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The Life


September 18, 2002
The Who?
ESPN The Magazine

Twins: Infield | Catcher | Metrodome

The Twins were supposed to be dead by now, buried alongside the Federal League, the Rockford Peaches and those House of David barnstormers. So this year's story is even better than Minnesota's worst-to-first 1991 season saga. This time Minnesota has gone from six feet under to 12 games up, nearing the postseason and ready to turn a scheduled funeral into a champagne-popping celebration of life.

Minnesota Twins
 
And everyone is invited. The jerseys may say Minnesota, but as we said in the spring, the Twins are America's Team, the club that faced down commissioner Bud Selig and owner Carl Pohlad to save baseball not just in the Twin Cities but everywhere. While the Padres' John Moores threatened to shut down the game, the Twins weakened ownership's harsh stance with their stubborn position atop the AL Central, providing ample proof that with persistence, strong scouting and a little revenue-sharing, you still can win no matter your population base. The Twins didn't sign a free agent first baseman for $120 million or a shortstop for $252 million. They didn't sign any free agents last year other than reliever Mike Jackson, who didn't have any other options. Instead, the Twins built themselves in a way as old-school as baggy flannels -- with a couple of shrewd trades and a solid, patient farm system. Calvin Griffith would be proud, especially of a payroll that is among the game's lowest. "George Steinbrenner's way has been pretty successful too," says manager Ron Gardenhire. "But this is the only way we could do it."

Torii Hunter, Brad Radke, Jacque Jones, Corey Koskie, A.J. Pierzynski, Eddie Guardado -- all signed their first contracts with the Twins. And those who didn't -- Joe Mays, Eric Milton and Cristian Guzman among them -- made their major league debuts in Twins uniforms.

More than anything, this is GM Terry Ryan's team. He put the club together, trading Chuck Knoblauch for Milton and Guzman, drafting Radke, recycling cans to meet payroll. He sweated for the Twins, and bled for them. When he was scouting director, in 1989, a bat whipsawed out of a hitter's hands, slipped through the backstop and hit Ryan's forehead, splitting the skin wide open. Was the pain any worse than what he felt as GM during the bleak years of striking big leaguers, replacement players, Kirby Puckett's career-ending glaucoma, dwindling crowds and a threatened move to Mayberry?

So when Selig and Pohlad tried to whack the Twins, Ryan just shrugged, passed on a job interview with the Blue Jays and told everyone to keep at it. While the locals went to court to keep the team alive, Ryan kept it alive on the field. It was little more than business as usual for the game's most stable front office. Minnesota's player development and scouting department has been as constant as the cast of Friends during Ryan's tenure. Tom Kelly, the Twins lifer who managed them for more than 15 years, still shows up to throw BP. That constancy is reflected in the 2002 Twins, as much a "team" as you'll find in modern sports. They rose through the minors, struggled through the lean years and survived contraction together, becoming a living example of the solidarity shown in the Twins old handshake-across-the-Mississippi cartoon logo.

"To be here with all these guys who've come up together is special," Denny Hocking says. "To come up in this organization and be here when we jump up and down like idiots on the field, it's going to be moving. It will be mass hysteria."

Says Ryan, "It all seems worthwhile with the past five months we've had. But we still have a bit farther to go." True, the Twins haven't won anything yet, and they get the winner of the A's-Angels in the West. But on nights when Jones is going deep, Hunter is reaching over the fence for a catch and Guardado hears "Eddie! Eddie!" while he closes another win, it's almost like the good old days in Minny. Even the Homer Hankies are back.

"What we're doing is not an aberration," Hocking says. "We've paid our dues. The commissioner should be happy there are a few small-market teams -- us and Oakland -- that are making a playoff run."

Everyone else is.

This article appears in the September 30 issue of ESPN The Magazine.



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