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Rays can find hope in April of Twins

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By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2001


They play baseball in a drab and belittled dome, operating with a payroll miniscule in comparison with the riches of Yankees, Indians, Red Sox, Rangers and most every other American League rival.

No, this isn't about Tampa Bay's last-place, crowd-craving Rays. Their AL brother Twins from Minnesota, who despite a puny $24.35-million payroll have spent April overcoming shortcomings and joyriding to a 15-4 record.

It's not likely to last, but even a hot flash by the low-budget Twins, or the similarly threadbare Montreal Expos or Oakland A's, gives hope to fiscally strapped and turnstile-slow franchises and shows how zeal and momentum can achieve even against formidable ballpark/banking odds.

Because the Rays were flopping, they fired manager Larry Rothschild in the new season's first months. As the Tampa Bay guys gasp, it is intriguing to see Minnesota having such a fun stretch while coping with similar challenges.

Most glittering of Minnesota morsels is seeing Tom Kelly still there, in a 15th season of filling out Twins lineup cards, as he did in World Series championship seasons of '87 and '91. He repeatedly makes the best of shortchanged Metrodome life.

"We're not really impressed," Kelly, ever the low-key bloke, said of the sizzling start. "There's a long, long way to go. Believe me, I know that."

Kelly is 50. He became Twins manager at 36, when Minnesota's hardball backbone was Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek, Burt Blyleven, Gary Gaetti and Frank Viola.

There have been cash-loaded, glamorized chances for T.K. to go elsewhere, especially after Minnesota won Game 7 of the World Series in '87 against the Cardinals and four years later against the Braves.

Always, he has said nay.

"Never wanted to move," has been Kelly's repetitive reasoning. "I like my house, my town, my state and mowing my own grass." Tom didn't budge from Minnesota even in the leanest of times, dealing with not finishing better than fourth in the AL Central since 1993and not getting fired.

His boss loves T.K.

"I've never considered anyone else," Twins owner Carl Pohlad told Minneapolis media last week. "Tom is so impressive in tough times and good. As long as I've got the team, he will be the manager."

Even with Kelly's stability, the Twins did not at least temporarily escape oblivion without stunning individual excellence, like with 28-year-old Tampa Jesuit graduate Brad Radke, a gifted pitcher with a 4-0 record and blistering 2.52 earned-run average. "I'm feeling pretty strong," Radke said after his most recent win. "This is fun. Who's to say we can't keep it going? Oakland was a team without huge finances that went far last season."

With its April conquests, The Little Payroll That Could is attracting an escalating amount of national media attention.

Spotlights can be eschewed.

"We don't need everybody coming around, asking a lot of questions," outfielder Jacque Jones said. "Let us just go out and be the AAA team we've been the past couple of years. No need for noise or disruption."

While the D-Rays await hints of magnificent impact from farm-system kids such as Josh Hamilton, the Twins are benefiting from the spectacular rookie work of first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz. Who could've expected. . .

He fields like a dream, with the smoothness of a Kenny G sax. Mientkiewicz was at Salt Lake in Triple A last year but now energizes the Twins with a .355 batting average and 14 runs batted in.

In baseball, chances of team success are diminished by being poor, not unlike in life itself. But occasionally there is a rare performance, far better than expected, showing a doubting world that somebody other than rich guys can play the game.

"A lot of people don't believe what they're seeing," Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. "Whether we can score enough runs to sustain it over a season, we'll see. But the excitement tells us what can happen when baseball really cooks.

"It's been a hell of a boost for the market. The biggest thing of this equation is people are taking notice and tuning in, talking about us."

Oh, how Raysball could use such a lift, such a blossoming of citizen interest. If we could see Wilson Alvarez with an 8-2 record, Juan Guzman at 7-3, Vinny Castilla hitting three homers a week, Ben Grieve flirting with .300 and Greg Vaughn refinding that 50-dinger look, maybe it could happen here.

Hey, be a dreamer.

But for now, we're mostly envious.

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