Major-league baseball asks an awful lot of its fans, which is one obvious and overlooked reason why the sport has such a difficult time attracting and commanding the attention of so much of the populace. One hundred sixty-two games, for crying out loud, spring training, box scores, Baseball Tonight, fantasy leagues, ESPN SportsZone, the Hot Stove League. Show me a serious, pathological baseball fan and I'll show you a severely malnourished, socially awkward knucklehead who's looking for order in all the wrong places and wasting hundreds of precious hours on a sport where the line between punishment and reward frequently shifts from inning to inning and game to game.
It was hard not to be reminded of that difficult truth as I sat on my couch watching the Twins and White Sox lurch through a sloppy seesaw brawl at the new Comiskey Park a couple Saturdays ago. On the surface a meaningless, midseason contest between two teams bumbling along in the middle of the mongrel pack that is the atrocious American League Central division, the game was nonetheless a perfect, time-lapse example of the sort of exaggerated manic depression that major-league baseball can induce on any given night.
When Terry Steinbach, who has been driving in runs at a Jeff Reboulet pace all season, lashed a Bill Simas fastball that skipped by right fielder Magglio Ordonez to bring home Todd Walker from first with the tying run, the Twins completed a two-out, four-run ninth-inning comeback that tied the score and drove die-hard fans whooping from their couches and easy chairs in at least a dozen homes all across the upper Midwest. A base-running blunder by Frank Thomas in the bottom of the ninth allowed Rick Aguilera to work out of a ridiculous jam and send the game into extra innings. The Twins and Sox then proceeded to swap go-ahead and tying runs in the 10th and 11th innings, until Aguilera eventually surrendered the tying and game-winning runs in the bottom of the 11th, and what had been shaping up as perhaps the Twins' most inspired win of the season turned into just another messy heartbreaker.
One of the pleasures of taking in baseball games in the privacy of your own home is the opportunity it affords even the most repressed fan to carry on like the crassest of ballpark louts, and by the time Aguilera had served up the game winner I was half-dressed, hoarse from bellowing obscenities, and staring miserably at an almost empty jumbo bag of circus peanuts. What was so particularly galling about that loss was that a game the team had no business winning had quickly turned into a game they had to win, and the Twins haven't been in a game like that for what seems like years.
The irrational fan in you could be forgiven for reading too much into the missed opportunity, but for those who have been paying close attention to this year's Twins team, the loss in Chicago had the sour feeling of a potentially pivotal game for a team that had thus far outperformed all expectations, and in completely unexpected ways, yet had little to show for it in the won-lost column. Because all season the Twins have looked an awful lot like a team that is a player or two, a flurry of long balls, and maybe one solid stretch away from being a competent and, dare I say, competing team. For fans literally spoiled by the awful pitching and anemic offense of the last several seasons, this year's club has provided plenty of small and pleasant surprises, and in the Twins' struggle to get their heads above the .500 mark it's easy to overlook the tremendous advances they've made and how close they are to finally regaining a measure of respectability.
The big surprise, of course, has been the pitching. After years of Mile High-worthy earned run averages the Twins have put together their most solid sustained stretch of pitching since the 1992 season, and have managed to hang in there with the American League team leaders through the first three months, leading the league in fewest walks allowed by a huge margin, and shaving almost a run off last year's ERA in the process. With the continual and astonishing development of Brad Radke, de facto pitching coaches like Bob Tewksbury and Mike Morgan, a couple of nice young projects in LaTroy Hawkins and Eric Milton, and the remarkably stable and durable bullpen, the Twins' pitchers have proved that they can keep the team in virtually every game, as evidenced by their 24 one-run games (in which they are 10-14) and nine extra-inning contests (2-7) to date.
The fact is, however, that coming off last year's disasters, that progress, while certainly encouraging, is still only half the battle. That the Twins are the only sub-.500 team in the majors that has scored more runs than it has allowed is almost completely to the pitching staff's credit, because almost any way you care to look at it, the Twins' offense hasn't held up its end of the deal. The various local corporations that participate in home-run promotions at the Dome--providing prizes to fans and cash for charity for every Twins homer--are getting more promotional bang for their buck than anyone in professional sports.