This is a two-part story. Part One is here.
In retrospect, the Twins' underachieving '00s were, finally, a case of always being a couple players short. This is a situation in which they've frequently found themselves, thanks alternately to faulty organizational design and stumbling steps backwards taken due to bad-return trades and free-agent losses.
Imagine the 2008 Twins, for instance, if they hadn't forced David Ortiz to hit opposite-field singles "like a little bitch"—his words—and re-signed him instead of releasing him; if they'd decided to let Johan Santana ride out his contract for one last season instead of trading him for sub-mediocre returns; if the team had deemed it worth the managerial friction to keep Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett around because they were clearly more valuable than Delmon Young and Brendan Harris.
In that alternate reality, the Twins probably wouldn't have needed to play a tiebreaker game to win the division in '08—a game that they lost 1-0 to the White Sox. Terrible deals and questionable signings have plagued the Twins with what-ifs for the entirety of their run at the top of the Central, haunted by the giving away of J.J. Hardy, the dazzling trade of top prospect Wilson Ramos for lumpy closerish-type Matt Capps, and the contracts thrown to red flag-waving goofballs like Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Nick Blackburn. You know what the Twins have needed in the worst way the last few seasons? A reliable starting pitcher. You know which reliable starting pitcher they had, and subsequently gave away no less than three separate times—via Rule 5, trade, and free agency? First-half National League Cy Young R.A. Dickey. Even when the Twins pull a heist, it can get a bitter aftertaste—trading A.J. Pierzynski to the Giants for Francisco Liriano, Joe Nathan, and Boof Bonser feels less impressive when you realize which (admittedly douchier) half of that deal wears the World Series rings. If you want an example of how self-punchingly aggravating it can be to follow a small-to-mid-market MLB team poised on the cusp of contention and derision—and precariously enough that a J.J. Hardy or a Nick Blackburn could make the difference between the two—here's the template.
So, in those seasons when they're not blessed by sub-mediocre competition, the Twins are unlucky or else they're incompetent; sometimes, as in the last couple seasons, they have been frankly abysmal. But there's something else below the surface—something that runs deeper than a bad stretch or two, deeper than decades without a parade, deeper than baseball, deeper than sports itself. You can feel it when comments-section schmucks complain that Joe Mauer isn't hitting enough home runs for $23 million a year because "his vagina hurts." You can track it through John McDonald's knee and "Jason" Morneau and a 2006 MVP win that is mostly remembered for how undeserved it was. You could see it every time this season that Francisco Liriano has taken the hill, found it somewhere inside him to resurrect the unstoppable force that drove him to phenom status in 2006, and read people wondering not "is he back?" but "what could a contender give us for him?" (The answer, it turned out, was "not much"; in his final start for the Twins he turfed out spectacularly, then wound up going to the team that obliterated him in exchange for a flimsy-hitting middle infielder and a pitcher whose upside is "decent middle reliever".) Dig deep enough, and you'll find a rich vein of despair, which is if not unique then at least distinctive in this particular case.
Go back through all those times atop a weak division, all the superstars fans enjoyed over the sound of the clock ticking down towards their departures for the free-spending coasts, the years when the Metrodome was a sea of empty blue seats. And then you could look at those two championship teams, and you could start to doubt.
Maybe fans don't believe it themselves, but they've heard things. That '87 team was barely over .500, and the '91 team fluked into beating the decade's real dynasty. (Sports Illustrated's "America's Team vs. Native America's Team" comparison spoke condescending volumes.) People have long said that the Twins cheated—Hrbek wrestled Ron Gant off the bag; the air-conditioning vents blew Minnesota homers out and knocked everybody else's down. This wouldn't matter to you unless it really, really did. Either way, neither Twins championship team ever won a World Series road game, and their shabby yet difficult-to-deny home-field advantage is gone forever. There is no more Thunderdome, just a new ballpark that's almost as nice as PNC. There's no keeping that Game 6 call, either—Joe Buck and the '11 Cardinals own it now. "Tomorrow night" isn't Jack Morris throwing ten shutout frames anymore. The future is… well, just what it is. But it's doing a hell of a number on the past, every day.
The worst thing about being a Twins fan over the last twenty years is this: at your most vulnerable moments, there's a nagging—loudly nagging—suspicion that your interest in this particular team just does not matter at all in the greater scheme of baseball, and that what happy memories and world-beating victories you have been fortunate enough to experience were illusions of some kind. The team's most pivotal confrontation with crisis over the past two decades isn't a certain game or a particular season or a specific career. It's not the protracted fight for a new ballpark, which led to a succession of legislative rebuffs and aborted attempts to sell the team and unpopular referendum-ducking taxes and somehow culminated in the grotesque irony of Target Field's groundbreaking date being scheduled the day after the collapse of the I-35W Bridge. It's not even the heart-in-gut revelation that Saint Kirby might not have rode public goodwill and sympathy for his truncated career into the Hall of Fame if voters had known that he'd turn out to be a violent sexual offender later in life.
No, the thing that keeps Twins fans up at night, whether they know it or not, is this: 28-2. That's not a score. That's the result of the owners' 2001 vote to contract two major league teams. One of those teams now resides in Washington. The other team came from there, before making its home in Minneapolis. Twenty-eight representatives of Major League Baseball felt that, merely a decade removed from of one the most exciting professional sports championships ever played, the winner of that World Series was that expendable.
This all conveniently and brutally ties into a particular Minnesotan neurosis. Beneath the clapboard Prairie Home Companion snowbilly façade and the Mary Tyler Moore gonna-make-it-after-all spunk and the reputation of frozen North 11th-Province hardiness, Minnesota is a deep-seated hotbed of flinty existentialism, and an inferiority complex-fed certainty that we will always be outside something, everything. We’re the one state that chose Mondale over Reagan in '84; the following day political cartoonist Pete Wagner drew Minnesota outside America's borders entirely. The Twin Cities and their attendant suburban sprawl are over 300 miles from any metro area that could even be remotely considered as comparatively large; it's a six-hour drive to Milwaukee and nearly eight to Chicago.
But that relative isolation can make it feel detached from the rest of the country. If someone famous came out of this state, even if they left for someplace they could actually make more money while rebuking us all the way, we cling to them for dear life because the relevance of having once been home to Bob Dylan or F. Scott Fitzgerald or Charles Schulz or (lord save us) Thomas Friedman is just that crucial. We swear up and down that Purple Rain will always be better than Thriller and that Zen Arcade beats My War any day of the week. And we won't shut up about how we gave the world the two best American filmmakers of the last 30 years, who then released two of the most damning films ever shot in Minnesota. The Coens touched a few raw nerves here when they released Fargo; of course our locals recognized Carl Showalter's tendency to think it's a big deal that the IDS Center is the tallest in the Midwest after a couple of Chicago's. But Joel and Ethan really hit on something with A Serious Man. Here, finally and cruelly and beautifully, was a movie about what it is like to be tormented by a series of faith-shaking disasters that occur, quite reasonably and one after another, in the midst of a place in which you do not entirely feel you belong.
The Twins and their fans, maybe even more than other sports teams and theirs, need validation—they need to matter, and they need to be great. Because without them and their two World Series trophies, Minnesota is the most distraught professional sports fan-base in North America, but also because there remains the sense that it could all be taken away. On the positive side of the ledger, there's the Minnesota Lynx's 2011 WNBA title. On the other, you have Bob Short finding the Minneapolis Lakers fan-base lacking in dedication and moving them to Los Angeles to become one of sports' biggest dynasties; you have the North Stars' inaugural season, in which Bill Masterton hit his bare head on the ice after getting checked, got knocked out, and never woke up; you have the '69 Vikings winning the last pre-merger NFL championship, then becoming the biggest Super Bowl punching bag of the '70s. You have the Herschel Walker trade and Norm Green dragging the North Stars to Dallas and the Timberwolves nearly being shipped down to New Orleans. You, we, have Christian Laettner, J.R. Rider, Donyell Marshall. Gary Anderson missing from 38 yards. The Joe Smith salary cap-tampering scandal. Malik Sealy. Korey Stringer. That stupid Lake Minnetonka sex boat and its flown-in out-of-town prostitutes. Twelve men on the field against the Saints and Ricky Rubio's torn ACL. All you ever really need to understand about pro sports in Minnesota is that three of its four current franchises have played in a stadium named after the first man to lose a Presidential election to Richard Nixon, and the most iconic two-sport star ever to emerge from the state was a placekicker/pitcher named Charlie Brown. This is not a legacy that suggests permanence.
Most fans have begun to come to terms with the fact that the Twins aren’t going to be great for a while, or even really all that good. Justin Morneau appears to be graphing one of those Travis Hafner career arcs, the kind defined by early blazing ridiculous greatness and tempered by injuries and repeated snakebites. Joe Mauer's power-hitter '09 looks like a Boggs-in-'87 aberration, but that's what he was paid for, and even hitting like Boggs in '88 (or Carew in '74, or Mauer in '06) won't be enough to get cynical sports-talk parasites to overlook the size of his contract. The only bright spot in the current rotation is Scott Diamond, who could be another Brad Radke-oid pitch-to-contact ace-by-accident if luck keeps running his way. Trevor Plouffe's emergence could mean something, although it's tough to know whether that something is the emergence of Gary Gaetti Mk II or just another disappointing post-Corey Koskie third baseman. And look at these names. Look at what we are talking about. The most optimism-stoking prospects are either years away (Miguel Sano, Oswaldo Arcia), stalled (Joe Benson, Aaron Hicks), injured (Kyle Gibson, Alex Wimmers) or presumably throwing BP to Ozzie Smith in the Springfield Mystery Spot (Anthony Slama). It's at a crossroads like this that some teams would start shedding bandwagon fans by the hundreds, and Target Field clearly isn’t as packed as it was in 2010. But the Minnesota Twins still exist. It's a start, or at least not quite an ending. For the time being, that's something like enough.
Illustration by David Rappoccio.