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NOISE FROM THE DUGOUT

Something to Cheer About
By Tom Goldstein

I finally made it to a ball game this year. It took me until late May, but given that the Twins play at the Metrodome, it's not that easy to get motivated for indoor baseball, especially when we Minnesotans are coming off about the longest winter in memory (not to mention a reluctant spring filled with never-ending rainy days). So rushing over to Minneapolis to watch baseball under a Teflon roof hasn't been a big priority.

But we got tickets for May 26, a rare doubleheader between the Twins and the Oakland Athletics (the only one scheduled in the American League this year and the first at the Metrodome in five years). Since I wasn't sure if I wanted to sit through two games, I spent part of that Saturday afternoon working and thus arrived very late for the first game—just in time to watch the A's score two runs in the top of the tenth, courtesy of two LaTroy Hawkins wild pitches and a single by Oakland's Miguel Tejada. Same old Twins, I thought. (In this case, especially ridiculous-looking Twins, adorned as they were in baggy, turn-back-the-clock 1901 Washington Senators replica flannel uniforms, worn to commemorate the American League's hundredth anniversary.) But then the Twins got a walk and two singles to start the bottom of the tenth, cutting the A's margin to one run and putting runners on first and third with nobody out. Unfortunately, the Twins' bad habits from years past resurfaced: Jacque Jones tapped a slow-roller to first, and Denny Hocking, who inexplicably broke for home, was easily retired on first baseman Jason Giambi's throw to catcher Ramon Hernandez. Were Hocking to have stayed put at third, Jones might very well have beaten out the grounder and loaded the bases, but there were still runners on first and second with just one out. That's when Matt Lawton made like Maury Wills and tried to swipe third base; he was out by a mile. Instead of a golden opportunity to tie or win, the Twins now had two outs, with the tying run all the way over at first. And that's how the game ended, as Twins third baseman Corey Koskie went down swinging.

Ordinarily, this might have been the time when everybody would have headed for home, second game or not. (Certainly some people did, since the first game had lasted almost four hours and there was at least another half hour before the next game would begin.) After all, Twins fans have endured eight straight losing seasons, the worst record in the American League last year, and one of the worst records in baseball during the 1990s in spite of having been World Champions in 1991 and finishing with a fine 90–72 record in 1992. (Before this season, there weren't too many locals who believed that the Twins shouldn't clean house and get rid of longtime manager Tom Kelly and General Manager Terry Ryan.)

But this year's Twins team is different. Bonehead plays and rally-killing mistakes are rare and come-from-behind victories increasingly common. So a great number of the opening-game crowd of thirty-eight thousand stuck around for at least part of the second contest (clearly, fewer than ten thousand remained at the end), another four-hour, extra-inning affair that saw the Twins push across two runs in the seventh and two more in the ninth to tie. And this time, the Twins pulled out a seven to six victory in the bottom of the tenth on Torii Hunter's soft liner over a drawn-in, five-man infield (Oakland right fielder Adam Platt had been brought in from the outfield when the Twins loaded the bases with none out).

The most exciting baseball game that I've ever attended was Game 2 of the 1987 World Series in Minneapolis. After a ten to one blowout over the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 1, the sellout crowd of fifty-five thousand that poured into the Metrodome on that October 18 night was incredibly jazzed. There was an energy buzzing through the stands unlike any I'd ever felt at a ball game, and when Gary Gaetti put the Twins in front with a solo shot to lead off the bottom of the second inning, the crowd absolutely exploded. Suddenly, everyone was family, with complete strangers hugging and exchanging high fives. The experience was delicious. That the Twins went on to an eight to four victory came as no surprise, given the energy pulsating from the crowd.

What I remember most about that evening was a sense of belonging, a feeling that everyone was united behind something more important than each of us individually—that the game on the field mattered most of all. The crowd seemed to agonize over every pitch, to pay attention to all of the nuances and intricacies that can make baseball such an intriguing, delightful game. There was a feeling that the Twins really belonged to us, that Gaetti and Kirby Puckett and Dan Gladden and Frank Viola and Kent Hrbek really were our heroes, our team. Somehow, having to watch a game in a lousy venue like the Metrodome just wasn't that big a deal.

So as I sat through the second game of the Twins–A's doubleheader, I felt like this new crop of no-name Twins ballplayers—perennial losers who have suddenly jelled into a team that knows how to win—was re-creating some of that old excitement, that there was a reason to care about the home team again. Certainly the crowd was different, with fans seeming to follow the action closely, cheering at the right spots, booing the plate umpire's ball and strike calls—unlike on Opening Day in 1999, where a group of preppy twenty-somethings seated behind me razzed the Twins Todd Walker by calling him "Herschel" (after the former Minnesota Vikings inconsistent running back), an attempt at insult about as lame and as silly as they come. There might still be some Twins skeptics out there waiting for the other shoe to drop, but most of the folks in the stands that night (including me) appeared to believe that this team off to an amazing start (30–15 before the doubleheader, 41–22 at the time of this writing) is for real.

As cynical as I am about Major League Baseball these days, I have to admit that it's pretty incredible to watch players like Hunter (two home runs to go with his game-winning single that night), Doug Mientkiewicz (hero of the 2000 Olympics), Jones, Koskie, Lawton, Hocking, and Hawkins (now among the league leaders in saves, after several inconsistent years as a starter and middle reliever), as well as arguably the American League's best starting rotation (led by eight-game winners Brad Radke and Joe Mays, and Eric Milton), knock off the Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, and league-best Mariners week after week. (And since early May, the Twins have been without their one bonafide slugger, David Ortiz, who is out until July with a broken wrist.) Maybe it's the fact that none of them—even Radke, who earns $9 million a year—are considered superstars that makes this year's Twins games so enjoyable to watch or listen to on the radio; they're just a bunch of hardworking, lunch-pail (by today's salary standards) guys doing their job day in and day out, much like the 1987 and 1991 Twins.

Unfortunately, I know the team's surprising run won't last forever. Even if the Twins should manage to make the playoffs, eventually the better players will move on, lured away by the big bucks routinely offered by the Red Sox, Yankees, Dodgers, Indians, and other large-market clubs. If this were the 1970s (or even the early '80s), with the notoriously penurious Calvin Griffith as owner, one could understand. But unlike Griffith, who never really became a millionaire until he sold the Twins in 1984, Carl Pohlad is one of the wealthiest men in the nation; he could easily afford to increase the team's $25 million bargain payroll and keep intact the nucleus of a club that's brought so much excitement to Twins fans this season. (After all, the team returned a profit to Mr. Pohlad in 2000 and certainly will do so again this year, with average attendance thus far running in excess of twenty-one thousand per game). But that would require Mr. Pohlad to shoulder the risk of producing another successful season, and that's not something that billionaire baseball owners do these days.

Instead, they hire nineteen different lobbyists to cozy up to state legislators, offer stadium bills that amount to hundreds of millions of dollars in public subsidies going to the team, and pump the airwaves during game broadcasts with all sorts of misinformation about how a new, publicly funded stadium "won't cost taxpayers a dime," or that without a new stadium, the Twins "won't be able to survive" in Minnesota. (As this issue went to press, no Twins stadium bill had passed the Minnesota legislature, but with a special session in progress, legislation that would provide public financing for a new stadium could still become law.)

For one night, however, none of that mattered. For one night, being at the ballpark (even if it was an awful stadium like the Metrodome) felt special, felt exciting. And though I know the Twins' miraculous season won't be repeated any time soon (heck, with contract talks looming and Bud Selig at the helm of baseball's rudderless ship, who knows if we'll even recognize Major League Baseball after 2001), I'm going to try to enjoy it for as long as it lasts. And live to fight another day.

—EFQ

TOM GOLDSTEIN is publisher of Elysian Fields Quarterly. His favorite team is the 1969 Washington Senators.

This column first appeared in EFQ 18:3, Summer 2001

© 2001 Tom Goldstein

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