Chicago's springtime winds swirled wildly last Friday night at Comiskey Park. A minicyclone picked up Dunkin' Donuts napkins and Big Ed's Super Saucer wrappers as it toured the stadium, counterclockwise, depositing the litter in the visitors' dugout on the first base side.
The visitors didn't care. They stood in the trash and bellowed cheerfully into the wind, untrained in the ways of big league cool. The visitors were the Minnesota Twins, losers of 93 games last year, the bottom-feeders of the American League Central who finished 26 games behind the first-place Chicago White Sox. This year—three weeks into the season anyway—they're baseball's most surprising team. They swept three from the White Sox over the weekend, to go 6-0 against Chicago. The Twins were 14-3 in your Monday-morning paper, the best record in baseball. Can you say, "Worst to first?"
"Who would have thunk it?" says utilityman Denny Hocking, who has played for Minnesota since 1993, a period in which the Twins haven't had a winning season. The answer to his question is, Nobody. At least no sober person would have thought Minnesota could get off to this kind of start.
The Twins themselves admit that .500 ball in the first few weeks would have been a worthy goal. For this is a financially malnourished club, which plays its home games before a looming sea of empty blue plastic seats. For nearly a decade Minnesota has had little to entice even the most pedestrian free agents, except the promise of lakeside living. This past off-season the Twins' biggest winter acquisition was veteran backup catcher Tom Prince and his .203 career batting average.
Oh, this is a modest team, all right, with the lowest payroll in baseball by far, averaging less than $1 million per player, one quarter of what the New York Yankees pay theirs. The most famous person on the team is Paul Molitor. Molitor, a lifetime .306 hitter and St. Paul native, is now a coach. The second most famous person is Tom Kelly. He's the manager, the man who skippered the Twins to World Series wins in 1987 and '91. (The following year was their last winning season.) The most famous player on the team is Brad Radke, a 28-year-old righthander and a career Twin with a lifetime 78-84 record and a 4.32 ERA coming into this season. You may remember that he pitched an inning in the '98 All-Star Game.
Minnesota has a group of modest players, by nature and by accomplishment. They play a modest style of baseball, little ball, in which little things are done properly and every base hit counts. And they've been playing little ball very well. "If you score four runs, you got a chance to be in the game, if you pitch good," says Kelly, an expert in little ball.
He has a foursome of starters who can win games without gaudy run support. Radke, who went 20-10 in 1997, was 4-0 with a 2.23 ERA through Sunday. He's one of the best control pitchers in baseball, and when a home plate umpire has a consistent and generous strike zone, Radke can be downright devastating. Last Friday night, with C.B. Bucknor behind the plate, Radke threw strike after strike for nine innings, and the Twins won 4-1.
Lefthander Eric Milton was the winner of Saturday's matinee, a 4-3, two-hour-and-15-minute game that was decided by a classic little-ball play. Milton's 25, a former first-round Yankees draft choice, and after Saturday's victory he was 3-0 with a 3.12 ERA. He has a wicked fastball, the insignia of the Yankees (a team for which he never pitched) tattooed on his left shoulder blade and an M for Minnesota (a team that has signed him through 2004) tattooed on his right arm. The Twins also have a talented righthander in Joe Mays and a promising lefthander in Mark Redman. Righty, lefty, righty, lefty. Opposing managers can't go on cruise control for a series when filling out lineup cards against this club.
One more thing about the pitchers: They throw strikes because they know how to throw strikes and because they have fielders who can catch the ball. There isn't a sinkhole anywhere in the Twins defense, and their every-day outfield is among the best defensively in baseball. Rightfielder Matt Lawton has a decent arm and range. Torii Hunter, the most acrobatic American League centerfielder east of Seattle's Mike Cameron, makes an error every two months. Jacque Jones, playing his home games in that hermetically sealed dinginess called the Metrodome, under the weirdest, whitest leftfield lighting in baseball, was ranked fourth defensively last year among American League outfielders, with a .994 fielding percentage and only two errors in 345 chances.
Still, if Minnesota is so good, why did nobody see this sort of start coming? Maybe because the Twins were so bad last year, and they started this season with the same rotation and eight of the same every-day players they had at the end of 2000. Maybe because they were 10-19 the last month of the 2000 season. Anything in all that suggest a 14-3 start to you?