Eight Men In

Craig Bares

With the potential fate of the Twins hinging on yesterday's (May 5) stadium referendum vote in Forsyth and Guilford counties in North Carolina, and with local sports fans buzzing about a Timberwolves playoff run that should spur bittersweet recollections of Minnesota's World Series triumphs in 1987 and 1991, this seems like the perfect opportunity to point out that there's no time like the present to rekindle your relationship with the Twins. Fans are still staying away from the beleaguered Dome, but this year's squad includes an entertaining and easy-to-root-for mix of prospects, seasoned veterans, and reclamation projects, with the promise of enough tantalizing daily dramas and subplots to keep everyone from the casual to the most jaded fan occupied over the long haul. Throw in the behind-the-scenes stadium intrigue, an uncertain future, and legendary broadcaster Herb Carneal's decision to forsake the road, and it would be an understatement to say that this season represents a pivotal point in the franchise's storied history in Minnesota.

Here, then, is one fan's list of good reasons to pay close attention to the 1998 Twins:

Ron Coomer: April 18th's Ron Coomer poster night might have been the most charming evidence that this is a franchise in a whole lot of trouble. As unfair as it might seem, the marquee teams don't give away 15,000 posters featuring blue-collar players like Coomer, the 31-year-old third baseman who came over from the Dodgers in the 1995 Kevin Tapani/Mark Guthrie trade. But it's a sweet story nonetheless, because Coomer, a guy who spent nine years in the minors before getting his first big-league shot with the Twins, is flat-out a guy who wakes up every day thrilled to be able to put on a major-league uniform. A hard worker and ardent student of hitting--he runs his own hitting school, Swingtown, in Chicago during the off-season--Coomer never got his opportunity with the Dodgers, despite the fact that Los Angeles had a serious hole at third base the entire time he languished in their minor-league system, posting terrific numbers at every stop along the way. He finally earned a shot at the Twins' full-time third-base job last year and responded with decent numbers and a tangible enthusiasm that quickly made him a fan favorite. Coomer feasts on left-handed pitching--he hit an astounding .415 against lefties last season--and his short, compact swing allows him to take pitches the other way and yank the occasional ball out of the yard. Twins fans would love to see him increase his power numbers, but the club can certainly live with his otherwise solid production and defense, and there is perhaps no player in the Twins' lineup who is more fun to watch or easier to root for.

Brad Radke: On a pitching staff that has given fans little to cheer about over the last five seasons, Radke has emerged as a consummate craftsman and has become the Twins' stopper. Thrust into the starting rotation in 1995, when he was 22 years old, Radke has racked up big innings every season while improving his numbers across the board. In his breakout season last year--during which he went 20-10 and pitched 2392/3 innings--Radke cut down the home runs that had dogged him in his first two seasons and posted a strikeout/walk ratio that was among the league leaders. A highly motivated self-starter without even a whiff of attitude--exactly the kind of player who seems to thrive under Tom Kelly--Radke throws strikes, mixes his pitches masterfully, works quickly, and gives the team a chance to win virtually every time out. Still only 25 years old, he has already won 45 games, and despite concerns over the huge number of innings he has pitched, he has shown all the signs of having the durability and intelligence necessary to continue his reign as an ace long into the future.

Mike Trombley: There are only two players on the '98 roster who have ever played for a winning Twins team, and most fans would likely be surprised to learn that Trombley is one of them. (The other holdover from the 1992 team that won 90 games is Rick Aguilera.) Trombley was mostly a starter on that '92 squad, and he eventually ended up in Tom Kelly's doghouse and back at Salt Lake City in Triple A, where he perfected a nasty split-finger fastball and made the successful transition to reliever, allowing him to regain Kelly's confidence and assume his place as one of the workhorses in the Twins' bullpen, appearing in 67 games last year and striking out 74 batters in 821/3 innings. With his splitter to set up his above-average fastball and entertaining assortment of off-speed slop, Trombley seems to get better every year, and at 31 appears to be hitting his stride--check out his 0.74 ERA through 17 appearances this season, with 25 strikeouts and only nine walks. Along with Eddie Guardado and Greg Swindell, his fellow converted left-handed starters in the bullpen, Trombley gives the Twins one of the most durable and competent middle-relief corps in the league.

David Ortiz: With any luck--and God knows the Twins are due for some of that--the 22-year-old Ortiz could make the 1996 Twins/Mariners stretch-drive trade that brought the slugging first baseman aboard in exchange for Dave Hollins as regrettable for Seattle as the more controversial swap in which they sent top prospect Jose Cruz, Jr., to Toronto for relievers Mike Timlin and Paul Spoljaric. Ortiz, a hulking left-handed free swinger who recalls Dave Parker or Mo Vaughn at the plate, has rapidly established himself as perhaps the most engaging Twin since Kirby Puckett, and a batting-practice attraction worth getting to the ballpark early for. He's going to rack up the strikeouts, but he has already shown signs of being able to battle left-handers, and in a lineup desperately in need of power, he figures to get every chance to take his hacks and put up some numbers. It's too early to talk Rookie of the Year, but this is a kid who has a chance to be special.

Paul Molitor: You can't reiterate enough how lucky Twins fans are to see the 41-year-old Molitor play on a daily basis, as he continues his astonishing assault on the baseball record books--3,200 hits and counting. If he were nothing but a hitting machine, he would still justify the price of a ticket, but day in and day out Molitor does all the little things that so perfectly exemplify Tom Kelly's obsessive fundamental approach to the game. Whether he's at the plate or on the base paths, Molitor continues to be baseball's best one-man clinic on how the game is supposed to be played. Even when he's injured or struggling, Molitor seems to find ways to help his team. If this is in fact his last season, that's all the more reason to drag your kids to the ballpark to see one of baseball's all-time greats, consummate professionals, and class acts.

Todd Walker: It's been a (typically) rocky road for the latest can't-miss Twins prospect, what with position changes, struggles at the plate and in the field, and an apparent clash of wills with manager Tom Kelly. But finally, at age 24, Walker seems to be getting comfortable and gaining at least a measure of confidence. Through the season's first month, he has managed to scoot his average well above .300, has walked more than he's struck out, and appears to be settling in at second base. The real challenge will come when and if Kelly begins to pencil him in the lineup against left-handers, and with the horrific struggles of Brent Gates--a guy who has hit only .257 against lefties for his career--one would certainly think that time would have to come soon. In limited duty against left-handers last year, Walker hit .357, and he's done just fine when given the opportunity this year; he's 5 for 9 thus far. In light of Walker's progress, fans will certainly be keeping a close eye on Chuck Knoblauch's struggles with the first-place Yankees (a .235 average with 14 runs scored through 25 games), and it'll be interesting to see how Knoblauch responds to those struggles now that he's on a winner.

Bob Tewksbury and Mike Morgan: The Twins' pitching staff has been the big surprise of the young season, leading the league in earned run average through the first month and shaving almost two runs per game off their combined ERA from last April. I'm certainly not optimistic enough to expect them to keep up this pace, but I do believe the team's pitching will continue to be much improved if veteran journeymen Tewksbury and Morgan manage to stay healthy. Along with Radke, the two crafty old-timers give the Twins a decent front line of inning-gobbling, quick-working pitchers, which has so far resulted in few of the nightmare three-and-a-half-hour marathons of recent seasons, and provides some hope that at least most nights fans can get home from the ballpark in time for Letterman.

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