It was a foolish move. by the time Minnesota Twins third baseman Gary Gaetti stepped to the plate on Friday night with two down in the top of the ninth, the Twins had a 9-5 lead over the Oakland Athletics in the opener of a four-game series between the two top teams in the American League West. But then Oakland reliever Eric Plunk threw a fastball that breezed beneath Gaetti's chin. Two pitches later Gaetti hit a towering two-run blast over the leftfield wall in Oakland Alameda County Coliseum, and the Twins won 11-5.
As soon as the game ended, A's manager Tony La Russa summoned Plunk to his office. "That's one person you don't brush back," La Russa told his young pitcher. "First of all, you never want to stir him up—he stirs that whole team. Second, give him his due respect. Gaetti plays the way the game should be played."
The Twins had been stirred all right, and they ended up winning three of four games from the A's, including an 11-0, 5-0 sweep of a Sunday doubleheader. which left a sellout crowd of 43,154 stunned, and sliced the Athletics' once-commanding division lead of 11 games to four. But Plunk could be forgiven his ill-advised move against Gaetti. After all, it has been almost nine months since the Twins, cheered on by Domesful of businessmen and grandmothers from Hibbing to Hutchinson, won the World Series and became one of baseball's most unlikely groups of October heroes. As the new season began, many people took the champs lightly, and there were times when even the Twins themselves had their doubts.
Back in early May, as the A's seemed to be running away with the American League West race, Minnesota manager Tom Kelly said, "I just hope we haven't been eliminated by the time we play them." At that point, the Twins were 11-18 and in last place in the division, 12 games behind first-place Oakland. Things improved slightly, but then the Athletics arrived at the Metrodome on June 3 and won two of three games, leaving Minnesota 10 games out of first. "A lot of people figured we were done for the season," says rightfielder Randy Bush. "But we don't have emotional highs and lows. Tom Kelly doesn't have big games. The sixth game of the World Series wasn't a big game. He says, 'Do the best you can and have fun." And that's what we do."
Some people, however, weren't fooled by the Twins' slow start. "They're relentless," says La Russa. "They fell out of first place two times in the second half last year and could have folded. They never did. They don't say much. All they do is earn respect, no matter whether they finish first or not."
So, three weeks after being slapped around at home by the Monster Mashers of the East Bay, the Twins came to Oakland for last weekend's series, one that even Kelly might have admitted was big. Where were they? Only six games out of first, after having won 22 of their last 30 games. The A's, meanwhile, had just dropped 10 of 17 games.
There was a time when it would have sounded ridiculous to put the "big" label on any series in the American League West. "I think there are still people back east who look down on the Western Division, even though I feel things have evened up," says Kelly. "I think the fans think so, too."
At the beginning of the decade, recalls Gaetti, the A's and the Twins were both such poor attractions that they would sometimes draw 10,000 for a weekend series against each other. Last week's three dates pulled in 112,279. Oakland is expecting to set a team record this season by attracting 2.3 to 2.5 million customers, while Minnesota has already sold more than 1.8 million tickets and may hit 2.4 million or better, which would also be a club mark.
At 5 p.m. Friday a crowd of fans in Twins sweatshirts, some carrying Homer Hankies left over from last fall's World Series, had gathered outside the gates in Oakland. "Everywhere we go, there are 10 people in the stands from Apple Valley," said Twins first baseman Kent Hrbek, who was sidelined with a strained right knee.
Inside the stadium, Kelly sat in the dugout, waiting for the game to start. "Be careful, hotfoots are big this week," he warned a reporter. "Last week, it was shaving cream in the phone. The week before that, it was Dan Gladden's laughing box."