Spring Hopes Eternal

Craig Bares

There may be no more pathetic and preposterous character than the fan of a floundering baseball franchise. Baseball can be a shitty and discouraging game--that's actually always been a big part of the potential payoff in the 162-game psychological grind of its season--but so many times in the last few years I have felt embarrassed at the ridiculous, compulsive, and almost genetic loyalty I feel for the Minnesota Twins, an organization that has been a beleaguered and unloved model of wholesale incompetence and bad luck for several years now. At the conclusion of the last two miserable seasons I swore to myself that I would forsake the allegiance and the huge investment of time it required of me once and for all. I have been a paying customer at the Metrodome well over 200 times since the early 1980s, and until recent years I saved the ticket stubs from every game I ever attended. I have watched or listened to virtually every game of every season, and I have taken road trips to watch the Twins every year.

Throughout the last several seasons the relatively few true remaining Twins fans have suffered much and have become the whipped dogs of the local professional sports scene, intensely loyal, relatively easy to please, and long conditioned to being disappointed and abused by everyone from the field manager to the front office. By last fall I was seriously tired of the whole mess, the five straight losing seasons, the organizational breakdowns at every level from the front office to the field staff. I was tired of the stadium issue, tired of the jerry-rigged monstrosity that was the Metrodome, tired of the threats and the wrangling, tired of the bumbling rube bastards and shrill shyster baboons popping off everywhere from the floor of the Minnesota Legislature to the pages of the Star Tribune. I was tired of hearing about entertainment dollars and economic impact. I had grown weary of seeing Tom Kelly send recycled bums such as Rich Robertson and Scott Aldred to the mound for 40-pitch innings and four-hour marathons. All the quick-fix, cash-sucking gimmicks --the new stadiums, expansion, interleague play, and an additional round of playoffs--that were creating the current huge disparity between the haves and the have-nots couldn't hide the fact that baseball wasn't a very likable institution anymore. Every time I saw the smug creep who is the players' union chief, or the cringing and utterly boneless Milwaukee automobile dealer who is the league's acting commissioner for life, I felt ashamed at how badly I wanted a new stadium built for the Minnesota Twins, and how important it was to me that they remain in Minnesota.

This winter I resolved to find another obsession, to steel myself for the inevitable heartache of the Twins' departure. I thought that perhaps I could become a basketball fan, and managed for a time to develop a mild interest in the game. Then, in the middle of a February Timberwolves game at the Target Center, I had an unhappy revelation. The NBA was a loud and expensive headache, the players were too-obviously superior athletes, and the presence of cheerleaders prompted unavoidably unpleasant associations with the brutal caste cruelty of high school. I left at halftime, and on the walk to my car thought, well, perhaps I could still teach myself to play chess, or that there was always the lonely world of Internet chat rooms to fall back on.

By the time spring training rolled around in mid-February, of course, I was peeking at the baseball notes in the newspaper's sports section, and by the first of March I had purchased every baseball annual on the newsstands and in the bookstores. The truth is that baseball isn't merely a hobby or a habit for me anymore, it is in fact something more closely resembling a seasonal disorder, and I'm afraid at this stage that I'll let the bastards kick me until I don't have a tooth left in my head or a breath left rattling in my lungs, because the sad and unavoidable truth is that every ridiculous and pompous thing every hidebound highbrow jackass ever said or wrote about baseball is true.

And so it was that Friday night's home opener found me wedged in uncomfortably with a very surprising 43,847 other yahoos, watching a not-at-all-surprising 9-5 Twins loss to the Kansas City Royals. On Sunday afternoon I was settled in once again and things were back to normal, as only 10,851 fans showed up to see 22-year-old Eric Milton, who was part of the Knoblauch trade booty from the Yankees, pick up his first major-league victory in a game in which the ceremonial first pitch was thrown by a giant rubber cellular phone wearing blue jeans and tennis shoes.

There are always plenty of things to get excited or hopeful about at the launch of another baseball season, and despite the huge pall of public indifference and uncertainty that is smothering this franchise at the moment, this year is no different. Milton is one of a trio of promising 22-year-olds that includes first baseman David Ortiz and catcher Javier Valentin, and the development of all three will be one more interesting test of Tom Kelly and his coaching staff's ability to handle and nurture young players. It's already been apparent in the first home stand that Todd Walker is the latest in a long line of top Twins prospects to have a difficult time playing the game with Kelly's hands around his neck.

The Twins have a much improved pitching staff but this is still a rotation that's going to need better run support than the offense provided last year. People have long been critical of Kelly's pitching coach, Dick Such ("Death, Taxes, and Dick Stanley Such," goes the litany of my Dome cronies), and rightfully so, but it's high time the team's hitting coach, Terry Crowley, came in for some similar scrutiny; in the midst of baseball's offensive explosion the last couple seasons the Twins have experienced one of the most alarming power outages in the history of the franchise. Last year Minnesota didn't have a single player with either 20 home runs or 100 RBIs, and the club's 132 homers were the fewest in the American League, this despite striking out 1,121 times. For a little perspective, the Mariners hit twice as many home runs as the Twins (264) and had only 1,110 strikeouts.

It's going to be fun to watch Mike Morgan, one of the great stories of hard luck and perseverance in recent major-league history. Morgan's now been with 10 teams (and he's not left-handed!), and in 17 seasons he has posted just two winning records. Entering this year he has an astounding record of 117-167, despite which there are a few things to like about him: first and foremost is probably the fact that he couldn't get along with Ray Knight in Cincinnati. He's also pitched at least 200 innings six times, and he's always been snakebit when it comes to run support. Last season, he got just 4.28 runs per game support, and he's averaged only 4.11 runs per game in support over the last five seasons. Brad Radke, by comparison, got 6.12 runs per game from his teammates last year in his 20-win season, Andy Pettitte got 6.52, and Mike Mussina has received 5.78 runs per game over the last five years. If the Twins can generate even a marginal improvement on last year's offense, they should have five starting pitchers who can post double-digit victory totals.

If this truly is to be the last Twins season in Minnesota, well, then until the moving vans have pulled away from the loading docks at the Dome you'll find me down there hunched over my scorecard in one of those uncomfortable blue plastic seats, watching the whole sad and occasionally thrilling story unfold beneath the pen between my fingers. And if I go home happy even 50 percent of the time I'll consider myself a reasonably happy man. I'm going to deem that a modest and attainable goal for Tom Kelly's ballclub this season.

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