On June 11, the Minnesota Twins were off. Francisco Liriano had blanked Baltimore the day before, and the Boston Red Sox, as fearsome as any team in the majors at that time, were due the next day for a three-game series.
Terry Ryan's experience and analysis told him it was time to do something. The Twins were 28-34 -- 11½ games behind the red-hot Detroit Tigers and 10 behind the Chicago White Sox, who had won the World Series the year before.
Even though they had two of the best pitchers in the league, Johan Santana and Liriano, and a couple of the best young hitters, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, the Twins were widely being written off. Still, Ryan knew, there was a lot of baseball to be played.
So he swallowed hard and did something almost none of his peers would have been able to do -- he admitted a mistake. A few of them, actually.
Ruben Sierra would make it to the All-Star break, but no further.
Nick Punto and Jason Bartlett went into the lineup, and the resilient team Ozzie Guillen would call "the Piranhas" was born. A 65-28 run would follow, carrying the Twins not only past the White Sox and into the playoffs but, on the last day of the season, past Detroit and to the franchise's fourth American League Central title in the past five years.
Manager Ron Gardenhire said that when the season started, the Twins weren't playing "the way we play." Ryan's plan of importing Batista and Rondell White to add power to a low-octane lineup had backfired. Batista was hitting .236 with five home runs; Castro was at .231.
So much for the big billing they had received in the offseason. But Ryan didn't hesitate to pull the plug, and in September even made jokes at his own expense.
"The GM hasn't had a very good year," Ryan said. "We just weren't a very good team at the start of the year, and my decisions had a lot to do with that."
No one doubted Ryan would respond. "So many of us get all full of ourselves, think that we walk on water," an American League GM said. "One of the great things about Terry is he just doesn't seem to have an ego. He's a baseball guy who makes baseball decisions and lets his teams speak for him."
Ryan is not infallible. He not only allowed David Ortiz to get away, an economic casualty for a front office that has always had to operate on a shoestring budget, but wound up getting nothing for the guy who would become an icon in Boston. He resurrected Kenny Rogers' career but wasn't able to keep him in Minnesota.
But in the past decade, no GM has meant more to his franchise than understated Ryan has to the Twins. His decision-making, commitment and enthusiasm have been the bridge from the Metrodome, where baseball almost died in Minneapolis, to the new baseball-only stadium that will open in 2009.
Ryan has more patience with young players than perhaps any other general manager, insisting they learn the finer points of team play in the minor leagues, then sticking with them once he's behind them. Guys like Torii Hunter, Jacque Jones, A.J. Pierzynski and Doug Mientkiewicz got to the big leagues on their all-around play, not just their hitting.
Ryan and his tireless scouts have compiled an enviable track record.
He swung a deal with Florida to finagle his way into claiming Santana from Houston in the Rule 5 draft. He absolutely fleeced San Francisco's Brian Sabean in the Pierzynski deal, getting Liriano, Joe Nathan and Boof Bonser in return. He got Eric Milton and Cristian Guzman from the Yankees, even though Chuck Knoblauch was demanding a trade, and long ago landed Joe Mays for an overripe Roberto Kelly.
Perhaps his best deal, from the perspective of Gardenhire and others who have been with the franchise, was one he declined to make for himself. The Toronto Blue Jays sought Ryan as GM when commissioner Bud Selig was targeting the Twins for elimination, but Ryan declined the offer of a professional lifeboat. He couldn't leave his friends and community behind.
That speaks loudly.
Ryan will be tested again in the near future as he faces agonizing decisions on Santana, who has two years left on his contract but appears headed toward the kind of contract the Twins never have been able to justify, and Hunter, who is in the last year of his contract.
Bet on Ryan to make the best of those situations, as he has so many others.
Next in line:
2. (tie) John Schuerholz, Atlanta; Pat Gillick, Philadelphia; and Billy Beane, Oakland
These emperors have closets full of clothes. They are the biggest names in the industry for a reason.
If there's a way to knock the success Schuerholz has had in Atlanta and Kansas City, we haven't heard it.
Gillick is the No. 1 been-there, done-that guy around. Some say he maintained his reputation by knowing when to get out, leaving Toronto and Seattle at the right time, and he has yet to get Philadelphia over the hump. Freddy Garcia and Jamie Moyer will help, but his faith in manager Charlie Manuel bears watching.
Beane's self-assuredness, as portrayed in the Michael Lewis book, "Moneyball," turned off many in the baseball business. But that's just the way he is -- not a bad thing -- and he has overseen eight consecutive winning seasons, and five playoff years, in a challenging situation in Oakland. He has kept the A's going after the breakup of their pitching big three, although this will be the first season his rotation is completely big three-free. If Beane has a fault, it's an unwillingness to value his manager and coaching staff properly.
5. Brian Cashman, Yankees
Often lost in the background of the daily drama at Yankee Stadium, Cashman has minimal ego, which has been a vital ingredient during the Joe Torre years. He has done wonders to keep the waters smooth between Torre and George Steinbrenner and consistently has pulled off the big deal when it had to be done -- witness Bobby Abreu last season. Starting pitching has been a problem in recent years, with Cashman constantly patching holes since losing Orlando Hernandez, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens, but Cashman appears to have sold the Steinbrenner cabal on the value of young pitching. Chien-Ming Wang could be followed by the likes of Philip Hughes, Humberto Sanchez, Ross Ohlendorf, Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain in future years.
6. Walt Jocketty, St. Louis
A pro's pro, Jocketty made his biggest contribution to the Cardinals when he persuaded Tony La Russa to come to town in 1996, but there's no way St. Louis wins the 2006 World Series (or goes to the playoffs in six of the past seven seasons) without Jocketty's personnel moves. Chris Carpenter and Jeff Suppan paid huge dividends after Jocketty acquired them for below-market prices, an especially important development given the percentage of payroll commanded by Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds. He's hoping bargain free agents Kip Wells, Ryan Franklin and Russ Springer bring that type of value to the 2007 team.
7. Dave Dombrowski, Detroit
If any GM suffered from vertigo, Dombrowski would be the one. He's overseen World Series teams in Florida and Detroit and experienced major lows with both franchises. He probably risked his job, if not his career, by persuading owner Mike Ilitch to take big risks on guys like Ivan Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez, Kenny Rogers and (oops) Troy Percival. His decisive move to replace popular Alan Trammell with Jim Leyland helped the earlier risks pay dividends. One other thing: Strong farm systems seem to follow him around.
(And our honorable mention after this group of seven -- Larry Beinfest, Florida, and Ken Williams, White Sox. Both men have track records that include World Series rings. Beinfest's record also shows trades that have played a big part in a quick turnaround from the post-Series downsizing. Williams built his Series team with shrewd, 50-cents-on-the-dollar acquisitions of guys like Jermaine Dye, A.J. Pierzynski and Jose Contreras and now is trying to forestall a downsizing by trading veterans for prized prospects, hopefully without compromising the chance to win now).
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com. His book, "Say It's So," a story about the 2005 White Sox, is available at bookstores, through amazon.com or by direct order from Triumph Books (800-222-4657).