By Jesse Marx
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As the Twins took the field last Wednesday to try to complete a series sweep against the West-leading Oakland A's, GM Terry Ryan sat in a packed press box surveying the field with raptor-sharp eyes. No, insisted the tall, prepossessing Ryan—the impending return of his overpowering rookie lefthander, Francisco Liriano, his overpowering rookie lefthander, Francisco Liriano, did not make this the most important game of the stretch run. "You get into this part of the season," Ryan says evenly, "every game's important. Today's no more important than yesterday." The idea, he figures, is to just keep winning series one at a time, so that none of your games become do-or-die. He is affable but emphatically terse on the subject of the club's needs past this season: "All those things are for a later time. Which is good. We should enjoy this moment."
It was a moment worth savoring: Ryan's team led the AL Wild Card chase by two and a half games over the defending champion White Sox, and trailed the once-invincible first-place Detroit Tigers by just a single game in the lost column. Ryan has seen a number of successful teams in his 20-plus years with the franchise—first as scouting director, then VP of player personnel, before being named the club's general manager in September 1994—but none has ever rivaled the shot-down-in-April, ridin'-high-in-July drama of the '06 Twins. Entering the season as a dark horse pick for the Wild Card, the club spent the month of April stinking up stadiums around the league. It was a total team effort. As of May 2, the Twins were dead last among 30 major league teams in scoring, and tied for 27th in runs allowed. With the exception of the lowly Kansas City Royals, they were statistically the worst team in baseball, and the Terry Ryan/Ron Gardenhire strategy of building for '06 with journeymen veterans like Tony Batista, Juan Castro, and Rondell White looked like a bust.
Then, in Ryan's words, "a lot of things started to happen," many of them spurred by personnel changes that Ryan and Gardenhire began making to the starting lineup and the pitching rotation. They went to the bullpen and the minor leagues to fortify the latter, a move that started Francisco Liriano on his abortive breakout season. The middle-of-the-lineup troika of Joe Mauer, Michael Cuddyer, and Justin Morneau started hitting. Batista and Castro disappeared in favor of Nick Punto and Jason Bartlett. (Trivia question: When was the last time a team cashiered half its opening-day infield for non-performance and still wound up contending for the playoffs deep into September?)
Around baseball, Ryan is known as one of the premier judges and traders of horseflesh in the game. After his own pitching career as a Twins prospect came to an end—he was 10-0 in 1973, before an arm injury finished him—Ryan got a degree from the University of Wisconsin and went on to become a Midwest scout for the New York Mets. He joined the Twins as scouting director in 1986 and succeeded the much-celebrated Andy MacPhail as GM after the strike-shortened 1994 season.
It's too bad for Ryan that the 2002 non-tendering of David Ortiz has become one of his best-known personnel moves, because on the whole he's amassed a remarkable record of collecting talent, often at bargain-basement prices. As far as the 2006 roster is concerned, start with the 1999 acquisition of Rule 5 pick Johan Santana. In 2002, Ryan snatched shortstop Jason Bartlett from the San Diego Padres for a fading utility outfielder, Brian Buchanan. In 2003, he got Nick Punto and Carlos Silva from the Phillies for an effectively washed-up starter, Eric Milton. And he pulled off what may yet prove to be the best trade in baseball since St. Louis nabbed Mark McGwire for three going-nowhere relievers, swapping A.J. Piersynzski to the Giants for Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano, and Boof Bonser. Along the way, he kept an eye out for useful pieces that had been discarded by others—like the invaluable lefty late-innings specialist Dennys Reyes, signed to a minor-league contract last winter.
If the Twins make the playoffs, Ryan is sure to contend once again for the Sporting News MLB Executive of the Year award he won in 2002. But that's another of those subjects he would rather leave to another time. Right now he's busy. In the top of the third inning, about 45 minutes after Ryan extended his hammer-lock handshake and exited the press box, Francisco Liriano walked off the mound and out of the Twins' pennant run.
"He's done," WCCO-AM late-night host Dark Star told the people near him in the press box after checking with club sources. "Done," he added, making a cutting motion across his left arm. A couple of flights down, in the bowels of the Metrodome, Terry Ryan was no doubt already on the case.
City Pages:Most people only hear of a baseball team's GM when he makes a trade or signs a free agent. What's an average workday for the general manager of a contending major league team down the stretch of a season?