Before the uneven parallel bars became the national pastime, there was baseball. Granted, there was nobody to say "Let the games begin," and many of the people who normally would have been in Anaheim Stadium were off at team handball, but the California Angels and Minnesota played an important series last weekend to determine who would lead the American League West at the top of the pennant stretch.
In the AL West, which has been a sort of Limpiad all season, any team that loses as many games as it wins has a chance. But if the Angels and Twins, the only teams in the division over .500, are still fighting it out in the last week of September, it should at least be interesting. They offer a great study in contrasts: old vs. young, rich vs. poor, disappointing vs. surprising, uptight vs. loose.
Because they split the four-game series the division lead changed hands four times, with the Twins emerging half a game ahead. But as one of our major poets, Reggie Jackson, shouted to Minnesota manager Billy Gardner during b.p. one day, "Hey, Billy. Robert Frost. Miles to go before we sleep."
About the only people who expected the Twins to get this far were the Twins, a band of merry men, four of whom are rookies, eight of whom are in their second year, and another eight of whom are in their third year. Two years ago, Minnesota was a laughingstock, losing 102 games. Now the Twins do the laughing.
On Thursday night, for instance, they were beaten 14-2 by the Angels to fall out of first place. They could have moped, but during the fourth inning, when California extended its lead to 14-0, Gardner set the tone for the evening by calmly tearing John Butcher's pitching chart into pieces.
When Mickey Hatcher came in from leftfield after the inning, he went into a monologue that broke the team up. Later Hatcher said, "I think what I told them was 'We got 'em right where we want them, we're wearing them down, they're getting tired, the fans are leaving, and the concessions are losing money.' I guess you had to be there at the time."
The Twins may lead the majors in cutups, and they observe some bizarre rituals. There's the Hood, a hideous mask made of tape, which belongs to the last batter to strike out three times in a game, and there's the Sombrero, which goes to the last pitcher to give up three homers in a game. Mike Smithson, current owner of the Sombrero, tried to talk Gardner into leaving Frank Viola in Thursday's game after Viola had given up two home runs.
The Twins laughed off their two-touchdown loss and the next night came from behind to beat the Angels 4-2 and regain first place. Kent Hrbek and Tom Brunansky drove in the big runs, Butcher and Ron Davis worked out of jam after jam and 5'7" Houston Jimenez, who puts the short in shortstop, made a pair of nice plays. "You have to like these kids, the way they bounce back," said Gardner after the game.
And you have to like Gardner, who's seen the Twins through some very hard times. Gardner, 57 and nicknamed Slick, leads a rather fascinating life. He's married to a former Miss Connecticut, he does p.r. for a meat company in the off-season, he plays a mean game of pool, and while in Minneapolis he stays in the Super 8 Motel.
He is also stern without being strict, and his players swear by him. If one of them is going through a slump, Gardner will probably tell him about the time 34 years ago in Sioux City.... "They used to keep a pig out there in left. I hit a ball to the wall in left center, and while I'm running around the bases, the pig walks over and eats the ball. The umpires huddle at home plate, and you know what they decided? They decided to give me an inside-the-pork home run."