Rocco Baldelli admitted that returning to Fenway Park as the manager of the Minnesota Twins was special. He went on a familiar jog before entering the historic field where his childhood team played. News crews from all around New England swarmed him before the first game. And although he only played 62 games for the Boston Red Sox in the penultimate season of his career — a promising one that was cut short by a rare medical condition — his stats from that season (.253/.311/.433, 7 home runs, 23 RBI) were frequently displayed on the NESN home broadcast when the camera panned to him.
He’s beloved there, and will return home to Rhode Island for the offseason. An offseason that came sooner than he would have hoped.
“There were many days that the players that went out there and might have been scuffling and thinking that they were not 100%,” said Baldelli, alluding to late-season injuries to key players like Max Kepler, Luis Arraez and Marwin Gonzalez. “They took the field and played well and got us these victories. They won games for us and allowed us to be sitting here in a nice place, having just played in a playoff series and having accomplished a lot.”
Perhaps it’s appropriate that not only Badelli, but chief baseball officer Derek Falvey, grew up in New England. They developed a passion for baseball at a time where the Red Sox were still haunted by the Curse of the Bambino, and fans from Providence to Portsmouth wondered if their team ever would vault past the rival New York Yankees and win a World Series.
They of course did. And now they’re trying to help the Twins do the same thing at a time where such a notion seems farcical, even after a 101-win season. They may have vaulted from a mediocre to bad team under Paul Molitor to a playoff team this season, but the Yankees series revealed that there is still a gap between them and the contending teams in the American League.
Or at least a meaningful gap between them and the Yankees.
“The imagery that we talked about at TwinsFest is that maybe we were jamming our fingers underneath the window and we were starting to get some leverage,” said general manager Thad Levine, who grew up in the D.C. area. “I think we feel a breeze.
“We’re feeling a breeze right now. I think we feel like we’re getting to a place now where we feel a little bit more emboldened to sit down with Jim Pohlad and Dave and talk about being a little bit more aggressive. We feel like we’re progressing for sure.”
Aggressive, assuming that means spending to improve a pitching rotation that only returns two players, is music to the ears of a fanbase that has asked for a meaningful increase in payroll ever since Target Field has opened. And reasonably so, given the increased revenues from the stadium, which was built in part with taxpayer money.
Had the team been better managed in the late 2000s, perhaps it would be a more familiar and local crew that would have broken the Yankee curse. Terry Ryan as the GM. Ron Gardenhire as manager. Joe Mauer as the star player. But maybe it will take outsiders who witnessed a curse in their own backyards growing up to snap Minnesota’s streak of 16 straight playoff losses, 13 of which have come against the Yankees.
While the Twins showed some promise under Molitor, especially in the 85-win team which reached the 2017 Wild Card game, the young core had a breakthrough under Falvey and Levine.
“The way I’d look at it is that we had a young team that was growing,” said Derek Falvey. “Not all those guys performed to the best of their abilities last year. A lot of those guys performed better this year.
“As you get closer to feeling like the elite teams of the game, and you have more of those types of players on your team, the more you try and find different ways to supplement. That will be our plan, probably every year, in terms of how we approach it. So I don’t feel any differently about that.
“But we have to make good, smart choices, too, and investments that allow for some level of sustainability. We’ve said that all along, make good choices. And we’ve felt we did that last winter, and fortunately, ended up with a roster that performed well this year. We’re going to attempt to do that exact same thing again this year.”
Falvey, Levine and Baldelli all said a key to their success was the open communication between them, their staff and the players. It allowed them to implement a modern-day approach to running a baseball team, which led to positive results in the regular season.
Unlike Ryan, who was frugal in his management of the roster; Gardenhire, who is an old-school baseball manager; and Mauer, who was scapegoated for a lot of the Twins failures after 2010, Falvey and Levine enter next year with only one major blemish on their record so far. But it’s a major one: They need to build a team that can beat the Yankees in a playoff series. And until they do so, it’s hard to consider the Twins a bona fide contender.