Shock and Aw, Shucks

The 1987 Twins surprised me, and that was hard to do. Since ’82 I’d worked as a scoreboard operator at the Metrodome and had seen some fairly mystical things. Things such as a Dave Kingman foul ball literally getting lost in the roof, catcher Dave Engle forgetting how to throw the ball back to the pitcher, and Mickey Hatcher playing the outfield. The bulging, striped Teflon sky had made the Dome seem like our own surreal patch where we had waited each year for the Great Pumpkin, Godot and blue-chip pitching prospects Jeff Bumgarner and Steve Gasser. None of whom ever arrived.

When ’87 rolled around my passions had expanded to include the future Reverend Mother and we started looking around for a wedding date. October 10 looked to be a pretty safe choice. My wedding to Marjorie wasn’t to be the only astounding miracle in Minnesota that fall, however. The Twins snuck into the playoffs with 85 wins, and my friends kept sneaking out of our afternoon wedding reception to try and catch the score of the Twins/Tigers ALCS game from Detroit. (If McFly had come back from the future and shown up at the church in the De Lorean we wouldn’t have been impressed with the car, but we’d definitely have wanted to know more about those cell phones and Internet thingies he was talking about — and who to put our money on, of course, though we probably still wouldn’t have believed it). I didn’t mind my friends’ absence because they were relaying the scores to me while I was stuck cutting cake and grinning until my ears nearly fell off. My bride and I ended up honeymooning through the rest of the ALCS and the first games of the World Series, but I made it back to my Dome job in time for Game 6.

That ’87 team was the most surprising ever for me — until this year. This year began as if we’d all crammed into the De Lorean for a trip back to the early 80s as the team tried to patch together something that might look respectable from a collection of not-ready-yet youngsters and used-up veterans in the handy four-pack size. The left side of the infield had the look and range of Mount Rushmore, and the “professional hitters” that had been added to the squad were as stiff as the Tin Man stepping out of the whirlpool. The results were about as pretty as the floor of the Twins dugout after a game, the spit-out sunflower seed husks commingling with tobacco juice in fetid puddles. Gross, yes, so you tried not to think about them, though the stench was strong.

Desperate plans are sometimes the best ones, though, so when the decision was made in June to stack the deadwood out of the way and bring in the frisky youngsters things began to look up. Manager Ron Gardenhire installed Nick Punto into the lineup, even though the most noise he’d made in the majors up until that time was the sound of his hamstrings twanging or his bones cracking. Gardy put him out there at third and asked him to try not and sprain anything until he could find a replacement. Then they brought up Jason Bartlett from the minors, the kid who’d been thought to be not assertive enough in spring training, to play shortstop — and barely took him out of the lineup the rest of the season. Suddenly balls that were passing through the left side of the infield like it was the U.S.-Mexico border were being caught and redirected to Canada, or at least toward Canadian first baseman Justin Morneau. Perhaps being able to see more balls thrown at him in the field sharpened Morneau’s eye-hand coordination because right about that time he started smashing balls hither and yon at the plate, while Johann Santana and Francisco Liriano began to compete with each other to find the most humiliating ways to make opposing batters take their seats. Meanwhile the young catcher, Joe Mauer, kept stringing together more hits than sentences and the team won 19 of 20 games — and failed to gain ground on the Tigers and White Sox ahead of them.

Well, we thought that was interesting, and that it bode well for next year, but someone had sent the future by Fed Ex and they were looking for somebody to sign for it. The Twins kept up the pace and gradually started to draw closer to the leaders bit by bit. Of course, they were still too far back to even be considered for a wild card spot with the Chi-town and Detroit, and with former Twin Big Papi in Boston plucking a hair out of Twins GM Terry Ryan’s head with every homerun he hit because the Bosox liked him to go yahhd and didn’t care if he used his glove for a doily. Surely the Twins weren’t even going to get a sniff of either of these Sox for the Wild Card, and yet they kept coming. Somewhere up ahead Jim Leyland and Ozzie Guillen were like Butch and Sundance, squinting back into the distance and asking, “Who are those guys?” who kept chasing them no matter what tricks they played or how they tried to run and hide. Then Torii got hurt, and Radke and Liriano, and each time we thought, “Well, that does it, but it was a great run…and wait until next year.” But nothing seemed to throw the Twins off stride. They kept eating at the difference and the teams ahead of them started to choke, their hands so tightly around their necks that they couldn’t adjust their cups at the plate.

First the Red Sox and then the White Sox fell into the wringer and were hung out to dry, and amazingly the Twins were guaranteed a play-off spot with a week left in the season. Sublime, but still not enough and on the last day of the season they won one last game and then sat with their fans inside the suddenly cozy Metrodome and watched the big color scoreboards as the even more unlikely Royals defeated the Tigers in extra innings, putting the Twins all alone in first place in the AL Central Division for the first time all season, nearly one hour after their regular season had ended.

Now it’s onto the playoffs and the unknown players aren’t so unknown anymore. They’ve got the AL batting champ, the probable Cy Young winner, a serious league MVP candidate, the veteran Gold Glove centerfielder showing new-found power and poise in the clutch and, if there’s any justice, the Manager of the Year. They’ve also got a #2 starter named Boof, a game three starter with a torn labrum and stress fracture in his shoulder and a game four starter who sometimes acts like he’s got a stress fracture of the brain.

I’m not betting against them.

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