January 4, 2004

On Being a Twins Fan

By John Sickels

ESPN.com Minor League Analyst

First, I want to thank Aaron Gleeman for the opportunity to appear as a guest writer while he is away. For those of you who don't know me, my name is John Sickels. I write the Down on the Farm column for ESPN.com twice a week, covering minor league baseball prospects. I write a prospect book every year called The Baseball Prospect Book, which you can order at my website, JohnSickels.com. In January, I have another book coming out called Bob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation, an objective biography of Hall-of-Fame Great Bob Feller. You can get that through Amazon or your local book retailer.

Anyhow, if you've read some of my stuff over the years, you may be aware that I'm a long-time Minnesota Twins fan. And that's at least partially why Aaron asked me to visit today. He says I can write about anything I want, so I think I'll ramble a bit about my history as a Twins fan, then take a peek at what I see as the future of the franchise.

I grew up in Des Moines in the 1970s and 1980s. Central Iowa is now Cubs territory, due to the presence of the Triple-A Iowa Cubs. But during my youth, the area was more of a melting pot of baseball fans. You had Cubs fans, yes. But you also had lots of Royals fans, Cardinals fans, a smattering of White Sox fans, and a significant minority of Twins fans. This was a remnant of the 1960s, when the Twins of Killebrew and Oliva owned the loyalty of most Central Iowa baseball followers.

This was fading when I first became aware of baseball in 1976. The Twins had been in the dumps for several years, and the Royals were increasingly popular. But the Twins still got a lot of coverage in the local paper. WHO radio (1040 AM, 50,000 watts), and local cable TV still carried Minnesota baseball. For some unknown reason, I latched onto the Twins as my team.

The torch became a burden in the early 1980s. WHO dropped the Twins, reducing my radio listening to desperate attempts to pick up a static-laced WCCO on clear nights. The cable system dropped the Twins in favor of the Atlanta Braves and the new-fangled "superstation" WTBS. The newspaper stopped paying attention to the Twins. Any rational 12-year-old would have switched allegiances at some point. Rooting for Hosken Powell and Willie Norwood was hard enough as it was, but with player news and game stories hard to come by, what was the point?

Alas, fandom is seldom logical. Once burned into the psyche, team allegiance is difficult to change.

The 1980s brought changes: a new stadium, exciting new players like Kent Hrbek and Kirby Puckett, a competitive team in 1984, just enough to keep the fires burning. All was finally rewarded with the unexpected World Championship of 1987. A second flag in 1991 was icing on the cake, and it looked like we had many years of good times ahead.

1992 was a good year, but in '93 things started to go downhill. The team aged; veterans brought in to patch holes didn't do as well as expected, and the farm system seemed to stagnate. The loss of Puckett to glaucoma in '96 was the final break between the Good Years and a new era, one that looked increasingly gloomy as the realities of baseball economics intruded in the Metrodome. Owner Carl Pohlad, once hailed as the savior of the franchise, morphed into Montgomery Burns. Some people pined for the return of Calvin Griffith, the skinflint former owner who at least seemed to care about baseball.

During this period, I became a "baseball professional," my long-time hobby turning into a full-time job due to a combination of luck, work, more luck, and providential circumstance. Oh, yes, and a great deal of luck. Writing about baseball for a living forces you to take a more objective, logical look at the activities of your favorite team. To retain intellectual honesty, you have to get some emotional distance. The threatened contraction of 2001/2002 left a very bad taste in my mouth, and seriously tested my love for the Twins. Ultimately, I'm still a Twins fan and will always be one.

OK, so what does the future hold for Minnesota?

The Good News:

The farm system is in good condition. Joe Mauer is ready to step into the catching slot, and could be a superstar. Justin Morneau is a stud, if they'll give him the at-bats to get comfortable. Jesse Crain is, in my opinion, much closer to being ready to contribute than a lot of people think. He could be the closer very soon. Grant Balfour, Boof Bonser, and J.D. Durbin all have the ability to be successful major league pitchers, and this is just the top group.

The pet pitcher of most statheads, Johan Santana, will finally start in 2004. . .assuming his arm is OK. The loss of Guardado and Hawkins SHOULD be fixable with some combination of Joe Nathan and youngsters, but baseball history is littered with the corpses of similar plans.

One bit of good news is the level of competition in the Central Division in '04. The White Sox look dysfunctional to me. The Royals have improved this off-season and could finish over .500 again, but I can't see them winning 90 games just yet. The Indians need another year of rebuilding. The Tigers are the personification of suck.

Other good news: Kyle Lohse is a few minor adjustments away from dropping his ERA 75 points. He could win 20 games if he gets some run support. The Santana/Lohse/Radke trio could be the second-best 1-2-3 punch in the league if all goes well. A major "if," of course, but it's more likely than people think.

The Mediocre News:

I'm not real wild about some of these off-season moves. I've always been a big Eric Milton fan and while trading him does free up salary, the rotation would look a lot better if it was Santana/Radke/Milton/Lohse.

I like Shannon Stewart, but the Twins have had an excess of outfielders in recent years, and keeping Stewart while letting Milton/Hawkins/Guardado walk seems backwards to me. I would have let Stewart go, given Mike Cuddyer a job without sending him to Rochester if he goes 1-for-10, and used Stewart's money to keep the pitching together. But that's me.

Aaron thinks that keeping Stewart and then trading Jacque Jones for prospects or something is a good move, though we haven't yet seen what the Twins may or may not get for Jones, of course. He could well be right. The Milton trade is defensible considering the salary factors, although I disapprove emotionally. I'm not sure keeping Stewart was the best way to maximize resources.

The Bad News:

At some point the Twins have to realize that Cristian Guzman and Luis Rivas are stagnating. Neither has progressed beyond where they were a couple of years ago. Both are still young enough to improve, but if they remain at their current level of performance, their value relative to their salaries will continue to decline, and that's not something a limited-budget team can handicap themselves with. A similar calculus led to the Milton trade, but the chance of Milton having a significant positive impact in '04 is higher (in my opinion) than the chance that Rivas will suddenly become a .300 hitter or that Guzman will knock 15 homers. Baseball is dynamic, and we can't afford to stand still. I'm concerned that the roster turnover this winter isn't really focused on fixing weaknesses.

The Twins are not a stathead club. One opposing GM described the Minnesota system to me as "one of the most traditional teams, but they are good at it." I'm not saying that Minnesota should become Oakland Midwest, but I'd like to see at least SOME sabermetric thinking mixed in with the traditionalism. The Twins are open-minded and creative in some ways; they are very aggressive about scouting in unusual places like Australia and Europe, for example. Using sabermetrics to supplement traditional scouting can yield big rewards. Division competitors Kansas City and Cleveland have started to do this, and the Twins need to stay ahead of the curve.

2004 and Beyond:

Despite the roster shuffling, it seems likely that the Twins will be in the thick of things again in 2004, contending for the division title. The talent base remains strong, and the farm system is productive. In the long run, the Twins face growing challenges from the improving Royals and Indians, plus the ever-obnoxious if dangerous White Sox. In the big picture, the long-term stability continues to rest on the complex tango between state and local governments with the Pohlad family and major league baseball over the stadium issue.

Being a Twins fan is variously frustrating, exhilarating, depressing, exciting. But it is seldom boring. May the tradition continue for another 40 years.

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