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Twins lack passion, panache — and maybe heart

Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Nick Blackburn throwing the first pitch
REUTERS/Eric Miller
Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Nick Blackburn throwing the first pitch of the Twins' home opener.

Their old breakfast hangout, the Original Pancake House in Bloomington, is too far a schlepp from downtown Minneapolis, so some of the Minnesota Twins Class of 2002 met up Monday morning at classier digs: Manny’s, in the Foshay Tower.

That’s where Torii Hunter and LaTroy Hawkins, now with the Los Angeles Angels, and the retired Eddie Guardado, Jacque Jones, Brad Radke and Joe Mays busted on each other as always, laughing and retelling old stories. Some of them, anyway. “We couldn’t say a lot because Eddie’s kids were with him,” Hunter said.

The merriment continued later at Target Field, where those six joined Denny Hocking, Doug Mientkiewicz, Eric Milton, Corey Koskie, then-and-now manager Ron Gardenhire and four coaches to throw out first balls before the Twins home opener against the Angels. Hunter and Hawkins, who left the Twins under less-than-cordial circumstances, acted all huggy and appreciative with the crowd’s eyes on them. But they couldn’t unload their ceremonial baseballs fast enough, rolling them over the dugout roof as soon as they jogged off the field.

The 2002 team remains the only one to win a playoff series with Gardenhire as manager, and the festivities afforded a temporary distraction to a reality as cold as the afternoon gusts. Ten years later, the qualities that made that scruffy bunch so tough and so lovable – the grit, the hustle, the defense, the whole Little Engine That Could mentality – escape the present-day Twins. And it may take years to get them back.

A troubling sign

Monday’s 5-1 loss left the Twins 0-4 for the first time since 1981, and one loss away from the worst start since the club moved from Washington in 1961. The game wasn’t 15 minutes old when the Angels turned an old Twins staple around on them, a troubling sign that foretold the rest of the day.

The slow-footed Albert Pujols, rarely known for hustling as a Cardinal, lumbered from first to third in the first inning because center fielder Denard Span – normally one of the most aggressive Twins – chased a Kendrick Morales single to his left as if it had a lit fuse. Two runs followed. “We would first-and-third you to death,” said Mientkiewicz, the old first baseman and a rookie hitting coach in the Dodgers system. “I hear that in my sleep sometimes.” And in the seventh, Erick Aybar suicide-squeezed home a run that finished off L.A.’s 5-1 victory.

The Angels, Texas and Tampa Bay all play like the Twins used to, only with better players, and the Rays supplanted the Twins as the limited-budget model of building a division champion through scouting and player development.

Ten bucks says the 2002 Twins would kick this team’s butt nine games out of 10, which is a disgrace given the discrepancy in payroll ($40.2 million then, $94.1 million now) and the presence of home-grown former Most Valuable Players Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer in the lineup. Their arrival helped transform the Twins from that slap-and-run, bunny-cute operation to a heavily left-handed slugging team, perfect for the Metrodome but ill-suited to the unfriendly winds of Target Field.

In 10 years, the whole personality of the franchise has changed. Practical jokes abounded on that 2002 team, some perpetrated by Gardenhire himself. Hunter and Mientkiewicz praised Gardenhire for fostering a loose clubhouse and an aggressive style that bred confidence, making up for a lack of power and dominant pitching. Nobody scared those guys. Today’s Twins cower in the presence of Yankee pinstripes.

Twins system

The 2002 players earned their way to the majors by rising through the Twins system, with some acquired by general manager Terry Ryan. After an 85-win sendoff for Tom Kelly in 2001, the club sweated out the threat of contraction before running away with the A.L. Central the next year.

The Moneyball acolytes might not tell you this, but those Twins stole a five-game Division Series from an Oakland A’s team that started Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Tim Hudson, the most formidable rotation in baseball outside of Atlanta’s Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. They beat Hudson in Game 4 and Mulder in Game 5 to close it out, which seems more and more unbelievable with each passing season.

Joe Mauer catching a throw to first base on a ball hit by Peter Bourjos during the ninth inning.
REUTERS/Eric MillerJoe Mauer catching a throw to first base on a ball hit by Peter Bourjos during the ninth inning.

“When people told us we couldn’t do something, we proved them wrong,” Mientkiewicz said. “And we took it personal. They called us a 4-A team, guys who were too good for Triple A but not good enough to play in the big leagues. That motivated us.”

No one reflected that better than the resilient Guardado. Thrust into the closer’s role in 2001 when the harder-throwing Hawkins couldn’t handle the pressure, “Everyday Eddie” saved 45 games, then a club record, without a single dominant pitch. Often, Guardado’s tendency for drama sent Gardenhire’s blood pressure through the roof. In Game 5 Guardado nearly blew a 5-1 lead for Radke, giving up four hits in the ninth (one a three-run homer by Mark Ellis) before second baseman Hocking ran down Ray Durham’s foul pop for the final out with the tying run at first.

“I said to Andy [pitching coach Rick Anderson], 'Go out and talk to him,' "  Gardenhire said.  “He told Andy, `I can’t spit.’ That’s perfect. But he got them out.”

We saw a glimpse of the old Twins Way in the third, when Mauer scrambled to second after catcher Chris Iannetta blocked a C.J. Wilson pitch in the dirt. That put two runners in scoring position for Morneau, one of the few strong-swinging Twins, but he tapped to the mound to end the inning. Newcomer Josh Willingham crushed a leadoff homer off the second-deck ribbon board in the fourth, his second of the season (no other Twin has any), and just missed another in sixth. But that’s been it for power. The Twins are batting .165 as a team and have yet to lead in any game.

It’s hard to imagine the Twins playing this badly all year, even coming off a 99-loss season. But it’s equally hard to imagine this roster, especially the younger players, clawing and scrapping like their counterparts from 10 years ago. Today’s Twins lack passion, panache and maybe a little heart. Monday, they didn’t need to look far to see what’s missing.

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Comments (9)

Spot-on article. I'm sure

Spot-on article. I'm sure Mauer and Morneau are nice guys but they aren't the kind of leader that a languishing, rudderless team needs to keep from falling apart.

Personally, I am calling it the curse of the spruce tree. Their record is 63-103 since the trees were torn down.

Haven't heard that one yet...

..and you may be onto something.

NEED NEW MANAGER

We could use a managerial change for this team to turn around.
By the way, the threat of contraction was pure science fiction as was the impending sale to Donald Beaver. It is unconscionable that the media continues to foster such nonsense.

At that time, contraction wasn't science fiction...

...to Twins employees, all the way to the executive office. I've talked to quite a few of them about it and they were genuinely scared it would happen. Put yourself in their shoes for a second. Ever work at a business with threats of layoffs? Ever fear for your job? The unknown makes people queasy. That's what they were going through. Now, of course, we know it was a ruse, and it's easy to sit here 11 years later and question why anyone took it seriously. But it's neither unconscionable nor unfair to refer to it, because it sure felt real to those directly affected. The Beaver thing, however, is another story.

High Cost "Loyalty" Mistakes by Ownership

Mauer's nine-figure contract doesn't crack the top 3 in this department.

Number 3 - Papering over the Bill Smith promotion debacle (see number 1) by exhuming the body of Terry Ryan. Ryan was a great GM and had more to do with the Little Engine that Could Era than anyone. He retired. Now, seemingly as a favor to the organization, he un-retired. There are a lot of great young(er) minds all over baseball from whom the Twins could have chosen. Instead, they chose to be lazy with this mulligan.

Number 2 - Keeping Gardy far too long. Great guy, I know. Only playoff series win: 2002, last playoff game win: 2004, playoff record: 6-21. Series wins since July 18, 2011: 2 (out of 23). The juice in that orange was gone a long time ago. Next.

Number 1 - Promoting Bill Smith to a position for which he was badly over matched. Handing the keys to the kingdom to a fine, loyal number two who happens to use the same executive restroom as you is no way to select a General Manager for a major league baseball team. The structural issues the Twins now face are due in large measure to decisions made up and down the organization under Bill Smith's tenure as General Manager.

On a positive note, with the long-overdue departure of John Gordon, the Twins once again have a Major League quality radio play-by-play talent in Cory Provus. Best signing they've had since Ryan left the first time.

Quality analysis - every time

I am sure I am not the only reader who is always glad to see Pat Borzi's byline.

Good article, but...

the 2002 Twins were 0-6 vs the Yankees (including the 14-inning disaster on 5/17/02 when the Twins scored 3 runs in the top of the 14th only to let Jason Giambi hit a grand slam to win the game - one of the defining moments of his career in New York). So, the Twins "cower[ing] in the presence of Yankee pinstripes" really includes the entire Gardenhire era.

The Giambi grand slam in the rain

I covered that game for the Newark Star-Ledger, all five hours and 45 minutes of it. Dylan's right about the Twins-Yankees record that season, but at the time it was an anomaly. The Twins had been a lot more competitive against the Yankees, winning four out of six in 2001 and splitting 10 games in 2000. The Yankees won every season series from 1993 to '99, when the Twins really stunk, but the Twins managed to steal three or four games every year. From being around the Mientkiewicz/Hunter/Koskie group beginning in late 2002, I never sensed they feared the Yankees. They just got beat by the better team. But from 2008 on, I think the repeated season series and playoff failures to the Yankees got in guys' heads, magnified by the the 2009 and 2010 Division Series sweeps. That's apparent every time anyone asks Gardenhire about it.

So who is going to be the man to step up?

Looking up and down the line up there doesn't seem to be much in the way of out going guys to push this team. Of the team veterans only Span seems like he has the mentality. My outside shot is Burroughs. From what I have heard the guy is motivated and wants to make the most out of his second chance. Well and maybe he can teach Danny Valencia where to stand to the ball doesn't get shot down the line with guys on base every time.