The Playoffs: The Wages of Win

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Kim D. Johnson/AP

Friday, Twins catcher A.J. Pierzynski made the tag on Angels pinch runner Chone Figgins. The Twins still lost, 2-1

Minneapolis is probably the last place Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig expected to watch baseball this October, given that he tried to kill the hometown Twins last year. He's as welcome there as a banker at a farm foreclosure. And speaking of which, wasn't that the Twins pinchpenny owner, billionaire banker Carl Pohlad, sharing a box with Bud at the Twins' 2-1 victory over the Anaheim Angels in the opening game of the American League Championship Series? No sentimentalist, Pohlad couldn't wait to close up shop last year after Selig offered to buy him out in major-league baseball's proposed "contraction."

The Anonymous Angels are also an unexpected visitor to the championship series and similarly unwanted by their current owner, the Walt Disney Company. In their 42 years in the league, the Angels have had two owners, three different names, six different uniforms and zero championships. This year they played in the shadow of the division-winning Oakland A's; normally they play in the shadow of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Together the Twins and Angels are playing taut, classic fall ball and upsetting Selig's contention that only big-money teams can succeed in the playoffs. The Twins, with a payroll that ranks 27th of 30 teams, are rewriting the equation. Meanwhile, the suburban Angels (15th on the money list) pounded the aging New York Yankees in the first round. The $170 million Yankee payroll is almost twice that of the Angels' and Twins' combined.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]For a ghost team, the Twins play pretty lively baseball, as they showed in eliminating the A's. "We have a chip on our shoulder," admitted first-baseman Doug Mientkiewicz. "Someone is going to represent the American League that no one in their wildest dreams imagined would be here."

Mientkiewicz is typical of the overachieving Minnesotans. In a game driven by nomadic free agents, the Twins are a no-star team that's as home-grown as winter wheat. The Twins can put 10 starters on the field who have never played for any other organization. "All we do is worry about what happens on the field. This group has been through a lot together," Mientkiewicz said. "If it works out, it works out. If it doesn't, we know we'll be back again next year to try it again."

It's a strategy born out of Pohlad's parsimony. Unable to splash cash for free agents, the Twins had to nurture players through their farm system and into the big leagues — sometimes too early. The Twins began to jell last year, ending eight straight losing seasons. This year, they have the ideal playoff balance of defense and pitching to protect whatever runs they can scrape together. The Twins also have an advantage in playing their games in the Metrodome, an example of what happens when a mall designer builds a stadium. The dome has a trampoline surface, a Hefty bag outfield wall and an off-white fabric roof that turns a high fly into a game of Where's Balldo? It's also the noisiest joint in baseball.

The Halos have a similarly earthy spirit, even after dismantling the Bronx Billionaires. Says shortstop David Eckstein: "I don't think anybody on our team is looking for the limelight. We're going out there, trying to win games. That is our main focus. We don't care who gets it done." And the Angels can get it done any number of ways. Eckstein, their 5-ft.-6-in. leadoff hitter, drives the opposition crazy with mind games that have given him the league nickname of The Pest. He prolongs at bats by fouling pitches off. He crowds the plate, daring pitchers to hit him. They have generously complied — he led the league in being hit by pitches. And in sacrifice bunts. And in grand slams. And being cursed at by the opposition. "I take pride in going our there and playing hard every day," he says. "I think our whole club does." Anaheim's post-season pitching has been spectacular.

The Angels may be a winning Disney subsidiary. But they are still on the block. And Pohlad pronounced himself unapologetic about trying for a Twin killing. Yet he's made a point of showing up in the locker room to share in the victories — the landlord crashing a rent party. "Hey, he's our owner," Mientkiewicz says. "What can you say?" You can say he would sell them tomorrow for the right price.

Reported by David Thigpen/Minneapolis