Go Figure

Ron Coomer is hitting over .300--just a little better than the entire Cleveland ballclub

Circumstances surrounding the Minnesota Twins being what they are--wretched, in a word--a little absurd perspective might be mildly encouraging at this point of the season: Through the first two months, the Twins have put up offensive numbers that would have had them right in the hunt for the 1968 American League pennant. That season, fans might recall, the league batting average was .238, the earned run average 2.98. Unfortunately for the Twins organization and its fans, however, the rest of the league is hitting Twins pitching like it's 1938, when the league ERA was 5.04 and teams batted a collective .289. Certainly the local professional team continues to give its paying customers plenty of reason to consider the broader definitions of the word offensive.

God love 'em, but the numbers are starting to get very ugly indeed. A few examples (and the Twins' 18-32 record through Monday's game) should suffice: Despite an epidemic of home runs that is fast approaching professional softball levels, Minnesota remains last in the American League, by a comfortable margin, with 34 long balls. The pitching staff, meanwhile, has shown none of its offensive counterpart's resistance to the trend and has taken an early and comfortable lead in the home-runs-allowed department, serving up 80 gopher balls, including 23 in 6 games versus the Seattle Mariners. The Twins are right about where they always seem to be in pitching: Their 5.63 ERA is 12th in the 14-team American League. The hitters have fared just as badly; the team's .259 batting average likewise ranks 12th in the league.

That's disastrous math for a baseball team, any way you care to look at it. Consider that the Cleveland Indians are hitting nearly .300 as a team, while the Twins have exactly one player, Ron Coomer, who has consistently batted over .300. Minnesota hasn't had one leadoff hitter all season who has come within 50 points of the Indians team on-base percentage of .377, and the club has just one guy (Coomer again) who can come close to the Seattle Mariners' team slugging average of .523. (The Twins are slugging .381.)

Fans looking for small comfort can point to the ballclub's 14 one-run games (in which they have a record of 7-7), and the 5-3 record in extra-inning contests. Or look at it this way: Throw out the 14 losses charged to LaTroy Hawkins and Mike Lincoln, and the record doesn't look all that bad. Hawkins has been the latest in a long line of Twins pitching disappointments, joining a list whose recent additions include Willie Banks, Pat Mahomes, and Frank Rodriguez--all of whom showed glimmers of promise and then imploded. Last year Hawkins started 33 games for the Twins and went a disappointing 7-14 with a 5.25 ERA. Management was nonetheless sufficiently encouraged by his performance to sign him to a decent contract extension at a modest (by baseball standards) salary that now looks obscene, as he has rewarded them by going 2-7 with an 8.03 ERA, with opposing batters hitting .331 against him in his 11 starts thus far.

In fairness, one might also point out that the schedulers have not exactly done the Twins any favors; through the first two months the team has had 22 games against the powerful New York, Cleveland, Seattle, and Texas ballclubs, for a 3-19 record. This means they've played .500 ball against the rest of the competition. But again: small comfort.

The Twins' performance has been particularly disheartening when you consider the comparisons early optimists were drawing between this year's rookie-dominated roster and the 1982 team, whose group of first-year players would later make up the nucleus of the 1987 world champions. That '82 squad included Kent Hrbek, Tom Brunansky, Gary Gaetti, Tim Laudner, and Frank Viola, and, it should be noted, lost 102 games. But the performance of this year's model is alarmingly more reminiscent of a young Twins team of more recent vintage.

The 1995 Minnesota team included a large batch of touted young players, many of them playing their first full season with the Twins or making their major-league debuts. The roster included Rich Becker, Scott Stahoviak, Marty Cordova, Dan Masteller, Matt Lawton, Ron Coomer, Denny Hocking, David McCarty, Brad Radke, LaTroy Hawkins, Frank Rodriguez, and Dave Stevens, and was regarded in some quarters as a promising group of prospects, some combination of whom would help to restore the team's fortunes down the road. Cordova was the league's rookie of the year that season, and when you consider that the team also included established veterans like Kirby Puckett, Chuck Knoblauch, Pat Meares, Kevin Tapani, and Scott Erickson, it seems incredible not only that they finished in last place in the Central Division, but that four years later only a handful of those players remain with the team. It's pathetic that that season now seems like such ancient history, and even more pathetic that the Twins haven't been within spitting distance of .500 since 1992.

You'd like to think that better things are in store for the current batch of young players, and it's far too early to write any of them off. (All right, you can probably go ahead and write off Chris Latham.) Although the team's one step forward, ten steps back routine has long since grown old, you have to keep in mind that these Twins rookies have been forced into a remarkably difficult situation. The majority of the first-year players have had limited experience and success even in the minor leagues--many of them have never played above Double A--and they've found themselves thrown right in the middle of one of the most prodigious explosions of offense in major league history, while playing for a severely handicapped team with an uncertain future. In terms of pitching, with the league ERA having soared above five runs a game, the bottom line is that many nights the young Twins pitchers don't have a prayer. There has never been a more trying time to try to break into the American League.

None of which, of course, makes it any easier to follow the ballclub with any degree of enthusiasm. Fans of losing baseball teams learn to read far between the lines, to look for silver linings, the grace notes buried in the minutiae of the cacophony of an ugly game. You never stop hoping things will change, hoping things will get better.

And note that I said hoping, not believing: That's the true mark of the fan of a losing team.

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