I opened my eyes on March 10 in Fort Myers, Fla. I showered, ate and departed my hotel, which was eerily reminiscent of the one from the television show “Schitt’s Creek” — except it was two levels instead of one.
It was my second full day in Florida, but that Sunday was the first time I’d ever set eyes or feet on the property at 14100 6 Mile Cypress Parkway. You know it better as Hammond Stadium, the home of the Fort Myers Miracle and for about six weeks every spring, the Minnesota Twins.
I entered the home clubhouse and began to go about my business. Even though it was my first day at the park, it was far from that for me when it came to engaging most of the guys in that room. My task for the day? Asking a few of the holdovers what it was like to not have Joe Mauer holding down the corner locker stall like he had for as long as anyone could remember.
Some features are like pulling teeth; this one was going to be like easing into a hot tub.
One of the first guys I chatted up was Mitch Garver. Garver is extremely likable from both a fan and media member’s perspective. He’s not afraid to say exactly what’s on his mind, which is a reporter’s delight.
After exchanging pleasantries and a few Mauer anecdotes, I shut off the recorder and made small talk for a minute.
“Mitch, I think you guys are going to surprise some people this year,” I said. I wasn’t kidding. I may be a fool, but Garver doesn’t suffer those and I could have just as easily walked away rather than heap meaningless platitudes upon him.
“For sure,” he said with intensity in his eyes. In fact, he pretty much always looks like that.
“I actually think you guys are going to win the division,” I clarified once I realized we were generally on the same page.
“Oh definitely,” he said, again not cracking a smile but with dead certainty.
After the Twins beat the Detroit Tigers Wednesday night to whittle their magic number to one — about 90 minutes in advance of the Chicago White Sox taking them the rest of the way to the AL Central crown with a win over Cleveland — I made the decision that I didn’t think Garver would mind if I used his quotes even though I didn’t record them.
Almost nothing makes sense about the 2019 AL Central champions. They just might hit 300 homers — something no team had ever come close to prior to this season. They just might win 100 games, which only one Twins team — the 1965 iteration — has done since the team moved from Washington D.C. prior to the 1961 season.
But how did they get here?
When a team is rebuilding and fans only have the future to dream on, they start coming up with future scenarios about what it’ll be like when the team is good again. Three or four years ago, Twins fans might have dreamed of Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano as the new Mauer and Morneau, with guys like Max Kepler, Eddie Rosario and Jorge Polanco filling in at the margins.
Instead, they’ve gotten fewer than 200 games total from Buxton and Sano this season, seldom in the same lineup and when they were, they were often hitting in the bottom half or third of the lineup. Instead, it was Kepler and Polanco who signed lucrative, yet below-market deals — considering what we know now — during spring training as precursors to true breakout campaigns from each. And Rosario is just Rosario; on his best days, he’s Kirby Puckett. On his worst, he’s a poor man’s Jacque Jones.
Nothing makes much sense about the pitching, either.
Jose Berrios has been pretty much all he was cracked up to be, late-season swoon be damned, but behind him lies a resurgent Jake Odorizzi, an unpredictable Kyle Gibson, an even more unpredictable Martin Perez and what was once Michael Pineda.
Enter Randy Dobnak — perhaps the greatest story in recent Twins history. He was pitching in a barnstorming league a couple years ago in Utica, Mich. when the Twins decided to give him a look on a lark. Somewhere along the line he planned a wedding for Sept. 28, 2019, never once thinking he’d be pitching in the big leagues, let alone lining himself up to likely make a Game 3 start in the Division Series, no less.
But there he was on Wednesday evening, showcasing both his spectacles and his testicles, as he and three relievers combined on a two-hitter at Comerica Park. Through five big-league appearances, Dobnak has a 1.59 ERA on the strength of a heavy one-seam fastball, a terrific slider and the best Fu Manchu on a Twins pitcher since Blackout Gatling (RIP).
Nobody typifies this out-of-nowhere season more than Dobnak, who will most likely end up honeymooning in the Bronx. Just like the future Mrs. Dobnak planned, right?
But every time a player went down — whether it was performance- or health-related — there was a teammate, and oftentimes more than one, there to pick up the slack. Ryne Harper’s early-season magic wore off? Here come Zack Littell, Tyler Duffey and Trevor May to put that fire out. Jonathan Schoop is mired in a slump? Here’s Luis Arraez to hit just .340 or whatever to fill his shoes. Buxton can’t go? Oh hey, Jake Cave is suddenly on fire. Cruz is battling wrist issues? Oh hey, is that the 2017 version of Sano again?
And it just kept happening time, after time, after time.
One year after the Twins couldn’t get out of their own way, it was like no hole in the road was too big for them to fill up, or step over altogether.
So much has changed since the Twins last won the American League Central. Every other team in the division with the exception of the White Sox has won the division over that time frame, yet it was Chicago who eliminated Cleveland.
In fact, there were some fun parallels in play on Wednesday. The Twins moved the magic number to one in front of Detroit manager Ron Gardenhire, the skipper of their last division title. They won a division title the year after Joe Mauer — the final remaining Twin from that 2010 team — rode off into the sunset. Heck, even the crushing blow in the White Sox-Indians game had a little Twins flavor to it.
Welington Castillo hit the home run off Indians reliever Tyler Clippard. Before the Twins settled on acquiring Matt Capps to displace Jon Rauch as the team’s closer in 2010, there were rumblings that the team was interested in trading for Clippard, as well.
Baseball has a way of creating storylines that simply couldn’t be scripted because they’d be just too strange to be believed.
What all has changed since the Twins last won a division crown? All of these things were either happening in 2010, or were true then but no longer are now:
- Prince was still with us
- Osama bin Laden still hadn’t been captured
- Mauer was still nearly three years away from suffering the concussion that halted his career behind the plate
- Mauer hadn’t even started a game at first base in his MLB career yet
- Nelson Cruz had 77 home runs in the big leagues….total
- Kyle Gibson, the team’s longest-tenured big leaguer, was finishing his first season with the Fort Myers Miracle (High-A)
- Berrios was a junior in high school
- Kepler, Polanco, Sano and Rosario all totaled more than 100 plate appearances with the GCL Twins
- Target Field was just finishing its first season of existence
- Contrarily, the Vikings still had four more seasons of playing in the Metrodome before it was demolished
But no matter how much the world has changed in the time frame, so too has the construction of the Twins under the direction of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine. In the lean years after Target Field opened, the rosters were so paper-thin that a single injury could leave half the lineup filled with guys who had little business taking plate appearances in the major leagues.
In 2019, those injuries didn’t simply vanish. Instead, one might argue, they multiplied. Sano missed a bunch of time early in the season. Garver suffered a high-ankle sprain midway through the season. Buxton’s season effectively ended around the trade deadline when he slammed into the wall in Miami and suffered a severe shoulder injury.
Whenever adversity struck the 2019 Twins, they struck back. Maybe it’s the team’s collective identity under first-year manager Rocco Baldelli, a fighter in his own right based on how his MLB career ended?
Here’s Baldelli making an impassioned — and not totally work-appropriate — clubhouse speech in the visitor’s clubhouse at Comerica Park on Wednesday night:
And if Instagram isn’t your thing, here’s the transcript:
Oh, and speaking of things that were still going on in 2010 and aren’t anymore….Rocco was still an active player until the end of the 2010 season. Crazy, right? And how about the Twins giving him the gift of a division crown on his 38th birthday? Not bad.
Great teams rise to the occasion.
Great teams pick each other up.
The 2019 Minnesota Twins are a great team.
Don’t let what happens — good or bad — over the next month cloud that.