In early January, my brother called me from Des Moines in a state of angered bewilderment. He was watching a college basketball game on ESPN when, across the BottomLine, he saw a scroll announcing that the Twins had traded Johan Santana — perhaps the best pitcher in all of baseball and certainly the most dynamic — to the Mets for four prospects.
You know its bad when my brother calls me hoping for calm, because usually I’m the one wildly bouncing off walls. “Who the hell are these jokers they got from the Mets?” he asked me. I tried to explain to him that they were good prospects, and that he shouldn’t rush to judge them because he didn’t know who they were.
After all, the Twins had done this sort of thing before, and had come out better off more often than not. Heck, they’d even done it with the Mets before, trading defending Cy Young Award winner and World Series MVP Frank Viola in 1989 for five prospects — three of which were key pieces to the Twins World Champion two years later.
They’d done it to the Yankees, trading the best leadoff hitter in the game in the prime of his career, Chuck Knoblauch, for four prospects — two of which were cornerstones to their three-year playoff run from 2002-04.
My opinion was that they’d done it again — and that one or more of the prospects would be key pieces to a winner in 2010 when their new ballpark opens.
Of course, having suffered through some of the worst baseball any team has ever played from 1993-2000, my brother and I were not too thrilled at the prospect of watching the team rebuild for the future. Yet that’s exactly what they were positioning themselves to do.
They let their starting centerfielder and defacto captain walk away and sign an overpriced deal with the Angels, a move I actually applauded. Torii Hunter was great once, and he’s still good now but in three years? He’ll be past his prime and still making HUGE dollars, and the Angels will be wishing they hadn’t given him the long contract.
They traded away their best pitcher. Oh, sure they resigned their MVP first baseman and All-Star right fielder to big contracts, but those seemed more like PR moves to keep the fanbase from a full-on revolt than anything else.
The “experts” almost universally picked them to finish fourth in their division, better only than the lowly Kansas City Royals. I disagreed, but only to a small degree: I figured best-case they would finish with around 78 wins and in third place. After all, the Indians had been a few outs from the World Series the year before and returned every single player from that team, most of them young and in the prime of their careers. The Tigers spent Yankee-type money to field an offense that looked invincible. I looked at things and wondered if the Twins could have competed even WITH Santana and Hunter.
On Opening Night, one of the players from the Mets in the Santana trade made a big first impression. Carlos Gomez showed that he is arguably the fastest player in the majors, smacking the ball all over the field and running crazy on the bases — and leading the team to a win in the first game of the year.
My brother, ever the realist, tempered my enthusiasm. “Their pitching is awful young, and 25% of their schedule is against the Tigers and Indians.”
True. What we didn’t count on is the Tigers fielding an expensive team that would lose 20 of their first 25 games, finding themselves buried by the end of April. The Indians, too, struggled, and it was the White Sox — a veteran team I thought was washed up — who took control of the division.
Throughout May, my Dad tried to tell me the Twins had a chance. “If they can make a run, the White Sox can be beaten!”
I figured there was no way this team of rookies could compete. This wasn’t Hollywood, and these weren’t actors unconvincingly pretending to be athletes. Yet there they were, hovering around .500 through May. June and July came and went, and the Tigers were proven to be frauds, falling out of the race entirely by mid-season. So too did the Indians, who traded away their best players at the end of July for prospects, effectively throwing in the towel on the season.
That left the veteran White Sox and the young Twins to battle for the division. National media types were quick to dismiss the Twins, thinking they would do what young teams do: fold in August and September. But for seven glorious weeks, the two teams battled back and forth, taking turns being in first place, neither team building a lead larger than 2.5 games.
When the teams last met in late July, fans were already circling the last week of September on their calendars. Three games with the Sox, at home.
“If the Twins can stay within a couple of games when that series rolls around…” we said. And here we are, in the last week of the season, and the Sox came to Minnesota with a 2.5 game lead.
The Twins promptly slapped them around the ballpark in the first game, knocking their starting pitcher out of the game early and rolling to a 9-3 win. My dad, brother and I were on the phone the entire night, sharing moments of disbelief. At one point I yelled so loudly at the TV that my neighbors rang the doorbell, concerned I’d hurt myself. “Jason Kubel just hit his second home run of the night!” I told them. I’m pretty sure they think I’m insane, and I probably am.
After all, I was wearing an authentic Twins jersey, cap and wristbands. In my living room. Shut up.
Wednesday night, the Twins won again, this time in a low-scoring high-drama pitchers duel, 3-2. Again my brother and I traded texts back and forth, and when they recorded the final out, we couldn’t believe this team was in this position.
.5 game out, 4 games to play, one of which is against the team you’re chasing. All at home.
The team we’d both written off in January, left for dead in April, and waited to collapse in August was now just a couple of wins away from a playoff berth in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Absolutely amazing.