Twins First “Game 7″: 48 Years Ago

It was October 14, 1965.

It was Game 7 of the 1965 World Series and the Los Angeles Dodgers sent Sandy Koufax to the mound to face the Minnesota Twins and Jim Kaat. Both pitchers were starting on two days’ rest.

That’s right. TWO days’s rest. The two pitchers had faced one another in Game 5 in Los Angeles.

Thanks to Jesse Lund of Twinkietown.com, I spent my late afternoon and early evening thoroughly enjoying a walk down memory lane while watching the video below. It’s the 1965 Game 7 in its entirety.

Ray Scott, who was one of the voices who brought the Twins in to my room so many nights as a child through the magic of a transistor radio, had the play-by-play of the first four and a half innings and Vin Scully took it from there. Scott returned for the bottom of the ninth as Scully made the trek to the Dodgers clubhouse for the postgame interviews. (You don’t want to miss his interview of Koufax after the game near the end of the video.)

A few interesting things I noticed as I watched that brought back so many memories of the games from my childhood. Some are things you certainly don’t see or hear any more, others are just interesting given the context of the times:

  • The voice of Twins PA announcer Bob Casey and the sound of jets flying low overhead at Metropolitan Stadium
  • “Around the horn” that features every infielder, including the catcher, involved.
  • Scott mentioning that Tony Oliva was not wearing a glove when he batted. Today, broadcasters mention that occasionally when the rare player comes to the plate without batting gloves. In Oliva’s case, it was notable because Oliva had become one of the first (if not the first) players to wear a glove on one hand when he hit because of his tendency to lose control of the bat and fling it down the first base line or even in to the crowd when he swung. In fact, Oliva would lose his bat twice in Game 7 without the glove.
  • The bats appear so big. Thick handles, with so many players choking up an inch or more.
  • Many players tossed aside their batting helmets once they reached base and just ran the bases wearing their caps.
  • Umpires occasionally would inspect the baseball, but seldom tossed it out. Almost the only outs or foul balls that didn’t get thrown back to the pitcher for continued use were balls hit in to the stands.
  • Check out the height of that pitchers mound. In 1965, the mound supposedly had a height limit of 15 inches. There’s an interesting comment from Dodgers manager Walt Alston about how the Dodgers mound at home had a steeper drop off. In fact, it was rumored that the Dodgers’ mound at the time was closer to 20 inches high. Beginning, I believe, in 1969, the height was reduced to 10 inches maximum and the grade was required to be a uniform 1 inch per foot from the rubber to the front of the mound.
  • The positioning of the umpires. Those guys got right on top of the call. Tony Oliva made a diving catch in the top of the first inning and the umpire ends up standing right in front of where he’s lying on the ground. Base umpires, similarly, are right on top of calls at first and second base.
  • In the top of the second inning, Scott mentions that Kaat does some radio broadcasting work locally during the offseason. Of course Kaat has gone on to a long, successful career in the broadcast booth, which continues today.
  • The mention, early in the game, that Koufax had thrown 336 innings in 1965, striking out 382 and walking just 77. Of course, Koufax would throw over 300 innings again in 1966 (making three times in a four year period) and retire with “arthritis” in his pitching elbow at the ripe old age of 30.
  • Twins Manager Sam Mele had two relief pitchers warming up at the very beginning of the first inning, just in case Kaat got in to early trouble.
  • A mention, when Kaat came to the plate for the first time, that he was “very fast,” and that Mele would occasionally use him as a pinch-runner and that Kaat liked to bunt for a base hit.
  • Al Worthington, the “Twins top reliever” (per Ray Scott), began warming up in the third inning and relieved Kaat with no outs in the fourth. I bet if you had suggested to Mele that he needed to save Worthington to “close” at the end of the game, he’d have thought you were nuts. By the way, it worked. Kaat gave up 2 runs before being relieved and Worthington came in with two on and no outs and didn’t let anyone score. The Twins bullpen shut out the Dodgers for the final six innings.
  • Kaat and other Twins pitchers waited on the mound until the relief pitcher walked in from the bullpen before walking off the mound to the dugout. We know this to be true because there were no commercial breaks during the pitching changes, only between innings.
  • Before the bottom of the third inning, Scott does an NBC promo for the network’s weekend slate of “American Football League” games, which, according to Scott, would be televised, “live, mostly in color.”
  • NBC had instant replay, but it obviously was very limited. There might have been five replays shown the entire game.
  • Finally, as a precursor of what was to come years later, even as a third base coach, Billy Martin couldn’t resist getting in to bit of a rhubarb with the plate umpire during the bottom of the third when he felt Koufax wasn’t coming to a complete stop from the stretch (and Martin was right, by the way).

Those are just a few of the things I found interesting.

For Twins fans of my generation, the video is two and a half hours well spent, despite the result of the game. Just getting to see Oliva and Killebrew at the plate again is pretty special.

For the rest of you, it’s still some history worth seeing one time.

- JC

Don’t Blame “Those Damn Yankees”

The Twins, according to legend, are afraid of the Yankees. And you know what, after some quick post-season exits at the hands of the Yankees, that is a pretty easy narrative to build.  Add in the fact that the Twins have struggled to beat the Yankees in the regular season, despite the Twins having fairly successful regular season teams for most of the 2000’s, and you begin to see how that narrative continues to grow.

Johan Santana

Johan Santana

In the 11 years between 2000 and 2010 the Twins compiled a .537 winning percentage, going 957-826.  During that same span the Twins went 25-57 against the New York Yankees, a .325 winning percentage.  Take out the 77 games against the Yankees and the Twins are 163 games above .500 instead of just 131.  That is a significant bump.  During that same time period the Twins played the Yankees four times in the post-season, managing to win just two games, while losing 12, swept in 2009 and 2010.  That brings the Twins’ 11-year record against the Yankees to 27-69 (.281).  That is bad, almost as bad as the 2003 Detroit Tigers (43-119), the worst team of the last 50 years.

During that same 11-year span the Yankees were 1060-718, only had a losing record against one American League team (Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, 45-54), and won two World Series titles (and losing in the World Series two other times).  So clearly the Yankees were a better team than the Twins over that same time period, but the Yankees’ .596 winning percentage is not so much larger than the Twins’ .537 that you would expect the Twins fail so miserably against the Yankees during the span.

Assuming each team’s regular season winning percentages represented their true talent over those 11 years, the Yankees should have beaten the Twins only about 53% of the time, not the nearly 72% clip they had over that same span.  So what gives?  Why did the Yankees perform so well against the Minnesota Twins, especially in the post season?

For me, it comes down to roster construction, and specifically the postseason pitching rotations, where teams often turn to only their top three or four pitchers.

2003

Game (score, winner) Twins (starting pitcher) Yankees (starting pitcher)
1 (3-1 Twins) Johan Santana Mike Mussina
2 (1-4 Yankees) Brad Radke Andy Pettitte
3 (1-3 Yankees) Kyle Lohse Roger Clemens
4 (1-8 Yankees) Johan Santana David Wells

The Twins, with a lack of depth in their starting rotation chose to go back to their ace on four days of rest, facing elimination in Game 4.  The Yankees, alternatively, felt strong enough to run out David Wells (4.14 ERA, 4.3K/9, essentially a league average pitcher in 2003 despite his 15-7 W/L record) knowing that should they be pushed to a decisive Game 5 they could turn to Mike Mussina, their ace, against Brad Radke (4.49 ERA and a pitch to contact friendly contact rate of 82.2%).

So while you would certainly expect the Twins to score more than 3 runs over their final 3 games in this series, outside of Santana the Twins certainly did not have a rotation that could even dream about keeping up with New York (and remember that the Kyle Lohse of 2003 (4.61 ERA) is a far cry from the pitcher he has been over the past three seasons).

2004 Continue reading

Who will be the Twins’ Opening Day Starter?

With the Twins likely done making moves this winter, and with Spring Training games just around the corner, I thought it would be a good time to put my predictive powers to the test and try and suss-out the Twins’ plan for the Opening Day starter.  With the Twins opening the season at home this year, the Opening Day start has a little more significance than it has the past couple of years when the Twins started the season on the road.  The Twins have not started the year at home since 2009, and the last Twins pitcher to win the Opening Day game at home was Livan Hernandez in 2008 against the Los Angeles Angels.  In fact, the Twins haven’t won an Opening Day game since 2008, working on an 0-4 streak losing 6-1 in 2009 against the Mariners, 6-3 against the Angels in 2010, 11-3 in 2011 against the Blue Jays, and 4-2 a year ago in Camden Yards against the Orioles.  An Opening Day win would be a nice change of pace.

opening day optimism

Since the Twins moved to Minnesota to start the 1961 season, Opening Day starters are just 14-25, with 12 no decisions.  Not exactly a great track record on baseball’s biggest day, but with names like Camilo Pascual, Jim Kaat, Jim Perry, Bert Blyleven, Frank Viola, Brad Radke, and Johan Santana, the Twins’ Opening Day starter has historically been some of the most beloved players in Twins history.

Looking over the current 40-man roster, and some non-roster invites to Spring Training, there are several players who have a shot at being the Opening Day starter.  I’ll rank them from least likely to start to most likely to start on Opening Day.

Rafael Perez  (1% chance to start Opening Day) – Perez was just signed to a Minor League deal with the club a week ago.  He’s spent his entire big league career working out of the bullpen, and has not had a K/9 above 6 since 2008.  He has put up strong ERAs every year except 2009, but with the declining strike out rates and a ballooning walk rate, his ERA has been propped up by an above average strand rate.  Perez has an uphill battle to even make the team as a left-handed reliever, and an even tougher climb into the starting rotation.

Rich Harden (4%) – Like Perez, Harden is with the Twins on a Minor League deal.  Harden has not pitched in the big leagues since 2011, and while he has had a consistently above average strike out rate, he has not been an above average pitcher since 2009.  There is some question as to whether or not Harden’s shoulder can stand up to the high pitch counts associated with starting, so there is a pretty decent chance that if he makes the team at all, the Twins would prefer that he work out of the bullpen to keep him healthy for the entire season.  I like him more than Perez because Harden has a track record as a starting pitcher, and because the Twins are so desperately in need of strike outs, but he is still a long shot to even break camp with the Twins.

Mike Pelfrey (7%) – Pelfrey signed a 1-year deal with the Twins this offseason hoping to rebuild his value coming off of Tommy-John surgery.  Pelfrey is still not a ful year removed from surgery, so there are concerns about his ability to be ready to start the season in the rotation.  Unlike Harden and Perez, if he is healthy, Pelfrey has a guaranteed spot in the rotation.  If I was confident that Pelfrey would be healthy when the Twins break camp I would have him higher, but it is early in camp and I anticipate that he will end up needing an extra few weeks go get all the way up to speed.

Liam Hendriks (10%) – Hendriks is a fringe candidate to make the 25-man roster out of Spring Training, but with questions about health among several of the arms ahead of him on the pecking order, he is likely to be the next man in if any one of the projected five starters are not ready to start the season.  Even a healthy Liam Hendriks is a long shot to take the ball for the Twins on Opening Day as Ron Gardenhire usually likes to reward his veterans.

Kevin Correia (12%) – Poor Kevin Correia has been written off since before the ink was dry on his shiny-new 2-year $10 million dollar contract.  Correia certainly is not the type of pitcher that would typically get the ball on baseball’s biggest stage, but the Twins seem to like his veteran leadership and clubhouse presence, something that went a long way for Carl Pavano (who started back-to-back Openers in 2011 and 2012).  Pavano had almost a year and a half of starts with the Twins under his belt prior to taking the mound on Opening Day, but with no other experienced veterans on the roster, Correia might end up pitching by default.

Kyle Gibson (13%) – The Twins seem dead set on starting the year with Aaron Hicks in center field field despite not having any Major League experience.  If the Twins are trying to build excitement in 2013 and invite fans to buy into the Twins future, Gibson could wind up pitching on Opening Day to help build momentum toward 2014 and beyond.  But like Pelfry, Gibson is coming off of Tommy-John surgery, and unlike Pelfrey, Gibson figures heavily into the Twins future plans, so they are likely to treat him with kid gloves.  The Twins are looking to limit his inning totals in 2013, so putting him on the mound from Day 1 does not do a lot to aid that effort.

Scott Diamond (15%) – After playing the role of savior for the 2012 Twins, Diamond was the overwhelming favorite to take the ball on Opening Day.  If Diamond is healthy he will undoubtedly be pitching on April 1st.  But Diamond had surgery in December to remove some bone chips from his throwing elbow and is reported to be progressing through his rehab slower than anticipated.  There is still an outside chance that Diamond is healthy when the Twins open 2013, but the Twins want Diamond healthy long-term, so if any question marks remain about his health, expect the Twins to take things nice and slow.

Vance Worley (38%) – Vance Worley seems to have become the Twins de facto Opening Day starter because there really is not anyone else with a real shot at keeping him from it.  He has a lot of things working in his favor; he is healthy, he is young and exciting, has a chance to be a long-term part of the Twins ballclub, and he is not Kevin Correia (which is to say he is not old, ineffective, and overpaid).

When the Twins traded away Ben Revere for Worley and Trevor May I would not have though Worley had any shot to pitch on Opening Day, but he seems to be the last man standing.

-ERolfPleiss

Roster Deconstruction

The 25-man roster is not yet set in stone, but if we take a look at the 40-man roster we can get some kind of idea about where the Twins players closest to the Major Leagues come from.

Drafted out of High School (12, 5 pitchers, 7 position players)

Alex Burnett, 12th round 2005 (375 overall); B.J. Hermsen, 6th round 2008 (186); Tyler Robertson, 3rd round 2006 (96); Anthony Swarzak, 2nd round 2004 (61); Michael Tonkin, 30th round 2008 (906); Joe Mauer, 1st round 2001 (1); Brian Dozier, 8th round 2009 (252); Justin Morneau, 3rd round 1999 (89); Chris Parmelee, 1st round 2006 (20); Trevor Plouffe, 1st round 2004 (20); Joe Benson, 2nd round 2006 (64); Aaron Hicks, 1st round 2008 (14)

Unsurprisingly the Twins largest group of players on the 40-man roster come as high school draftees.  There is a fairly good mix of position players and pitchers, though of the pitchers on the list none of them were drafted in the first round, compared to 4 first round position players*.  This makes sense as the arms on this list are all bullpen guys, not a single player there with really dominant stuff.

*Byron Buxton, the Twins most recent 1st round draft pick was just 5 years old when the Twins drafted Justin Morneau in 1999.  Morny has been with the team a long time, it will be interesting to see if the Twins look to move him later this year.

 

Free Agent (10, 7 pitchers, 3 position players)

Jared Burton, 2011; Kevin Correia, 2012; Cole De Vries, 2006 (undrafted out of University of Minnesota); Casey Fien, 2012; Mike Pelfrey, 2012; Caleb Thielbar, 2011; Tim Wood, 2012; Ryan Doumit, 2011; Jamey Carroll, 2011; Josh Willingham, 2011

Likely because the Twins spent so many high draft picks on position players, the Twins have struggled to develop their own pitching and have turned to the free agent market to balance their roster.  As with the high school draftees, none of the arms on this list are particularly dominant, though Burton was a pleasant surprise in 2012.

Trade (6, 4 pitchers, 2 position players)

Scott Diamond, 2011 (Billy Bullock); Pedro Hernandez, 2012 (Francisco Liriano); Eduardo Escobar, 2012 (Liriano); Trevor May, 2012 (Ben Revere); Vance Worley, 2012 (Revere); Drew Butera, 2007 (Luis Castillo)

I listed Scott Diamond as a player acquired via trade, but he originally joined the Twins through the 2010 Rule 5 draft, but when he failed to make the roster out of Spring Training the Twins completed a trade with the Atlanta Braves in order to keep him with the organization.  Of the other names here, only Butera sticks out, only because with his ties to the organization (his father Sal Butera was with the Twins for parts of 6 Minor League and 4 Major League seasons) I often forget that he was not originally drafted by the Twins.

Drafted out of College (4, 3 pitchers, 1 position player)

Brian Duensing, 3rd round 2005 (84); Kyle Gibson, 1st round 2009 (22); Glen Perkins, 1st round 2004 (22); Chris Herrmann, 6th round 2009 (192)

Again, because the Twins were not drafting and developing high school pitching they have used several early round picks on college pitchers in an effort to balance the system.  Of the two 1st rounders here, only Gibson was the Twins 1st overall pick of the draft, Perkins was selected after Trevor Plouffe, with a compensation pick from the Mariners when they signed Eddie Guardado.  In fact, in the 2004 draft the Twins had 3 first round picks and 2 more supplemental round picks, giving them 5 of the first 39 draft picks and 7 of the first 100.  Of those seven picks, Plouffe, Perkins and Anthony Swarzak are all still with the Twins, 9 years later.

International Free Agent (4, 1 pitcher, 3 position players)

Liam Hendriks, 2007; Josmil Pinto, 2006; Daniel Santana, 2008; Oswaldo Arcia, 2008

Pretty young group of players here, but lots of upside with Santana and Arcia cracking MLB’s list of Top 20 Twins prospects.

Waiver (3, 1 pitcher, 2 position players)

Josh Roenicke, 2012 (Rockies); Pedro Florimon, 2011 (Orioles); Darin Mastroianni, 2012 (Blue Jays)

As you’d expect, no superstars in this trio, but two of these guys could be in the starting lineup on Opening Day.

Rule 5 Draft (1, 1 pitcher, 0 position players)

Ryan Pressly, 2012 (Red Sox)

It remains to be seen if Pressly will make the 25-man roster out of Spring Training, though the cards are certainly stacked against him.  If the Twins are going to keep him long term, they’ll need to work out a trade with the Boston Red Sox to keep him in the organization if he is not on the big league roster.

So there you have it, 40 players and their origins within the Twins organization.  With high school draft picks making up the lion’s share of the roster, the Twins amateur scouts seem to know what they’re doing.   That bodes well for the future and  Byron Buxton, Jose Berrios, Travis Harrison and Hudson Boyd, the Twins’ highest drafted high school players in the past two drafts.

-ERolfPleiss

All player information obtained from Baseball-Reference.  If I’ve listed any player origins incorrectly, please let me know.

Minnesota Twins Podcast – Talk to Contact – Episode 24

Episode 24 of the Twins baseball podcast,  Talk To Contact (@TalkToContact), is now available for download via iTunes or by clicking here.

This week Eric and Paul are joined by long time Twins blogger Cody Christie (@NoDakTwinsFan,www.NoDakTwinsFan.com) to talk about the Twins off-season moves and a look at 2013. Also joining us is MLB Fan Cave applicant, Michael McGivern (@McGive_It_To_me,www.McGiveItToMe.blogspot.com), to discuss his attempt to gain entry to the MLB Fan Cave, why he’s worthy, and his life as a Minnesota Twins fan (you can vote for him here). In addition to the above, the Twins twins also discuss the Anthony Swarzak injury, Jim Perry‘s place in the Twins HOF, prospect Deibinson Romero and a look forward to spring training. Join us for almost 2 hours of half-drunken #MNTwins talk on the Talk To Contact Podcast.

If you enjoy our podcast, please take a couple extra minutes and rate and review us on iTunes (ratings and reviews have magical iTunes powers, which help us bake fluffier cakes.)

You can follow Paul on Twitter (@BaseballPirate) or read his writing at  Puckett’s Pond.

- ERolfPleiss

Minnesota Twins Podcast – Talk to Contact – Episode 23

Episode 23 of the Twins baseball podcast,  Talk To Contact (@TalkToContact), is now available for download via iTunes or by clicking here.

This week the Pleiss brothers spend way too much time discussing obscure state capitols and bantering on about MySpace and hipsters.   In between those strange and obscure conversations you can find plenty of talk about the Minnesota Twins, including a discussion about the 25-man roster, Frank Viola, prospect Luke Bard and former Twins around the MLB. Also making his Talk to Contact podcast debut it Jason from The Inverted W podcast (www.invertedW.com) to continue the series looking around the AL Central, this time discussing the Kansas City Royals.

If you enjoy our podcast, please take a couple extra minutes and rate and review us on iTunes (ratings and reviews have magical iTunes powers, which help us become more like summer time on the shores of Cape Cod.)

You can follow Paul on Twitter (@BaseballPirate) or read his writing at  Puckett’s Pond.

- ERolfPleiss

Will Past Be Prologue? Part 2 – Lessons to be Learned

Yesterday, I asked readers to endure a recitation of my childhood memories as I looked back at the most exciting Twins season in my memory, 1967. It was Rod Carew’s Rookie of the Year season and, while the Twins ultimately lost out to the Red Sox for the AL pennant, it was followed shortly by a couple of very successful seasons in 1969 and 1970 when Carew helped lead the Twins to the first two AL West Division championships.

Today, I’m going to discuss lessons that I believe should be learned from the years that followed those incredible seasons.

While Carew would never again reach the postseason with the Twins (and would never play in a World Series for anyone), he did have several more pretty amazing years with the Twins. He won six more batting titles to go with the one he won under Billy Martin in 1969. He won an MVP award in 1977, when he put up a 1.019 OPS (long before we knew what OPS was) for a 4th place team.

A sparce crowd at Metropolitan Stadium in 1972 (Photo: Steven R. Swanson)

A sparce crowd at Metropolitan Stadium in 1972 (Photo: Steven R. Swanson)

I missed most of that, though.

By the mid 1970s, I had pretty much tuned the Twins out. I wasn’t the only one, apparently. By 1974, the Twins were averaging just over 8,000 fans for their home games.

Twins owner Calvin Griffith could have gone one of two directions at that point. He had a couple of legitimate stars on his team, Carew and pitcher Bert Blyleven, both in the prime of their careers. He could have chosen to build a better team around them over the next couple of years and make an effort to compete. Charley Finley was starting to disassemble his powerhouse Athletics and the Seitz decision would soon set Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally free of their contracts and open the door to free agency. Griffith’s other option was to trade away Carew, Blyleven and anyone else who might command real money soon and attempt to rebuild his team with young (and inexpensive) prospects. Obviously, Griffith being Griffith, the latter was the only option with any chance of happening.

But what if Griffith had been willing and able to invest, rather than divest? Would the team have improved and brought fans back to the Met? Would the Twins then have been in a better position to command a new stadium of their own rather than being forced to share the Metrodome with the Vikings?

There’s no way to know, of course. What we can and do know, however, is that a lot of fans lost interest in the Twins during the mid to late 1970s. I was one of them.

As I think back through my 52 years of Twinsfandom, that era is probably the stretch when I was the least interested in what was going on with the Twins. I can only distinctly remember three trips to the Twin Cities to watch baseball from the time I graduated from high school in 1974 through the rest of the decade. I think about how many more times I would have watched two future Hall of Famers play baseball if only the owner had shown some kind of commitment to winning. It wasn’t until guys like Puckett, Gaetti, Hrbek and Brunansky developed in to a talented core in Minnesota in the mid 1980s that I got interested enough again to regularly drive up to the Twin Cities for games.

I believe that the people running the Twins now are flirting dangerously with the possibility of history repeating itself.

Those who advocate for the idea of blowing up the roster and rebuilding gradually with the highly touted group of prospects in the organization seem to think that letting the Twins continue to lose close to 100 games over the next year or two is a necessity. We’re told that, if we’re patient, the team will be much improved and be ready to compete by 2014 or 2015.

But do we really believe that Miguel Sano, Kyle Gibson, Eddie Rosario, Alex Meyer and Byron Buxton are going to be ready to win… not just contribute… at the Major League level by then? Maybe Griffith was planning on first round picks like Rick Sofield, Paul Croft and Lenny Faedo being ready to lead the Twins back in to contention by the late 70s, too. Instead, the Twins continued to play in front of more empty seats than filled seats at Met Stadium for several more years and continued to spiral deeper in to oblivion until they won only 60 games in 1982. Even the move to a new indoor stadium couldn’t significantly rebuild the fan base at that point.

What if we’re wrong about the next wave of uber-prospects being ready to seriously compete in the Big Leagues by 2015? What if it takes them longer? What if, like with Hrbek, Gaetti and Viola, this group loses big chunks of games for a few years even after they arrive in Minnesota and it’s 2019 or 2020… or later… before they reach their potential? That’s not exactly unlikely, is it?

The past two years have seemed hellish to Twins fans, but how many people will be watching Twins games at Target Field if the Twins go the better part of a decade or more during which coming even close to a .500 record is unlikely? How many will even be watching on television?

I wish I had watched Rod Carew play baseball more than a handful of times in the 1970s. How many young fans will grow old regretting not showing up to watch Joe Mauer play baseball in his prime because the team wouldn’t put enough talent around him to make a trip to the ballpark worthwhile? How long will it take to get those fans interested again?

Some people will tell us that Griffith had no other choice than the one he made… the advent of free agency was a paradigm shift that he could neither foresee nor afford financially to adapt to. That may be true. I have no way of knowing. But the advent of free agency clearly made owning and operating a competitive Major League Baseball team difficult for all but the wealthiest owners.

Today, I believe Major League Baseball is quite possibly nearing another era of potentially dramatic change in how the business is run. I don’t think any of us can predict, with any certainty, the state of television five years from now. It’s quite possible that it will be significantly different than it is today. The billion dollar media rights deals that large market teams are signing could create even more significant chasms between the “haves” and “have nots” in baseball than the eras of free agency and new stadiums did.

And what happens when cable operators and their subscribers (and potentially even the government) step up and refuse to allow continuance of an environment where subscribers must pay dramatically higher rates for cable television, driven almost solely by the cost of carrying sports programming? If that bubble bursts before teams in middle markets, like Minnesota, get their turn at the trough, the resulting competitive imbalance could last for a generation.

Those issues will have to be addressed by whoever baseball decides will succeed Bud Selig as Commissioner. But in the mean time, the people running the Twins have to be making long term plans for the continued financial viability of their franchise. They probably genuinely believed that a new stadium would allow them to field consistently competitive teams a few years ago when they were lobbying for public financing, but clearly Target Field no longer guarantees anything. MLB’s financial model appears to be taking another dramatic turn and a nice stadium is no longer enough to assure long term solvency, much less competitiveness.

As a result, I believe that the deeper the Twins allow this competitive hole they’re in to get, the greater the risk that we’ll see another 1970s-like loss of interest by the fan base that will simply perpetuate the problem.

I see it as imperative for the Twins to invest enough money in their roster to be competitive EVERY year if they’re going to remain a viable organization in to the future. They must keep fans coming to the ballpark and they absolutely need to make the team valuable enough to cash in on other media revenue streams sooner, rather than later. Doing otherwise risks dooming the franchise to being non-competitive until such time that large market teams finally agree to a more equitable business model… and we know that won’t happen any time soon.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the next crop of kids coming up will hit the ground running and immediately capture the imagination and interest of Twins fans far and wide, leading to the next great golden era of Twins baseball, which will lead to vast riches for the Twins owners and secure the franchise’s future for generations to come.

I just think the odds of that happening are long… too long for the Twins front office to bet the organization’s future on it.

I was 14 years old when Rod Carew’s 1970 Twins won the AL West Division and I turned 31 before my favorite team gave me something to cheer about again in 1987. I hope it won’t be 2027 before kids who cheered on Joe Mauer’s 2010 Central Division Champions get to feel that excitement again.

- JC

Will Past Be Prologue? Part 1 – Rod Carew and the Best Season Ever

Rod Carew spent 12 seasons in a Minnesota Twins uniform. He was the American League Rookie of the Year in 1967 and was lured away by the sunshine to southern California to play for the Angels following the 1978 season. At least the Twins managed to get some talent in return for Carew (Ken Landreaux, Dave Engle, Paul Hartzell, Brad Havens), rather than lose him to free agency when Carew essentially forced Twins owner Calvin Griffith in to a trade.

The Rod Carew bronze statue outside Target Field

The Rod Carew bronze statue outside Target Field

The 12 seasons Carew spent in Minnesota were some of the best… and worst… years I’ve gone through as a Twins fan. I believe that there are lessons to be learned from Carew’s era, for the Twins ownership and its fans, though I suspect neither group is inclined to heed them… at least not consciously.

I turned five years old near the middle of the Twins’ first season in Minnesota. We made one or two annual trips up to see the Twins play in those days (usually just one… the trip up from Albert Lea was not as quick and easy before I-35), but we watched games on TV all summer long. They were road games, mostly. Home games were seldom televised, so as not to inhibit fans from buying tickets, I suppose. But I had my transistor radio to take to bed with me to listen to the games I couldn’t watch.

So yes, I’ve been a fan through three World Series and even more Division Series. But the most exciting SEASON of Twins baseball in my memory was a year the Twins didn’t even play postseason baseball. That was Rod Carew’s rookie year, 1967.

Those were exciting times to be a Twins fan. As we all know, the Twins had been to the World Series in 1965, where they lost to the Koufax/Drysdale led Dodgers. But 1966 was a pretty good year, too. The Twins finished runner-up to the Orioles for the American League pennant (yes, kids, there was a time when there were no divisions in Major League Baseball) and there was no reason for my fellow pre-teen friends and I to think the Twins wouldn’t be right in the thick of things in 1967, too. And they were. But nobody could have predicted just how “thick” that race would be.

The Twins started out poorly and Griffith fired manager Sam Mele. That came as a shock to a kid like me. How could you fire a great manager like Mele? He took us to the World Series! But under Cal Ermer, the Twins woke up a bit and by the All-Star break were right back in the race. The White Sox held the lead, but the Tigers and Twins were right up there, too. The Angels and Red Sox were further back, but both were above .500.

About a month later, the Twins swept a home series against the White Sox and moved in to first place. To give you an idea how tight the race had become, Boston sat in 5th place, just 2.5 games behind the Twins, with the White Sox, Tigers and Angels sandwiched between them. The Angels soon slumped badly and were out of the race by the end of August, but through the rest of the season, the Twins were never more than two games out of first place.

Then again, the Tigers and both Red & White Sox, weren’t falling any further behind, either. In fact, on the morning of September 7, all four teams were in a virtual tie for first place. On September 15, the Twins, Tigers and Red Sox were tied, with Chicago just 1.5 games back. The White Sox returned the home sweep favor on the Twins September 15-17 and suddenly the Twins were dropped in to a tie with Chicago for 3rd place… one game behind the Tigers. One win over the A’s (that would be the Kansas City A’s, of course) later and the Twins were back in to a 3-way tie for the lead on September 18.

I wish I could find a way to express just how crazy and exciting this was to an 11 year-old Twins fan. It was stuff like this that I believe made that kid a life-long Twins fan.

From that point, September 18, through the rest of the month of September, the Twins were never out of first place. It seemed like they were almost always tied with someone, but every morning when we looked at the standings, the Twins had that little “-” next to them indicating they were no “games behind” anyone in the American League.

The White Sox found themselves in 4th place, two games behind the Twins with two games left, but effectively eliminated from the race because the Twins and Red Sox would finish the season with a two-game series and both teams were ahead of Chicago. Boston and Detrot each were one game behind the Twins with two games to play, but due to some earlier rainouts, the Tigers had played two games fewer than the Twins and Red Sox, so they were staring at Saturday and Sunday home doubleheaders against what was still a pretty decent Angels team.

All the Twins needed was a split of those final two games in Boston, along with one Angels win out of their four games with Detroit, and my Twins were headed to the World Series against Bob Gibson and the Cardinals!

Twins pitcher Jim Kaat faces Carl Yastrzemski on September 30, 1967

Twins pitcher Jim Kaat faces Carl Yastrzemski on September 30, 1967

But the Twins lost on Saturday 6-4, while the Tigers swept their twinbill with the Angels and that sent the Red Sox and Twins in to the final day of the season tied for first place, a half-game ahead of Detroit. The Angels helped out the Twins by gaining a split of their Sunday doubleheader with the Tigers, so all the Twins had to do was beat Boston.

Of course, they didn’t… they lost 5-3… and the Red Sox went on to lose a seven-game World Series to the Cardinals, which I could barely watch. I was heartbroken. But it was still the most exciting Twins SEASON of my life and I had every reason then to expect my Twins to be just as good and just as exciting to watch the next year… and for the rest of my life, for that matter.

In 1968, Griffith probably wished he had Mele back, as Ermer led the Twins to a 7th place finish (though their 79-83 record would look pretty good a couple of decades later) in the last season before expansion and the establishment of divisional play.

A year later, new manager Billy Martin led the Twins to a 97-win season and the first ever AL West Division title. One year was all Griffith could tolerate of Martin and Bill Rigney was brought in to replace him for 1970. Rigney one-upped Martin by winning 98 games. But Martin and Rigney combined to go 0-6 in the postseason, both managers seeing their Twins team get swept by the Orioles three games to none in the best-of-five Division Series.

In his first four seasons of Big League ball, Rod Carew had participated in perhaps the most exciting pennant race ever in 1967 and played for two Division champions in 1969 and 1970.  He was playing alongside Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva and Jim Kaat.

Carew must have felt like he would be playing for championship contenders forever.

But he never played in the postseason again with the Twins and would do so only twice more in his career (in unsuccessful Division series with the Angels in 1979 and 1982). Carew, in effect, lost his shot at appearing in a World Series with the Twins’ loss to Boston on October 1, 1967, in his rookie year.

But as disheartening as that must have been for Carew, things would be even worse for Twins fans. It would be 14 years after Rigney’s club bowed to the Orioles in 1970 before the Twins would finish even as high as second place in their division and, as we now know, it would be 1987 before Twins fans could cheer on another team that would win any kind of title at all.

It was a long wait for fans like me and the Twins would lose a significant chunk of their fan base along the way.

Tomorrow: Part 2 -Lessons to be Learned.

- JC

Was It Really 25 Years Ago?

Yes, it was.

Twenty-five years ago, to the day, as a matter of fact.

(Photo: Minnesota Twins)

For some of us, it doesn’t seem that long ago, but many other current Twins fans have no memory of it whatsoever. Speaking only for myself, it was perhaps the happiest moment of baseball fandom I’ve ever experienced (though the Game 163 vs. the Tigers, which I attended in person with family and friends has to be a close second).

I could drone on about how close or how far away the current Twins are from bringing another such moment to Twinsville, but today I choose to simply smile and say, “thank you,” to Kirby, Hrbie, TK and everyone else who brought us that moment in time.

- JC

Greatness Must Be More Than a Tradition

Perhaps my favorite quote is one that has been attributed to Charles Lindbergh and it goes something like this: “A great tradition may be inherited, but true greatness must be achieved.”

I’ve been thinking about that lately, in the context of the Minnesota Twins. It’s not that I believe the current roster is great or really even has much of a chance of achieving greatness. They certainly haven’t given us reason to expect greatness in their first handful of games this season.

I wonder, though, how many members of this team understand what it takes to acheive greatness… or even a level approaching the near-greatness that the Twins class of 2002 that was honored Monday arguably captured. Not to understate the talent of the group, as a whole, but it seems like they had a spirit that drove them to at least strive for greatness.

They never really reached their goal… which, of course, was to win a World Series in Minnesota. They did, however, restore respectability to the organization and win a lot of baseball games, including a number of Division titles, in the process. They may not have achieved greatness, but they certainly achieved very-goodness… and the current crop of Twins have inherited that legacy.

Do they know what to do with that legacy, though? Do they recognize the need to achieve greatness for themselves or do they think that they should just be very good because the Twins teams that preceded them for most of the past decade have been very good?

It’s difficult to maintain greatness in pretty much any organization. Most consistently successful companies have formal or informal “succession planning” programs that assure continuity of purpose and philosophy. It’s not something that’s easy to do, even in the most conducive of corporate environments. Trying to develop such a philosophy in a Major League clubhouse where today’s team mate is tomorrow’s opponent and the hot-hitting rookie is a threat to take away a veteran’s livelihood is probably all but impossible.

Some mentoring goes on, of course. Not every veteran ballplayer has the, “it’s all about me and screw the guy coming up behind me,” mentality (let’s call that the Bret Favre mentality, shall we?). Kirby Puckett supposedly mentored Torii Hunter and Hunter supposedly did likewise with Denard Span. It happens, but it happens so seldom that it tends to gets elevated to mythical proportions when it does happen.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but it occurs to me that this group of Twins… from the front office management to the on-field management to the veteran players to the rookies… have not achieved anything close to greatness. I suppose an argument can be made that Carl Pavano has acheived greatness, at least briefly, in his younger days with the Marlins. Ron Gardenhire and Terry Ryan deserve some credit for guiding that class of 2002 through their period of very-goodness.

What the Twins have in their clubhouse is an combination of a couple of very good baseball players who inherited the near-great tradition of the teams led by guys like Torii Hunter, Johan Santana and Corey Koskie, along with a few decent new players who, frankly, came from organizations that haven’t even had the kind of tradition the Twins have had, and a bunch of young players that really haven’t experienced anything approaching greatness in their professional careers.

When the Yankees or Red Sox or even the Braves start out a season by getting swept in their first series, there’s no cause for ledge jumping. Those teams have players who know what it takes to be great and are confident in their abilities to achieve greatness once again, despite a temporary set back. Who in the Twins’ clubhouse has that experience to fall back on, much less the ability to share it with team mates in a manner that instills confidence?

It’s difficult for a young player to step in to such a role. Most of them are too busy pinching themselves over the realization they’re Major League ballplayers playing a game in front of 40,000 people to think beyond the moment. But once they settle in to the routine, do any of them have the drive necessary to lead a team to achieve greatness? I hope so.

And what of management? Where will the next great leader of this organization come from? I doubt Ron Gardenhire’s job is in immediate jeopardy, but it’s almost impossible for me to imagine him leading the team through the next generation of ballplayers. Who will Terry Ryan and the Pohlads charge with the responsibility of leading the team of Joe Benson, Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario and Kyle Gibson to a level of greatness not achieved in over two decades?

How will the current Twins and those coming up behind them learn to achieve greatness? In the absence of credible mentors to learn from, it will take someone (or better yet, multiple someones) with incredible leadership skills to build a winning mentality back nearly from scratch.

Ron Gardenhire and Tom Brunansky (photo: Jim Crikket)

I’m nowhere near knowledgeable enough about the Twins organization to predict who will step up to provide that kind of leadership or when it might arrive. Outside of watching the Beloit Snappers a few times a year and spending a week or so at the Twins’ spring training site every March, I have little to base an opinion on. Maybe players like Benson, Brian Dozier, Aaron Hicks and Liam Hendriks will eventually fill leadership roles on the field and in a future Twins clubhouse, but the guy I expect to see eventually establish a presence with the Big Club is former Twin Tom Brunansky.

If you spend any time hanging out around the minor league fields during spring training, you can tell which coaches tend to attract an audience when they speak. Two men have stood out to me as guys that always seem to have the attention of any player within earshot of them: Paul Molitor and Brunansky. Molitor serves in an instructional capacity every spring and it seems he’s pretty satisfied with that limited role, but Bruno has been moving up the organizational ranks as a hitting coach and is with the AAA team in Rochester this year.

I know there are people who feel Brunansky could or even should be promoted to the Twins’ hitting coach position to replace Joe Vavra. Personally, I think he’s fine right where he is… teaching the next generation of Twins how to play baseball. He’s the kind of coach… and, potentially, the kind of manager… that could bring credibility to a field management job if and when he gets his opportunity in Minnesota.

For now, this is admitedly all just idle conjecture. Then again, until the current Twins start winning some ball games and give us something else to focus on, idle conjecture is likely to lead to more interesting discussions than anything going on between the white lines.

- JC