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When to Hold 'Em, When to Fold 'Em

Tom Kelly extols the virtues of rookie first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz: "Left-handed hitter. Married. From Florida."
Christopher Peters

Before their season opener at the Dome last Tuesday, the Minnesota Twins trotted out Kenny "The Gambler" Rogers to inspire the crowd of 45,601 with a version of his new single "The Greatest." While the presence of a different Kenny Rogers--i.e., the Oakland Athletics left-hander--in a Twins uniform might have been even more inspiring to the team's fans, not to mention its players, Rogers's appearance was just one of many surprising developments in an evening that kicked off what promises to be an underdog season of long odds and class warfare for the local big-league franchise. After the impossibly tanned Gambler teamed up with Twins legend Harmon Killebrew to lead the crowd in a rousing seventh-inning-stretch version of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," the home team promptly erupted for seven hits and six runs and ran away from the visiting Toronto Blue Jays.

Though it would certainly be a mistake to read too much into the 6-1 victory--and the promotional folks are going to have to pull out all the stops to top the Rogers/Killebrew duet--fans could be forgiven for thinking that a comfortable win over a reasonably formidable opponent was a satisfying way to launch the new season. Tom Kelly, however, seemed less than satisfied, and led his team through a postgame workout immediately following the triumph.

"Less than satisfied" might well be a fitting epitaph for the man who managed the Twins to two world championships and has now presided over six straight losing years. Kelly, who is entering his 13th season as the Twins' manager, is a man whose reluctance to get carried away seems almost congenital; as a friend of mine recently suggested, he can be so cranky even after a victory, you'd almost suspect he'd bet against his own team. When a reporter asked for a postgame comment on the performance of rookie first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, who sparked the opening-night rally in the bottom of the seventh and finished the game with two doubles, the manager responded, "What about Doug? Left-handed hitter. Married. From Florida."

The conclusion of last season--a year many have touted as the greatest ever in baseball--seemed to represent a crisis of faith for our own home team. As Yankee dominance and the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home run derby were drawing unprecedented national attention to the sport, the Twins were playing out the string on a 70-92 season that may well have marked the lowest point in team history. Crowds had dwindled, promising young players had fizzled, a pitch for a new stadium seemed dead in the water, and the Twins' sole remaining marquee player, Paul Molitor, was about to retire. There was a rumored rift between Kelly and general manager Terry Ryan involving disagreement about the club's talent and direction, and Ryan's future seemed tenuous at best.

Given the club's inability to compete with the hog-wild spending of the large-market teams (though market size no longer really has anything to do with it; it's all about new stadiums and revenue streams), the Twins were in a very tight spot indeed. The team's recent struggles have given new meaning to the term "trickle-down economics"--just ask the scalpers or the people who own the parking lots, restaurants, and bars around the Dome.

The ballclub's eventual decision to cut its losses was a long time coming, and when the Twins broke camp in Florida this spring and came north, they had whittled down the payroll to $19 million, with closer Rick Aguilera and his $3-million-plus contract still apparently on the trading block. The opening-day roster included nine rookies and sixteen homegrown players--players drafted and developed by the Twins.

While it's much too early to reach any conclusions about the quality or potential of any of the young players, it's nonetheless hard not to see the team's decision to go with a youth movement as anything but a good thing. As has been proved in places such as Montreal, Oakland, and Detroit, where teams have been up against the same market limitations and frustrations, the only workable long-term solution is to develop young players, let them take their lumps, and cross your fingers that the new-stadium juggernaut rolls your way.

And the young Twins will undoubtedly take their lumps. A handful of players are making the leap from AA New Britain, and most of the rookies will almost certainly be on a short leash. One would expect that the shuttle from AAA Salt Lake City will be active for much of the season. But the upside of young players is that they are, well, young, and they bring with them at least the potential of an upside. Rookies such as first baseman Mientkiewicz, outfielders Torii Hunter and Chad Allen, and slick-fielding 21-year-old switch-hitting shortstop Cristian Guzman all come highly recommended and have shown early signs of having the sort of temperament and tools to thrive under Kelly's tutelage. Besides being one of the hitting heroes in the opener, Mientkiewicz showed good instincts in the field, digging out a couple of throws at first. Guzman looked overmatched at the plate but made some nice plays in the field, and Allen had an encouraging at-bat against Toronto's Pat Hentgen in the first inning, battling back from 0-2 to lace a single up the middle for his first major-league hit.

 

It is also perhaps a credit to first-year hitting coach Scott Ulger (who replaces the departed Terry Crowley) that the team finally seems to be pulling balls again and has taken a step away from Crowley's favored approach of looking for pitches to hit the other way. Outfielder Matt Lawton and second baseman Todd Walker both made great strides as hitters last year, and while the increased expectations are perhaps unfair, they will both be counted on to carry much of the offensive burden this year.

Former Rookie of the Year Marty Cordova remains a pumped-up enigma, but if he can ever manage to get fully healthy again, there's no reason to think he couldn't be productive in the middle of the order. The serviceable and immensely likable Ron Coomer gives Kelly some wiggle room to spell his young players at the corners and handle the occasional designated-hitter duties, and Kelly always does a good job of using his spare parts and keeping his bench players involved in the game. At the age of 37, Terry Steinbach has been brought back to handle the pitching staff, and any offense he provides at this stage of his career will be a bonus.

After Brad Radke--who can be counted on to give the team 15 wins and 200 innings--the strength of the pitching staff is once again relief, with capable and rubber-armed veterans Eddie Guardado and Mike Trombley setting up Aguilera for the time being. Should Aguilera be unloaded, it's likely that Trombley would be moved into the closer role, and he should be plenty good enough for a team that won't be protecting a lot of ninth-inning leads. Lefty Eric Milton and right-hander LaTroy Hawkins showed flashes of their potential last year; absent a whole lot of other options, the team is banking on their continued development. The fourth and fifth starters are question marks, and it remains to be seen whether the Twins can find adequate candidates among the three rookies in the mix: right-handers Mike Lincoln and Dan Perkins, and lefty Benj Sampson.

Given that there are absolutely no expectations, the pressure would seem to be off Kelly this season, but the Twins' manager seems to excel at creating his own pressure. Underneath his flat-line public persona, he remains an eminently flappable character, with little patience for the sorts of mistakes one might realistically expect young players to make. He's a perfectionist, but his peculiar brand of perfectionism contains too many intangibles and dark corners to be easily understood. Kelly fancies himself a teacher, but his style is more the stern taskmaster, and his natural tendency seems to be to downplay, to dampen, and even to disparage. He expects his teams to play solid fundamental baseball, to play defense, execute, hit the cutoff man, move the runners over. That has always been the trademark of his better teams, and it's an admirable goal for a young team. But now that he's truly the top dog and the big shooter--a blue-collar manager earning more than all but a handful of his ballplayers--he needs to let those players breathe a little bit. A manager like Felipe Alou in Montreal understands that the confidence he shows in his young players creates its own pressure and motivation and almost certainly pays higher dividends than running them down.

Baseball is the most individual of team sports; within the long season and extended pregame rituals, there's plenty of room for characters to develop and emerge. Free spirits, even. Oddballs, guys who clearly love to play the game. When was the last time the Twins produced a guy like that? Let's forget the six straight losing seasons and the laundry list of failed prospects and start over. What you most wish for from a young team like this year's Twins club is that some of these guys will develop into good major-league players and maybe surprise you something like 60 to 80 times. But you also cross your fingers and hope some of them will become somehow endearing characters, and that along the way they'll create a little bit of modest magic and a few fond memories. At this stage of the game, you really can't ask for a whole lot more than that.


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