Twins

WARNE: Optimism Reigns in Twins Clubhouse Despite Decisive ALDS Defeat

Mandatory Credit: David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

I stopped to pick up my daughter from her montessori school at 5:00 p.m. sharp on Tuesday. I briefly looked at the clock, and memories of the previous 24 hours flooded my senses.

Then I thought about what I might be doing at that time if things had gone differently. “The Twins would be taking batting practice before Game 4 right now,” I thought.

I decided to give myself some time to let things sink in before writing my 2019 post-mortem on the Minnesota Twins, and this was just part of that. I ran through scenarios about what exactly I wanted to say and avoid about the New York Yankees pummeling the Twins yet again, and how I’d balance what the fans see — a long-standing drought — and what manager Rocco Baldelli sees, which is his first playoff series as a manager, albeit an unsuccessful one.

I shook back into the present, shut off my truck and walked in to pick up my daughter. “DADDY!” she shouted, just like she does every day when I go get her.

What a terrific moment; what a terrific reminder.

I’d just spent the last six months chasing the team I grew up idolizing on the path to 101 wins — second-most in franchise history. Seven months if you count spring training. I worked a full-time job besides with a two-year-old daughter, and was starting to feel the stress on my daily life. I can’t even imagine how players do it, with a full-time travel schedule mixed in.

Stopping to get my daughter on Tuesday and taking my family out for dinner was a nice reminder that there’s life outside of baseball. Away from baseball. Separate from baseball.

And in a way, I think that’s part of what shapes Baldelli’s worldview when he talks about not being frustrated the Twins lost decisively in three games to the Yankees in the ALDS.

Baldelli has maintained an even keel all season long, with a “do what feels right” approach to how he wants his players to prepare for games. Playing inside the lines is stressful enough. Let’s remove the stress as much as can be done otherwise, his approach seems to indicate.

Baldelli walked into the postgame press conference room named after Sid Hartman at Target Field just a couple minutes after Nelson Cruz took a called third strike from Aroldis Chapman on the inside corner to end the season. His shoulders weren’t hunched. His face bore no sign of a frown.

The first thing he did was congratulate the Yankees. Then it was down to assessing what had happened on the field in approximately the previous four hours.

“I mean it when I say to you that I do not sit here frustrated at all,” Baldelli said. “I am extremely happy and extremely proud of everything that we just went through over the course of this season. Our guys should be walking out of that clubhouse with our heads held high, and they never stopped playing. Our guys continued to fight day in and day out.

“We got beat over the last three days, and there’s no way around that. That’s going to happen from time to time, but what an amazing season it was. It was very special for me, and I told the guys as much. I hope every single person in that clubhouse feels as proud as I do right now.”

What a healthy mindset.

First of all, to say anything otherwise would be false hustle. It wouldn’t be genuine. It wouldn’t provide any added value. Like Jake Cave diving for a ball in the left-center gap, it would almost certainly be counterproductive.

To watch Baldelli break down an evening’s events after they happened is a study in consistency. Sure a win might result in a wider smile or a few more jumpers launched in the equipment room at Target Field that doubles as a press conference room after games, but Baldelli kept the same tenor and tone after all 162 games this season.

In a game of failure, that truly is a healthy mindset. And who failed more than Baldelli, a .278 career hitter whose career was waylaid by illness? Saying his body failed him is actually a much more apt and tactful way to put it, but he’s been here at pretty much every level of the game — a game that almost always takes more than it gives back.

Baldelli made it to the big leagues as a future superstar, and was never able to fully realize that potential.

Baldelli made it to the World Series as a player, and lost.

But if you asked Baldelli if his career was a failure, I’m certain he’d say no.

Here’s his press conference announcing his retirement eight years ago:

“I have no regret about anything that happened,” he said. “Overall I can look back and smile on the situation. I’m pretty proud of everything I and my teammates accomplished.”

Now don’t take this to mean that Baldelli went home, slept a tight eight hours and went about his business on Tuesday like he did the day before spring training began back in February.

“I’d say forever,” Baldelli said when asked how long he’d think about this series. “I mean, I’ll think about it forever. You only play in so many different playoff series, and you only get this opportunity a few times. Some people spend their entire life in the game and never get the opportunity to do what we just did. So I do think it’s a very special occasion. It’s something we hold dear to our hearts, and it means a lot to everyone in the game. So I’ll always think about this series, just like I think about all the other series that I’ve ever been involved in. You never forget them.

“Personally, I like to continue to learn and think about things and have conversations and talk things out and get other people’s opinions on stuff like this, and this is — that’s where this falls for me. I’ll probably always be there. I hope I’m always kind of thinking about it like that. When you look back on it, we talk about — I never second guess anything that we do. We stand by the decisions we make, and like I said, we just went out there and we were outplayed for three games. It’s okay to acknowledge that. We’ll be back.”

And while this wasn’t well-received, it does touch on something that seems to be a main part of Baldelli’s thinking.

Sure, Twins fans — especially the loyal ones — have lived and died with each of the last 16 soul-crushing playoff losses in a row. But think about this — nobody on this team has been around for more than four of them.

When the streak started, Baldelli himself had just finished his age-22 season — as a player. He hit .280/.326/.436 in 136 games and was really finding his way on a talented but young Devil Rays squad that still had a ways to go before it was relevant.

Unfortunately, that was the last year of his career where he played more than 100 games.

Joe Mauer was a rookie that season — that’s how long ago it was.

I also thought about it this way — it’s 16 losses over the span of 15 years. Small sample sizes tell us next to nothing, and small sample sizes combined across a long time probably tell us even less than that. Then add to the fact that they’ve spanned three generations of Twins — the Hunter and Friends group who warded off contraction, the Mauer-Morneau group that teased us in 2006 and the so-called “Buxton and Sano” Twins we see now — means there’s very little continuity.

The losses also came in 2004, then 2006, then 2009, then 2010, then 2017 and finally 2019. If we believe the playoffs are something where experience is valuable, the Twins haven’t exactly made a habit of returning to the playoffs to put those lessons to the test.

And that’s what it seems like Derek Falvey and Thad Levine are building toward in Minneapolis. Winning 101 games in a year where the expectation was to push hard for the division title was probably a mild surprise, but now it’s time to go all-in. Push the chips to the middle of the table.

They’ve turned a 103-loss team into one that nearly won that many in the span of just three years.

They’ve created an incredible clubhouse vibe in which each of the team’s impending free agents said they’d be happy to return to.

Twins players hugged and hatched plans to spend a little time together in the offseason in the clubhouse after the game. The air wasn’t heavy, but rather smelled slightly of alcohol as the players were allowed to imbibe a bit while they packed up their belongings and worked on the logistics to have their cars and personal effects shipped home.

There were no regrets expressed among the players who spoke to reporters in scrums. Some of it was talking about the solid individual seasons each player might have had, but a lot of it was the common refrain that Rocco said as well — “We’ll be back.”

It won’t be easy. Especially not as easy as 2019 may have seemed to an outside observer. Cleveland might take a step back, but will still be solid. Chicago is on the upswing. Detroit can’t possibly be any worse. Kansas City could make a little noise with a new man behind the bench.

The Twins won’t be able to rest on their laurels when it comes to restocking a roster that’ll possibly lose 80 percent of its rotation to free agency — pending Martin Perez’s option decision, which should be announced in the days to come.

Jake Odorizzi said he’s worked hard to get to free agency and wants to make the most of it, but he called his two seasons with the Twins the ‘funnest of his career.’

Kyle Gibson has maintained in multiple separate conversations with Zone Coverage that he’d be more than happy to return to Minnesota.

When Michael Pineda was suspended, he requested a special press availability to apologize, explain what happened and also say he’d like to return to Minnesota.

On his way out of the clubhouse, Sergio Romo got choked up when chatting with reporters. He remarked that he couldn’t believe how welcome he felt despite only spending two months with the team, and unequivocally stated yes he’d like to be back next season if the team would have him.

Sure the Twins won 101 games and were swept out of the postseason. But if you can’t enjoy the journey, how will you ever enjoy the destination? If you have kids and their whole education doesn’t lead to them being doctors, was it all a waste?

Look I get that Twins fans want to see the team hoist a trophy for the first time in nearly 30 years. I get that.

But I also see where Rocco and company are coming from. They know about the streak — but they can’t help it. They deserve a blank slate — or one with an 0-3 record, that is — to start with.

Rocco saying he isn’t frustrated doesn’t mean he doesn’t realize what fans are feeling. That also doesn’t mean he didn’t have individual moments of frustration, like Didi Gregorius making a diving play on a Jorge Polanco smash in the ninth inning of Game 3. Or Max Kepler swinging at a ball in the dirt with Chapman on the ropes.

He just isn’t going to put the undue pressure of losses by previous Twins groups on his team’s shoulders — or even his. He’s not going to pretend to be upset just because he’s in front of cameras. He’s not going to throw guys under the bus in an attempt to look exasperated — especially after not doing it all season.

He’s going to do exactly what he did from mid-February until mid-October. And he’s going to keep doing it.

You might as well get used to it.

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