Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Twins' unexpected success could be the start of something big

It was all so exciting, more so because it was so unexpected. The summerlong chase of respectability, the daily check-the-standings intrigue, the jubilation of clinching and now, the prospect of one game to intensify the drama or end it with a thud — up close, the 2017 Twins season has been a rip-roaring adventure.

The Twins went from the worst year in team history to become the first major-league team to make the playoffs after a 100-loss season.

It will reach a crescendo tonight in New York, nine innings (or more) of instant grief or gratification, when Minnesota faces a one-game wild-card duel with the Yankees, its first postseason action since 2010. Win that game, probably no worse than a 60-40 proposition with their best pitcher on the mound, and a memorable season becomes electrifying, with playoff games at Target Field next weekend — and the opportunity to dream even bigger — the reward.

But wash the champagne out of your hair and take a step back. Put the season in a larger context. Add some historical perspective, and realize that over the long term, what the Twins are doing is … well, even a bigger thrill than these past two weeks of delirium.

Why? Because all indications, including the Twins' own history, suggest that the 2017 postseason, no matter if it lasts one anticlimactic night or an entire magical month, is only the prelude to something that figures to last much longer.

"The reality is, there are cycles to this game," said Twins president Dave St. Peter. "You want to avoid significant valleys, the long downturns, and unfortunately, we've been unable to do that. But the good news is, it feels like that's behind us now. We believe we are on the cusp of an upturn that could result in some great things — including, hopefully, bringing another world championship here."

Faith wasn't easy to come by six months ago, not in the wake of a 59-103 disaster that cost general manager Terry Ryan his job and put a ceiling on the natural preseason optimism. Manager Paul Molitor mustered enthusiasm for his team's young hitters — "I have a lot of confidence in how our team is going to perform offensively. We have the raw materials here for a really high-performing offense," he gamely asserted (and correctly, as it turned out) in February, on the eve of spring training — but even internally, the team was bracing for another difficult summer.

Who could blame them? No MLB team had ever followed a 100-loss season with a postseason appearance, even with the expansion of the playoffs to 10 teams. And only modest changes were made to the roster last winter, the team doubling down on its commitment to its prospects.

"I don't think anybody expected to advance to postseason play," St. Peter admitted. "We did have high hopes that we could be markedly better than a year ago, but let's be honest, that's not really saying much. But what is most rewarding is the way we got it done, the way our core group has stepped up, and the way they have pulled together as a team in every sense of the word. They love each other, they pull for each other, and that's really infectious to be around."

The team's fans are slowly becoming infected again as well, captivated by the resilience of a team that never crumbled under slumps, and that even drew motivation from its own front office's apparent surrender in July, when the Twins traded away All-Star closer Brandon Kintzler and newly acquired veteran pitcher Jaime Garcia. "We should be adding players. It's frustrating," veteran second baseman Brian Dozier objected. "I don't know anybody in here who has given up."

They rallied with a 20-win August that catapulted them back into playoff contention, and charmed a city that has gradually grown enthralled by their success.

Minnesota's baseball history has followed a pattern, with a handful of distinct eras of success separated by long periods of bottom-feeding. Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva and Jim Kaat brought the World Series to Minnesota in 1965, narrowly missed repeating that success exactly 50 years ago today on the 1967 season's final day by just one victory, and then won two division championships, all in the space of six years.

The emergence in the mid-1980s of legends like Kirby Puckett and Kent Hrbek delivered the city's only two World Series titles in 1987 and 1991. And when stars like Torii Hunter, Justin Morneau, Johan Santana and Joe Mauer arrived together roughly 15 years ago, the Twins embarked on a period of regular-season domination: six division titles in nine seasons, a run diminished by the exasperating lack of a postseason jackpot.

Now, after six seasons of Target Field hibernation, here comes Byron Buxton, Jose Berrios, Eddie Rosario, Jorge Polanco and the currently hobbled Miguel Sano, the leading edge of a wave of homegrown talent, all still in their early 20s, that has been churning toward the major leagues since the last group moved on. Various combinations of these players won three championships at minor-league levels before gradually reaching the top of the system, where they have joined with a few key holdover veterans like Dozier, Ervin Santana and a resurgent Mauer, enjoying his best season in half a decade.

"We've all been aware of, and become excited by, the potential of these players as they've developed," Molitor said, "but you can't know how they will react once they take that final step. You just have to have faith in the support system you provide them, and the players themselves."

The Twins sold more than 35,000 tickets apiece last week for two AL Division Series games that won't be played unless they survive tonight's wild-card game.

"More importantly, we're seeing some really positive things with our season ticket renewals for next year, and hopefully growth of our season-ticket base," St. Peter said. When the team moved into Target Field in 2010, the combination of the new park and winning team built a base of 25,000 season tickets, but it declined to roughly half that by this year.

"We took a huge hit from 2016 to 2017, and we understand that it's probably a multiyear build to get back to a level of 16-17,000-plus, which is what our goal is," St. Peter said. "Our fan base has been incredibly patient. They deserved better, and I can say with some confidence, they're going to get better."

They still need to, if they're going to live up to their promise. Even the greatest one-season improvement in franchise history hasn't been enough to sweep away the wreckage of 2016, and the new baseball leadership team of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine has committed to upgrade where necessary — particularly with the pitching staff — and build with an eye toward more sustainable success.

But as Twins fans know from experience, it's a zero-sum game, and cycles eventually end. Better to enjoy it today.

"We all know how hard it is to win, and how much work went in to getting here," Dozier said. "I know we're building for the future, and that's fine. That's great. But as players, we want to win right now."

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