouldn't use inexperience
as a crutch anymore."
Then came spring training, with Kelly back on a one-year
contract. He emphasized baserunning and put Molitor, once a great
base runner, in charge of teaching it. Molitor and others in the
organization believe that improved baserunning has played a key
role in turning losses into victories. "When I was in Little
League, coaches talked about leaning into first with your chest,
like a sprinter into the tape, to get close calls," Hocking says.
"I didn't hear it again until spring training this year, from a
future Hall of Famer."
"That's the kind of baseball I enjoy," says Molitor. "That's
real baseball. What we emphasized in spring training were
baserunning fundamentals and that the only baserunning mistake
is to be afraid to try to take the base." The Twins won on
Saturday when Hocking beat out an eighth-inning fielder's choice
with a chest-lean, driving in the winning score in a one-run game.
One amazing thing about Minnesota was its record as of Sunday
against lefthanded starters: 5-0. The hitters in the heart of
the order--Lawton (.226), third baseman Corey Koskie (.355) and
DH David Ortiz (.389)--are all lefthanded. Another amazing
thing: Speedy shortstop Cristian Guzman was second in the
American League in extra-base hits, with 13, including five
triples. Nobody expects the Twins to be among the home run
leaders, but they already had 21, good for fifth in the league.
In his first 762 major league at bats, the 25-year-old Ortiz had
only 20 dingers; he had five in just 54 at bats this season,
including one in the 4-2 victory on Sunday.
Are the Twins for real? They've played only three teams so far,
the Tigers, the Royals and the White Sox. All that's left is May,
June, July, August, September and, Minnesota hopes, October. "How
do they say that, 'One day at a time?'" says Hector Carrasco, a
Dominican-born reliever who won on Sunday to lift his record to
2-0. "We have hunger, and we have pitching."
One Twins' pitcher, righthander LaTroy Hawkins, was once a
promising starter and is now a promising closer. He has been
shaky at times, but he hasn't blown a save yet. On Saturday he
had his first one-two-three inning of the year, and on Sunday he
got his fifth save of the season. "I'm getting comfortable with
the term closer," Hawkins says. "It's kind of snuck up on me, but
now I like it."
For several years Minnesota general manager Terry Ryan wondered
about the wisdom of spending money on a free-agent closer when
there were few meaningful games to save. Now, it turns out, he
has found homegrown talent in the bullpen, as he has found
homegrown talent at most every other position. Rick Stelmaszek,
the bullpen coach, has been with the Twins for 21 years. No
current coach or player has been with Minnesota longer. He says
this year's club reminds him of the 1987 Twins, a bunch of
unassuming kids who found their games all at once.
"I'm not saying what kind of team we've got here," Stelmaszek
says. "Way too early for that. But I've got two of those rings,
and I'd like to have another."