In the last few days, probably half-a-dozen friends who know I cover baseball for a living asked me the same question: “How do you think the Twins will do this year?” When I said, “Keep your expectations low,” they seemed relieved to know there is nothing wrong with their eyesight.
Egads. Could the first week of a season go much worse?
Embarrassment followed ineptitude in a 1-6 start, the latest loss a 12-3 shellacking by defending American League champion Kansas City in Monday’s home opener at Target Field. Three straight losses in Detroit, where the Twins were outscored 22-1, preceded two more losses in a three-game series in Chicago that saw the Twins blow a four-run lead in one — and drop three popups in the other.
Oh, and there’s more.
On Opening Day the Twins invited season ticket holders to Target Field to watch the telecast from Detroit on the big screen. One problem: The team forgot to open one of the two designated entrances, leaving two dozen bewildered patrons standing in the cold outside Gate 29.
Torii Hunter ripping umpire Joe West’s final-strike call that day played well in the clubhouse, but brought an undisclosed fine from Major League Baseball. Pitcher Ricky Nolasco, last year’s major free agent disappointment, lost the second game of that series, complained of elbow pain and went on the disabled list.
And on the final day of the series, Fox Sports North analyst Bert Blyleven spent a rain delay tweeting snotty comments about downtown Detroit. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder answered Blyleven’s snark by tweeting a photo of the Tigers A.L. Central championship banner. By the end of the day, Blyleven’s bosses at FSN and the Twins had squeezed an apology out of him.
Fortunately for the Twins, the home opener Monday sold out before anyone had actually seen them play — and before pitcher Ervin Santana’s 80-game suspension for steroid use; Santana had been slated to start.
The return of Hunter and St. Paul product Paul Molitor’s home debut as manager brought out 40,123 on a sunny, gorgeous, 61-degree afternoon, about 3,000 more than last year’s non-sellout.
But a one-sided loss offered nothing to entice them back. Two errors, three other muffed plays and an unsightly six-run eighth inning contributed to the worst home opening loss since the franchise moved from Washington in 1961.
“You feel bad about it,” Hunter said. “All these fans come out to watch the Twins play, and we didn’t play Twins baseball. I don’t know what we played. Bad News Bears baseball, I guess.”
Less than ninety minutes after Hunter tipped his helmet to acknowledge a standing ovation in his first at-bat (he walked), the crowd booed him for overthrowing a cutoff man in the sixth. The error led to three runs.
“I should be booed,” he said. “That’s the way it goes.”
In 28 years covering baseball in Boston, New York and the Twin Cities, I’m not sure I’ve seen a team begin a season as ineptly as these Twins. Losing is one thing. But losing in ways that conjure the 1962 Mets, the benchmark for baseball futility? That’s one steaming pile of not good.
Twins fans are among baseball’s most loyal and forgiving, but another summer of irrelevance might be too much for them to take. Some of my friends, Twins fans since childhood, already presume this season will be as bad as the last four.
“I can understand that,” said Twins general manager Terry Ryan. “You’ve seen it the last four years. That reaction is tough because we felt good coming out of camp. We played reasonable baseball down there in spring training. Everyone was healthy. And then here we go again. We need to change that attitude, and there’s only one way to do that – to win some baseball games.”
Said Molitor: “I can’t determine what they think. If they want to make that decision in their own mind — here we go again — I guess I can try to be empathetic to that. As a member of this organization, I know what it’s been like the last four years after having a nice run for a number of years. I can’t prevent people from having those kinds of thoughts.
“But I can’t think that way. For me, like I said back there in November and said throughout the spring, I’m looking for good things. I’m looking for something that gets us going in the right direction, some how, some way.”
When Target Field opened five years ago, the Twins cut off season ticket sales at 25,000. The Twins never expected that to last. Now, season ticket equivalents (that amalgamation of full and partial-year plans) fall between 13,000 and 14,000 – still more than the Metrodome days, but a troublesome trend. Top prospects Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton could be up a lot earlier than Ryan prefers if the losing continues and attendance sags.
Monday began with some nice touches from a club that needs all the friends it can get. In the press box, media members found three mini-chocolate chip cookies in little bags at their places, tied with “Happy Home Opener” ribbons. Molitor, as promised, changed the clubhouse music from rap and country to 60’s classics – “Stand By Me,” by Ben E. King, “Time of the Season” from the Zombies, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” by the Beatles. The Twins no longer station a guard in the runway between the clubhouse and the dugout, permitting reporters to walk directly to the field for batting practice for the first time since 2010.
Several months ago, Hunter asked Twins officials if any audio of the late public address announcer Bob Casey existed. As a nod to Casey, Hunter suggested a Casey introduction for his first at-bat. (Derek Jeter honored the late Bob Sheppard a similar way his final years in New York, stepping to the plate to a recording of Sheppard’s clipped diction.) Sam Henschen, senior manager of Twins productions, found a Hunter intro in some Casey tapes, then cannibalized “right field” from a Jacque Jones intro since Hunter played center his first time through. It made a memorable moment.
The game unraveled from there. By day’s ended, the Twins owned baseball’s highest ERA at 6.52 and a .201 team batting average.
“We’re going to hit,” second baseman Brian Dozier said. “We’re going to be just fine. Ask around. There’s a lot of optimism in this clubhouse. The best is yet to come.”
Dozier better be right. The Twins hired Molitor to clean up the sloppiness and mental mistakes that began while Ron Gardenhire was still winning division titles. So far, 2015 looks no different from 2014. Too much more of this will test not only Molitor’s patience, but everyone else’s as well.
“He’s very encouraging,” Hunter said. “I can tell you, a month from now, he won’t be very encouraging. He’s going to be going off on a lot of players, and I agree with him.”