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They have redefined winning

Twins, tied at 1 with the A's, beat contraction and their AL Central foes. Not bad for a team that was left for dead.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 4, 2002

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Twins aren't supposed to be here. Not even-steven with Oakland going into today's third game of the AL division series.

Not playing at the soldout Metrodome on national (cable) TV.

Not here at all.

This was the team Bud Selig tried to kill. The poster boys for contraction, whose owner was willing to sell them out to cash out. You thought the 1991 season was impressive, when the Twins went from worst to first and ended up with their second World Series championship? Ha! This group went from last rites to first place, from being folded to being feted.

"We had," general manager Terry Ryan said, "a lot of excuses not to succeed here."

The Twins' success story started in spring training, simply because spring training started. After a winter of worry and wonder, the Twins didn't know -- officially -- that they would play this season until Feb. 5, less than two weeks before the first scheduled workout.

When they assembled in Fort Myers, as probably the happiest big-league team in history to show up for early morning practice in the Florida sun, they had themselves quite a little rallying cry.

"I know a lot of times in spring training we were pretty fired up about the whole situation," said top starter Brad Radke, a Jesuit High product. "I think we did have something to prove out there this year, and a lot of guys took that to heart."

"A lot of our players felt it was something that they had to overcome," Ryan said. "And they did."

It was bad enough that the very existence of the once-proud franchise was being threatened, and that the players had to deal with the uncertainty of not knowing where they'd end up.

But the Twins also felt they had some unfinished business. Despite one of the game's smallest payrolls -- their $41.5-million was about $7-million more than the Rays spent and about a third as much as the Yankees -- the Twins had assembled one of the most talented young teams, with eight past or present All-Stars.

The core group came up through the Twins system, many playing together at the Double-A and Triple-A levels, and was supplemented with some crafty acquisitions, such as shortstop Cristian Guzman and pitchers Eric Milton and Rick Reed.

After losing 97 games in 1999 and 93 in 2000, the Twins put something together last season, sharing first place into mid August, when they were swept by the Rays at the Trop and never recovered. Though they still won 85 games, they wanted more.

"We wanted to be on the same team and to just have the chance to finish what we started," first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz said.

Showing they didn't deserve to be contracted turned out to be only part of their motivation.

"This team wasn't about, "We don't deserve this,' " manager Ron Gardenhire said. "I think this team was about, "Give us a chance to go out and play. That's all we're asking for.' That's what we wanted more than anything, a chance to go out on the field and prove that we could play."

Consider the point made. Despite the distractions, despite limited offseason moves (reliever Mike Jackson was the only significant addition), despite 12 players going on the disabled list (including three in their rotation), despite a first-year manager, despite continuing uncertainty over their stadium situation, they won 94.

A lot of credit should go to Gardenhire, who'd spent 11 years as a Minnesota coach. He brings a low-key and offcenter leadership style, so much so that when the Twins clinched the AL Central title in Cleveland, he called his wife at home and told her to pour a beer over her head so she could enjoy the celebration.

But when the Twins talk about Bud, they usually are referring to Selig, often with adjectives attached. Selig, for what it's worth, claims he couldn't be happier for the Twins.

"I'm delighted," Selig said. "They fought their way back, and Terry Ryan did a masterful job. I just want them to solve their long-term problems so I never have to worry about them again."

As problematic as the Metrodome might be financially, the irony is it gives the Twins a remarkable homefield advantage. Of 12 postseason games there, amid ear-shattering and Homer Hankies-waving support, the Twins have won 11.

"We hear a lot of people say we are just happy to be here and we have nothing to prove," outfielder Torii Hunter said. "We have everything to prove. We want to take it all the way. We are here, we might as well go ahead and win the whole thing."

And how sweet would that be, to have Selig standing on the Metrodome field handing them the World Series trophy.

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