Tracking a Three-Peat

Ron Gardenhire: Charmed, snakebitten, and more challenged than ever
Craig Lassig

I'm afraid I'm going to have to take issue with baseball writer Tom Boswell's famous claim that time begins on Opening Day. Maybe it did, once upon a time, but anymore the opening of the baseball season commences the slaughtering of time and often as not brings it to a dead stop.

After more than 20 years of spending the bulk of the only fine seasons Minnesota has to offer sitting inside watching baseball, I've come to realize that the trial of real time begins precisely at the moment when the last out of the World Series plops into someone's glove.

Because if time is the river we're all drowning in, then the baseball season doesn't take place in real time. They can try to gussy it up all they want, but baseball remains essentially an idler's game, a backwater swimming hole where obsessives and slackers--and obsessive slackers--can hide out from the real world and float for a few hours at a time.

The poet Donald Hall once wrote, "The diamonds and rituals of baseball create an elegant, trivial, enchanted grid on which our suffering, shapeless, sinful day leans for the momentary grace of order." That's exactly the sort of nonsense people have been writing about baseball forever, but there's a shameful truth lurking somewhere in Hall's words. The game is generally more orderly than our regular lives, or at least can be made to seem so when filtered through a score sheet or box score--even the ugliest game ultimately adds up, and the basic math is unvarying. What Hall and his romantic brethren conveniently leave out of their descriptions, though, is the fact that for all its rewards, the game is also frequently infuriating, disappointing, and boring as hell; pretty much like real life, baseball often promises halcyon and delivers Halcion.

Of course, baseball asks nothing from us except hope (which it routinely crushes), and for casual followers--the average Minnesota fan whose relationship to the game is like that of a holiday churchgoer--not even that much is required. I suspect we'll see the Homer Hanky-waving hordes again before it's all over, and it's always entertaining to see them at least turn out for opening day. That's one of the many pleasures of baseball--a guy can keep score, never miss a pitch, and still rubberneck at the spectacle in the stands. A less attentive fan might have missed WCCO's dogged reporter Esme Murphy--who was stalking rookie phenom (and Cretin-Durham Hall alumnus) Joe Mauer's family members in the crowd--exchanging a warm hug with St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly. Kelly was seated behind home plate, with Governor Tim Pawlenty and Minneapolis honcho R.T. Rybak in the rows directly in front of and behind him. Tellingly, neither Pawlenty nor Rybak received a hug from Murphy. As a sort of consolation prize, however, Rybak did later have his photo taken with Wally the Beerman.

In his first two seasons, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire has led an alternately charmed and snakebit life, and has two division titles to show for his troubles. Granted, we're talking about the American League Central, the worst division in professional sports, but given some of the obstacles--a combination of injuries and inexperience--Gardenhire has faced in winning those titles, that's no small accomplishment. No other Minnesota manager has ever pulled off back-to-back division crowns, and last season he became only the fourth AL skipper to begin his career with consecutive first-place finishes.

Even going in, this season promised to present Gardenhire with his greatest set of challenges to date, and things didn't get any easier in the first week. Before the first series was over, the Twins had placed their most promising player (Mauer), their one established star (Torii Hunter), and their opening-day designated hitter (Matthew LeCroy) on the disabled list. A bullpen that features five new pitchers and, given the offseason defections of LaTroy Hawkins and Eddie Guardado, even more question marks, was severely taxed in the first six games, which included three extra-inning affairs. In those games Gardenhire had to call on his bullpen an astonishing twenty-nine times, for a total of thirty-one and one-third innings. Thanks to Johan Santana's latest mysterious cramp--is this guy in danger of becoming the southpaw Rick Reed?--the pen had to gut out 11 innings in game two's 15-inning marathon victory. Reliever Juan Rincon has already appeared in five of the six games.

You can blame the early bullpen burnout on the starters, who threw just 30 innings in those six contests. The Twins managed only one quality start in the first week of the season, and even that--Brad Radke's opening night six-inning stint in which he allowed four runs, but only two of them earned--was merely one more indication of the bogus nature of the quality start stat. (A pitcher is awarded a quality start when he throws at least six innings and gives up three or fewer earned runs.)

There were certainly reasons to be concerned about the rotation--and the pitching staff in general--coming out of spring training. The combined record of the entire Twins staff was 341-301 before the season started; for a little context, Roger Clemens was 310-160. Right-hander Rick Helling, acquired as a free agent in the offseason, was penciled in as the fifth starter but broke his leg and will be sidelined until at least late April. Radke is a proven commodity, but after compiling a 116-110 record with a 4.32 earned run average in nine seasons, he'd hardly be the number one starter on many contending teams. I like Carlos Silva, the 25-year-old righty the Twins acquired in the Eric Milton trade with Philadelphia, but prior to this year he had exactly one major league start.

The biggest question mark might be the enigmatic Santana, who showed such promise last season, even as he averaged only six innings a start. Santana had surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow during the offseason, and he's pitched a combined nine innings in his first two starts this year. While he appears to be healthy, he's picked right up where he left off last year in terms of racking up high pitch counts early in games. Sunday against Detroit he lasted just five innings, gave up three runs, and threw 94 pitches. Most alarming is the fact that after averaging almost a strikeout an inning over his first 119 major league appearances, he's struck out only four batters in nine innings so far this season. The bottom line might be that, despite the fact that so many of us clamored for Gardenhire to move Santana into the rotation last year, the guy might ultimately be better suited for a role in the bullpen.

None of this should matter, though. The wounded will return, Mauer will be splendid, pitching coach Rick Anderson will figure something out, and Jesse Crain and J.D. Durbin, two guys who have the potential to be better than anyone on the present staff, are waiting in the wings. And the Twins still play in the Central, where it won't take much more than a .500 record to sneak back into the playoffs. That's a modest goal for a modest team, and I don't see any reason why Minnesota can't make it three in a row.

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