A Serious Team, Part One: The Long Crisis of the Minnesota Twins

There have been worse organizations than the Minnesota Twins over the past two decades. But none quite so uniquely thwarted.
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The Minnesota Twins have spent this season and the last two decades quietly struggling through a succession of misfortunes. If this sounds something like a low-key existential crisis, it's because that's exactly what it is.

Between 1979 and 1991, eleven different teams won the World Series, and each and every one of them eventually fell into an extended rut of futility. Two of these, the Cardinals and the Phillies, were eventually redeemed after a generation's worth of futile schlepping. A few—the kings of the damned: the Pirates, the Orioles, the Royals—became infamously Sisyphean no-hopers. Most alternated between the mortification of being mediocre-to-godawful and the frustration of being Not Quite Good Enough—the Tigers going from 119-game losers in '03 to World Series losers in '06; the Reds and Dodgers and A's all getting run out of the playoffs so dramatically as to apply retroactive futility; the Mets being the Mets.

There are worse fates. Ask the Cubs and Indians, who have made Going Nowhere their identities for quarters, halves, even whole centuries. Ask any of the five expansion teams that have disappointed their towns since Led Zeppelin and American Motors were going concerns, and which have nothing more to show for their struggle than sad boxes of t-shirts bound for continents that don't get the cruel joke inherent in a "1998 World Champion San Diego Padres" tee. Ask the Expos, or ask what's left of the Montreal faithful; just don't ask them about this year's Nationals, because that's mean. Ask the D.C. fan-base that inherited Montreal's franchise what it's like to be on their third go-round of dashed expectations. Of course, that third go-round is going pretty well at the moment. But in quiet moments, honest moments, it would be reasonable for these Nationals fans to thank their deities of choice for the good fortune of not being pledged to the first team to aggravate the District, and which is currently bumping along the bottom up in Minnesota.

***

That team, the first to vex and subsequently leave D.C., is part of this conversation, too. Amid this roll-call of failure, singling out the woes of the Minnesota Twins might appear a bit beside the point. The most recent winner in the two-decade-drought club is generally regarded as one of those teams that, more often than not, "gets the little things right." The Twins are, the story goes, adept at signing good role-players on the cheap, developing a strong farm system, drafting smart, working around the financial constraints that invariably stick the team with inexperienced youngsters and utilitymen-turned-regulars and rotations stuffed with pitch-to-contact fifth starters. They're so good at this, in fact, that they've developed a distinctive small-ball style that has resulted in a handful of division wins. An exasperated Ozzie Guillen once called the 2006 squad "little piranhas," and the Twins faithful—and the press—found that quasi-pejorative remark to be a perfectly fitting nickname.

And then, eventually, the Twins managed to get the bigger things right, too: taking their international scouting efforts to another level; wrangling themselves a fancy new outdoor ballpark to replace the once-state-of-the-art Metrodome, which had aged with time and entropy into a trashbag-lined concrete malaise toilet; signing franchise players to contracts that seemed to ensure that the team's homegrown stars would play out their peak years in Minnesota. This thankfully shut up a lot of talk about how Joe Mauer or Justin Morneau or whoever would "look good in pinstripes," as though the Twins uniforms didn't have those already. It also worked, insofar as the Twins had an entertaining run during which they won games more often than they haven't.

So what in the hell does a Twins fan have to complain about? Granted, ever since Larkin drove in Gladden and capped off The Greatest World Series Ever in '91, the Twinkies have found new and innovative ways to exemplify the many flavors of hopelessness. They were no-future basement dwellers in the '90s, then perennial early-round postseason casualties in the '00s before returning to the dank, familiar comforts of the cellar for these last couple seasons. But so what? In comparison to setting a pro sports record for consecutive losing seasons or getting caught up in Madoff's Ponzi scheme or having your fan-base represented by a disillusioned Camden Yards straggler barking "fuck baseball" on the most acclaimed TV drama of all time, the Twins' woes have been comparatively quiet.

But that's the problem: it's not common knowledge just how harrowing and hope-free Minnesota's last two decades actually were. And if you believe in easily traceable origin points for irrevocable shit-spirals, it all started twenty years ago yesterday.

***

Like a handful of other, similarly stunted Twins fans, I've picked up a weird habit of bringing up the events as "The Eric Fox Game," as though this particular moment in baseball history has any easily recognizable connotations outside Minnesota or (maybe) Oakland. The response from people outside these teams' purview is usually "Who's Eric Fox?"

Which is a reasonable enough question, and one answered by one very poignant box score. In July of 1992, the Twins were on their way to another AL West division title until Oakland started surging and Minnesota started fading. At the end of the month, the A's came into the Metrodome—at that time, the deafening, janky-carpeted pachinko machine was arguably pro sports' biggest home-field advantage this side of Boston Garden—and took the first two games of a crucial three-game series. In the ninth inning of the last game, the Twins enjoyed what looked like a very advantageous match-up at a very important time: Rick Aguilera was one of the best relievers in franchise history; Eric Fox was a 28-pushing-29-year-old rookie with a career OPS+ of 56, and who retired with all of five homers to his name. The second of those home runs, though, was a three-run shot that erased a lead Aggie had been brought in to protect. The Twins were swept at home, the division was tied, and that was the beginning of the end. Oakland won another 36 games. The Twins won 30. It would be their last winning season all decade.

The misery piled up for quite a while after that. The Twins missed out on Jason Varitek when he decided to go back to school after the '93 draft instead of signing with Minnesota. Injury-battered fan favorite Kent Hrbek retired effective the end of the '94 season; his last game was played in front of 23,000 fans distracted by the depressing prospect of a canceled World Series. After a belated stint with his hometown team, Dave Winfield was traded to the Cleveland Indians for a player to be named later; when the deal couldn’t officially be closed due to the strike, "player" was later downgraded to "dinner tab". Kirby Puckett's 1995 season was ended prematurely when Dennis Martinez hit him in the head with a fastball, breaking his jaw and rupturing an artery in his mouth. Puckett woke up with glaucoma in the midst of a torrid spring training campaign the following year, and after three unsuccessful surgeries was forced into retirement.

In 1997, dealing with the league's worst revenue, a disheartened fanbase, and his own Mr. Burns-esque drive to crush the hopes and dreams of others, owner Carl Pohlad came within a hair's breadth of selling the Twins to a North Carolina businessman named, of all things, Don Beaver. (The surname is particularly pointed since the Portland Beavers were the Twins' Triple-A affiliate during their two World Series seasons.) The sale fell through for a number of reasons, most of them related to the Piedmont Triad's complete disinterest in building a new stadium to support a big league franchise. Minnesota shared this disinterest for years, despite (or possibly due to) a series of local TV spots that ran on the premise that if the Twins leave Minnesota, "an eight-year-old from Willmar undergoing chemotherapy will never get a visit from Marty Cordova." The eight-year-old shown in the ad had already passed away by the time it aired.

Ah, Marty Cordova. Marty Cordova, the 1995 Rookie of the Year who embodied the team's late-'90s futility by hitting a dreary .277/.347/.441 (100 OPS+) from '96 through the remainder of his injury-riddled career with the team, while somehow remaining the closest thing the Twins had to a consistent power hitter. He led the team with 15 home runs in 1997 despite playing only 103 games. This was nowhere near the last time a hitter would lead the Twins in homers with a number in the teens in the peak of the Steroid Era. And despite a handful of bright spots—the gritty final seasons of a gracefully aging Paul Molitor, Brad Radke notching 20 of the '97 team's 68 wins, a couple decent seasons from quintessential journeyman Matt Lawton before his travels began, the fleeting mirage that the gap left by aggrieved future hot-dog attack victim Chuck Knoblauch could be filled by Todd Walker—the team's roster felt like a steady revolving door of people you never wanted to find in your Fleer Ultra packs. In a world of Chad Allens, Ron Coomer is king.

By the end of that low decade, the franchise was deep in the dumpster: at the 1999 home opener, fans in attendance were promised a free ticket to another game if the Twins lost. The pathetic nature of this promotion was so blatantly embarrassing that the Twins, who would go on to notch their third of four straight 90-plus-loss seasons, had no choice but to beat the Blue Jays 6-1. The depths of the Minnesota '90s can be best explained by the 1994 movie Little Big League. The movie—which is, to reiterate, a movie—is about a 12-year-old boy who inherits ownership of the Twins, becomes their manager, and pushes them to underdog triumph. Still, the film stopped short of giving the team a storybook ending. The kid owner/manager's Twins lose an extra-inning game to determine a wild-card spot after Ken Griffey, Jr. robs Timothy Busfield of a potential walk-off home run. Even Hollywood has its standards.

***

Things eventually turned around, as they often do for floundering franchises faced with the desperate need to get their shit together. There's no sense in denying it: the Twins that were occasionally patted on the head for their division-winning scrappiness during the '00s were at least a welcome respite from the T___s that dismayed fans throughout the Fox-haunted '90s. But as much as the fan-base was rejuvenated by the prospect of actually making the playoffs—and thanks to the fresh permanence that a new strongarmed-into-existence stadium provided—there has still been a persistent feeling of unease. The Twins kept winning the AL Central because some team had to, and as thrilling as a lot of those first-place finishes were—the defiant rebuilding of '02-'04, the last-game triumph of '06, the deranged extra-inning nailbiter of 2009's Game 163 and the dominant 2010 of Target Field's inaugural year—the "weak division" reputation always seemed to come into play once the actual postseason started. Whether it was Adam Kennedy or Frank Thomas going deep, if the Yankees got to Joe Nathan or Kyle Lohse, if it was Phil Cuzzi or Hunter Wendelstedt making terrible calls—every time the stage expanded from Twins Territory to the national spotlight, the team looked, and generally played, as if they didn't belong there.

All very predictable, all very Twins, all a good deal more bleak than we appreciated at the time, or even quite understand now. This is an unlucky team with a lot of unlucky peers, all seemingly ordained to fail since the faraway triumphs of the ashtray-ballpark era. But the fact that the Twins' myriad failures are something of an afterthought to the bigger baseball world points at a unique sort of crisis. A solvable crisis, maybe, but a crisis nonetheless.

Illustration by David Rappoccio.


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Comments

the late-90s ad campaign was "yours is the best seat in the house" (paraphrasing here), meaning the team encouraged you to buy the cheapest ticket and then move wherever you wanted to sit. this is the lowest level a pro sports team can descend to -- openly asking people to 'please for the love of god come.'

such is the life of a team fielding a lineup of a 97yo otis nixon, denny hocking, and the incomparable dan serafini.

twins fan for life.

two world series wins and eight playoff appearances over 25 years is pretty good. not trying to gainsay anybody's suffering here but.

Yeah, and I pointed out as much -- I fully expect and understand Pirates, Mets and Orioles fans to wonder what the big mopey deal is here. There'll be more explanation in part two; suffice it to say that there's a difference between the storied, attention-getting woes of those three teams and the fact that suffering with the Twins feels weirdly like suffering alone.

true. i dug the piece. i think as an indians fan i am just sniffy about our turf as the AL central's most active sadness factory

I get your point, but I don't know that "suffering" is the right word here- I would describe this more as the plight of the sports fan. Look, the Cubs and so forth may get lionized for being lovable losers, but that doesn't make losing lovable, you know what I mean? Sometimes, there's no honor in being shitty. Your team is just shitty, and you just have to wait around until they're not shitty anymore.

But that doesn't mean I didn't like this piece and what it stood for. I've got no exposure to the minor saints of Twins lore, but this piece has the power to introduce me to players who existed on the fringes of baseball's history. Using your experiences to make myths out of the Twins, even though they have no meaning to me, still adds to the richness of baseball's hagiographic history.

It's quite simple, the Twins play in 'flyover territory' and therefore no one from the East or West Coasts and MUCH, MUCH, MUCH more importantly no one from ESPN gives a fuck about them. The Pirates/Mets/Oriioles all play within a days drive from NYC/ESPN world headquarters, therefore they are going to suck up more attention.

Fuck, last night ESPN was sucking the flaccid dong of the Yankees/Red Sox game overhyping it like crazy making it seem like this was a tense game between two teams fighting it out for the division title, when nothing could be further from the truth.

The Red Sox managed the semi-unique feat of imploding as a team BEFORE the season even started and were out of playoff contention by the end of the second week of the season, yet ESPN keeps trying to pound it in my face that the SAWX are still in it.

FUCK.

THAT.

And fuck this bullshit lie that the SAWX or ANY other major pro sports franchise has a record (insert completely bullshit lie number) of games sold out in a row.