A Bear Market

The Twins can't lose, but their mascot is struggling down the stretch

It's gotten to the point where finding fault with the Twins requires either microscopic nitpicking or foaming-at-the-mouth delirium, and though you can still find plenty of both raging unabated in the fan chat rooms, what, honestly, is there to complain about? That the team's stolen base success rate leaves something to be desired? I guess so, loser, but through the weekend the team had a 14-game lead in the division, the most hits in the majors (nobody even close), most doubles (nobody close), and were tied with the Yankees for highest team batting average (.281) and second to New York in total bases. The bullpen continues to be unbelievable, they'll soon have more capable starting pitchers than they know what to do with, and they have two guys platooning in right field and tearing it up who both deserve to play every day; they've been 14-3 since the All-Star break (averaging 6.5 runs a game) and 18-6 in July. Even Bob Wells, for crying out loud, has come off the disabled list (after having bone gravel removed from his elbow) to throw four and-a-third scoreless innings. Scoreless! That means not a single home run! Sports fans, can you say "Team of destiny"?

So good are the Twins, in fact, that both of our Metropolitan dailies spent considerable space over the weekend bemoaning the potentially harmful effects of the team's divisional domination on attendance down the stretch. My God, a mere four months into the season and already the local sporting public is bored with excellence? Could the Twins have actually somehow managed to accomplish in four short months--boring their fans with victory--what it took teams like Atlanta and Cleveland years of relentless success to pull off? I guess we'll find out, especially since a strike seems increasingly less inevitable by the week.

Despite the Twins success on the field, however, and guarded optimism about the labor situation, there has been growing concern at the Metrodome, among team officials as well as some diehard fans, about the post-All Star slump of the Twins hulking and almost assuredly bipolar mascot, TC Bear.

For at least a couple years now, before Saturday games at the Dome, the Twins have hosted a homerun-hitting contest featuring fans, local celebrities, and TC Bear. The bear, it turns out, has demonstrated remarkable prowess as a power hitter. Really remarkable. Suspiciously remarkable, if you see where this is going. After he so thoroughly dominated last year's competition, there were the inevitable nasty rumors, ranging from the obvious (performance enhancing drugs) to the outrageous (the bear was none other than retired Twin slugger Kent Hrbek in a bear suit). Despite the controversy the bear still did his job, still exhorted the fans, waved to children, banged on his drum, and fired some sort of Mountain Dew cannon loaded with tee-shirts into the crowd between innings. Most people, children in particular, seemed willing to accept the fact that a loveable, huggable mascot could also have astonishing power from the left side.

The bear picked up this year right where he left off, generally humiliating the competition every Saturday night at the Dome. There were times, throughout June, when TC resorted to some uncharacteristic and unseemly gloating. There was talk from contestants and even some of the bear's handlers that he was increasingly abusive and difficult to work with; some participants backed out of the contest and complained of feeling intimidated by the bear, even threatened. There were allegedly a few voices--disregarded at the time--in the Twins front office who felt that it was not quite proper for the team mascot to comport himself with such menace and swagger.

You can't really blame the poobahs, though; the bear was a big attraction. The homerun competition was one of the more popular features on the club's crowded promotional slate. Folks got to the ballpark early to check out TC's latest display of towering moon shots into the bleachers, above the baggy, and into the folded blue seats in right center. Nobody had ever seen a bear hit like that. One press box wag said he'd recently seen a bear entered into a homerun contest at a minor league park (some operator trying to capitalize on the popularity of TC Bear, no doubt) and the bear hadn't managed to get a single ball in the air. "Groundballs," the guy said. "Dribblers, slow rollers, and little bleeders. Poor bastard made a fool of himself. The kids were howling with laughter and throwing Milk Duds."

Going into the All-Star break, TC was still the undisputed champion of the Saturday night homerun derby. Every week a host of hapless local media personalities, corporate sponsors, rock stars, B-movie actors, and average Joes would be paraded out there behind second base to be humiliated by the bear. There was grumbling in the press box during the first months of the season that the mascot was beginning to neglect his other duties and was spending an increasing amount of time in a batting cage in the bowels of the stadium, or in the clubhouse weight room.

Nobody seems quite sure what happened, but TC returned from the break a different bear. Something was clearly wrong, and there were rampant rumors of domestic problems, substance abuse, a bum shoulder, and a salary squabble. One weekend the bear unthinkably failed to hit a single homerun, and was bested by a representative of Lawson Software, increasingly obscure Australian actor Yahoo Serious, and even retired Star Tribune columnist Barbara Flanagan. Last Saturday night, TC again failed to hit a ball out of the park, faced his first round of boos, and was thoroughly trounced by not only FOXSports Net's Clay Matvick (who hit five homeruns), but also by KARE-11's hyperactive sports spaniel, Eric Perkins (who hit one).

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