During the winter of 1998, John Hart, general manager of the then dominant Cleveland Indians, called up his counterpart in Minnesota, Twins GM Terry Ryan, to offer up what Hart now calls a "half-assed" deal. Minnesota was looking to trade All-Star second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, who wanted out of the Twin Cities. Hart figured he could leverage Knoblauch's unhappiness into a steal for his Indians by offering very little. But after five straight losing seasons, Ryan had just about had it.
"He said, 'Let me tell you something, John,'" recalls Hart, who is now an analyst for MLB Network. "'We're tired of getting our asses kicked. Right now we're down, but we're not going to be down for long. Go s___ in your hat.'"
Hart, who is friends with Ryan, admired his fire. And Ryan, who promptly hung up the phone, kept his bold promise. Just four years later, the Twins indeed knocked the Indians off their perch in the American League's central division. And for the most part, they've held onto the top spot ever since, winning six of the last nine American League central titles. On Wednesday, the Twins will make their second straight postseason appearance, and their first at their brand new outdoor stadium, Target Field, as they host the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series.
Despite enjoying home-field advantage this year, the Twins are sure to be underdogs against the defending World Series champions (whom they lost to in last year's playoffs). But even in the realm of overachieving small- to mid-market teams, the Twins are used to being overlooked. The Oakland Athletics of the early 2000s, thanks to the best-selling book Moneyball, have long been regarded as the model for small-market prosperity in baseball. Those teams, the story goes, outsmarted everyone else with the use of cutting-edge baseball mathematics that permitted Oakland to mine undervalued talent. Hollywood is even making a movie about those A's, with none other than Brad Pitt playing celebrated A's general manager Billy Beane.
But here's the thing: those A's never won a playoff series, and the Twins have sustained their excellence much longer than Oakland did. They have done so, at least in part, by taking the opposite approach. Sure, the team incorporates statistical analysis. But the baseball men in the trenches carry the most weight. Says Hart: "This is not a numbers-driven, new-kid-on-the-block organization. The Twins are as old-school as you're going to find."
It wasn't so long ago that the team seemed too old-school, with Major League Baseball seriously thinking of eliminating Minnesota as part of a contraction plan. The team's cavernous indoor home park, the Metrodome, was antiquated. Revenues sagged. But just a few months after the Twins decided to send Knoblauch to the Yankees in 1998, they made a decision that likely saved the franchise. They would concentrate on promoting players through their minor league system rather than rely on veteran, often overvalued, free agents for success. They suffered losing seasons the next few years, but ever since Minnesota broke through with a trip to the American League Championship Series in 2002, the "win from within" philosophy has propelled the Twins, who never had the big-market resources to pay for star players, to lasting success.
And that success, in part, stems from its stability. One family, the Pohlads, has owned the club for 26 years; since the start of the 1987 season Minnesota has employed just two team presidents, three general managers, two field managers and four scouting directors three of which are still with the organization. After manager Tom Kelly, who led the Twins to World Series titles in 1987 and 1991, stepped aside in 2001, Ron Gardenhire, who had been a coach in the organization since 1988, took over. He's still there. All but one member of his coaching staff has been with the franchise for more than 20 years.
The organization is stocked with lower-level scouts, minor league managers and instructors and business executives who have 20-plus years of service with the Twins. During late 2001, when talk of contracting the Twins was loudest and it seemed like the team might not exist in the near future, Ryan got a phone call from the Toronto Blue Jays, who were offering him a chance to be their general manager. He declined to even interview. "That sent a message to everyone in the organization," says current Twins general manager Bill Smith, who started as an assistant to Ryan, then the Twins scouting director, in 1986. Only one Twins employee, an accountant whose husband took an out-of-state job, left.
This consistency has helped the Twins preach core principles, from top to bottom. "Our guys stretch the same way, whether they are the majors or prospects in the Dominican summer league," says Smith, who replaced Ryan in 2007. The most important Twins commandment: throw strikes. "A lot of good things flow from having strike throwers," explains Ryan, who still advises the team. "It keeps the game flowing and gets your defense off the field." Twins pitchers threw 48.8% of their pitches in the strike zone, tied for tops in the majors, according to Fangraphs.com, an advanced baseball statistics site.
Of course, the Twins are not the only team that puts a premium on the little things, like hitting the cutoff man and bunt defense. But baseball experts say they are more committed than most. The Twins also promote the young players they are educating, a structure that offers an enormous motivation for the minor leaguers. Of the 35 players on Minnesota's late-September roster, 20 started their pro careers in the Twins organization.
Homegrown players like outfielders Torii Hunter, first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, catcher A.J. Pierzynski, starting pitcher Johan Santana and closer Eddie Guardado formed the core of the Twins team that won three straight division titles from 2002 to 2004. Knowing that catcher Joe Mauer was in the farm system, the Twins were able to trade Pierzynski for Joe Nathan, now a four-time All-Star as Minnesota's closer, and Francisco Liriano, one of the team's better starting pitchers. Mauer, a St. Paul native, has won three American League batting titles and was the 2009 American League MVP. First baseman Justin Morneau, who the Twins picked in the third round of the 1999 draft, replaced Mientkiewicz. He has made four straight All-Star teams.
As Minnesota's young players forced trades or left the team as free agents to make more money elsewhere, a new crop from the farm was ready to take their place. For example, in 2008 the Twins traded Santana, a two-time Cy Young Award winner, to the Mets since they could no longer afford him. But Twins draft choices like Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey have emerged to provide depth to the pitching rotation.
Minnesota is well positioned for the future too. Thanks to Target Field, the team's attendance jumped 35% this season, with the park's luxury suites bolstering the bottom line. With this increased cash flow, Minnesota was able to sign Mauer to an eight-year, $184 million extension before the season. To complement its young core, the Twins gave one-year contracts to veteran pitcher Carl Pavano, who this season led Minnesota's starters with 17 wins, and slugger Jim Thome, who smacked a team-leading 25 home runs, giving him 589 for his career. The team's payroll has jumped 33%, inching over the $100 million mark for the first time. Truth be told, the Twins aren't even that small-market anymore. The team's opening-day payroll this year ranked 10th in the majors, according to the website bizofbaseball.com. In 2008, the Twins ranked 25th.
Still, baseball skeptics will point to the fact that Minnesota's recent run, though impressive, has never ended in the ultimate prize. After all, in each of their last four playoff trips, the Twins have been knocked out in the first round. Will things change against the Yankees? Minnesota will be without Morneau, who suffered a concussion in July, and Nathan, who missed the season with a torn elbow ligament. The team, however, remains confident. Twins execs think their lineup, and bullpen, is the best they've had in a decade. Says Smith: "It's safe to say that we've raised the level of expectation."