Can the Twins be more "Evil" than the Yankees?
As individuals, people don't really change much, although on occasion, our respective roles in life can alter.
Perhaps that's part our attraction and fascination with sport, whereupon the fielded stage and the players upon it can transcend with each new season.
And so it is that for the fourth time since 2003, the Minnesota Twins meet the New York Yankees in the first round of the playoffs.
Of the 13 American markets sporting a team in each of the four major sports, our Twin Cities owns the longest championship drought, an inauspicious mark now at 20 years since the 1991 Twins felled the Braves in one of the finest World Series in baseball history. Now with home field advantage over the Yanks for the first time, these Twins take on the gravity of rescuing our town from two decades of title absence.
As for the defending champion Yankees, dubbed "The Evil Empire" by foes: with 27 Series titles (17 more than runner-up St. Louis), they claim the most major sport championships in all of North American sport. Only the Montreal Canadians (with 24) and the Boston Celtics (17) come close.
In postseasons of yore, the playbill pitted the Twins as "David" to the Pinstripes' "Goliath." The analogy errs, of course, because while David ultimately felled the Philistine the Twins' chucked hollow stones at the Yanks. Prior to getting swept out of last year's ALDS, our Boys were defeated 3-1 in the consecutive second-seasons of '03 and '04. In both of those series, the Twins took Game 1 at the old Yankee Stadium before losing the three successive contests. Last year, the Twins led the Yanks in all of the three games before relinquishing their lead in each. Dating to Game 2 of that 2004 set, the Twins have lost nine consecutive postseason games.
Yet this 2010 chapter of the Twins has the pen, the paper, the pedigree, and the personnel to construct an alternate script. While the Yankees still own the top payroll in baseball at over $210 million (about $50 mil more than anybody else), the Twins have now cracked MLB's top-10 salary list, cresting the $100 million mark. But this ALDS won't be defined by the green glow of money or inexperience.
This isn't the same plucky, frugal Twins of recent playoff defeats. Rather, this is one of the most dangerous clubs in baseball, playing in a sparkling new park, and sporting an impressively crafted cache of experienced veterans, budding talent, and one of the most celebrated batsmen at his position in the history of the sport.
Michael Cuddyer. Jim Thome. Carl Pavano. Joe Mauer. Orlando Hudson. Brian Fuentes.
Of course, this Twins club has its holes -- but they've successfully filled them all season long. Despite a Game 1 arm in Francisco Liriano that's making his first postseason start, a rookie third baseman, a closer lacking playoff experience and a consistent trust in power, I'm of the belief that when rubber meets road the Twins are a slightly better team than New York this go'round.
At the close of July, the Yankees and their potent lineup sported a monster record of 66-37. Since then? They're a mere 29-30. New York is indeed still a team of stars, but now the adjective of "aging" can be placed before that description. The great Derek Jeter is 36 and hit more than 40 points below his career average. Alex Rodriguez is 35 and hit the fewest homers (tied with last year's 30) in his seven years as a Yankee. Jorge Posada turned 39 in August, failed to hit .250 this year and had his fewest RBI in more than a decade. Andy Pettitte is 38 and has battled injury. Luminary closer Mariano Rivera is still effective at 40, but is striking out batters at a far lesser rate. In the words of Bob Dylan:
Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'
The Yankees aren't making one last playoff charge with this celebrated bunch -- they made it last year. "Drenched to the bone" in champagne at the close of 2009, this is now a club soaked in age.
Will all that tire tread matter in a five game series? Perhaps not. But over the course of the past two months, the Twins have evidenced that they're a more balanced club with more consistent starting pitching, more effective reserves, fresher studs, and a more fleshed-out bullpen. Now they just need to prove it.
Expect some media members to paint the Yankee aura amidst the memory George Steinbrenner, who passed in July on the day of the All Star Game. In the aftermath of 9/11, this was done aptly, and powerfully, as any ball fan outside of Arizona pulled for the Pinstripes and for one of the greatest cities in the world. But while stories of Steinbrenner's privately giving nature continue to surface after his passing, that angle won't play far from New York. The only ghost the Twins are facing is one formed of their own history.
The most powerful aura of this series won't come in the form of the Yankee Dynasty or The
Boss's leviathan monument in their park. Rather is will float through Target Field, where the club went 53-28 this year. The new home will provide an enthusiasm and an environment that the Metrodome -- as effective as it may occasionally have been in its booming austerity -- never truly could. If the club can harness that energy, take care of business in Minneapolis, and keep the ball in the park, the hands of time will strike midnight in New York and advance the Twins to their first ALCS since 2002.
Since bringing the T.C our last world championship, the Twins have readily struggled against the Yankees -- of that, there is no debate. But the times are changing.
It's time for the Twins to get Evil. I like each club to defend on their home turf, and I'm taking our Boys in five.
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