Thursday, September 29, 2011

Boys of summer

Two factual statements:

1) I love baseball.
2) It has been a dismal, terrible summer for my favorite team, the Minnesota Twins.

Now that you know those truths, I will tell you about three more things: my life as a baseball fan, this season and last night.  As I've alluded to in previous posts, I am a lifelong Twins fan thanks to my dad.  We saw the Twins through some very trying years in the 1990s, but I also got to watch the 1991 World Series as a second grader.  My parents didn't let me skip school to go to the championship parade downtown, which remains a bone of contention between us.

The quirks of Minnesota baseball: snow on Opening Day
falling gently on the Metrodome roof (pre-Target Field).
More recently, the Twins have become perennial contenders for the AL Central title and moved from the Metrodome into beautiful Target Field. They have built a narrative around crafting a thoughtful farm system, working together as a strong defensive team and being a classy organization.  (By lodging a cliche between parentheses, I'll spare you partially from the most frequent description: a small ball team that "does things the right way.")  

I'll leave serious analysis to the better informed, but this year, everything just plain old went wrong and the win-loss record imploded in spectacular fashion.  It has been a tough season for the players and the front office and the fans.  I've been to games this season that have involved more groaning than cheering. Instead of watching the team fight for a division title, fans watched the team slide toward 100 losses.  (For non-fans wading through this post: it's not good.)  Instead of seeing players on the stats leaderboards, the team is in the cellar for many of them. 

But when Josh asked if I wanted to check out the last game of the season this week, I agreed right away.  See, even as frustrating as the season was, I still felt a tinge of melancholy (if that's not too dramatic) creeping in this week.  When I was a kid, I dreaded the season's end because of how much I loved hearing the game on the radio every night. I guess, simply, that a Twins season has been a key part of my life for many years.  The off-season is just not as much fun as baseball season!

Target Field Opening Day tickets, April 2010
So I scooted over to Target Field after running club last night, and the game was rolling thanks to little offense on behalf of either team.  Today's baseball culture is a little bit different than how I grew up watching the game, and much different than the culture my dad and grandpa watched.  Seeing a pitcher throw a complete game (all nine innings) isn't too common any more thanks to pitch counts and the role of the set-up man and closer (and his saves).  I love, love, love seeing a pitcher dig in and battle for the full nine innings, and I love Carl Pavano's tenure with the Twins because he has modeled that gritty spirit and accountability.  You kind of get the vibe from Carl (and the inanimate objects in the dugout that suffer his wrath after a poor outing must get it, too) that anything less than a CG is a failure.

And it was Pavanotime last night at Target Field, complete with his legendary mustache.  He pitched a complete game shutout last night on 90 pitches or so.  But until the ninth inning, the Twins hadn't contributed any runs to their line on the scoreboard either.  Denard Span, another one of my favorites, stepped in to pinch hit and smacked a double up the first base line, and one of the many new faces on this year's roster, Trevor Plouffe, knocked him in with another hit for a Twins win!

By the numbers, the game doesn't matter - in fact, the only real meaning was that the Twins had avoided 100 losses by winning the game, an achievement that doesn't exactly inspire joy in your heart.  But you couldn't tell that by being at Target Field last night.  By the final inning, the crowd was roaring: for the starting pitcher, for seeing Span step up to the plate after a season hindered by a concussion, for seeing the team eke out a one-run walk-off victory to close the season.

If you've read two percent of my blog entries, it shouldn't surprise you that I'm a sucker for a good video montage. As I watched this year's montage while fans filed out of the stadium, I thought about the season's highs: of Michael Cuddyer carrying the team for most of the season, of Ben Revere's sassy catches, of the great Jim Thome hitting his 600th home run - and I thought of John Gordon, who I've heard on the radio for 20 years, calling his final Twins game that night.  By the numbers, it was a lousy season.  But I believe that because there are so many moving parts in baseball, so many stories and narratives, you can always find pieces of a season that give you goosebumps just the same. 

Goosebumps: literal and figurative last year. Brr!
If you are a fan, you know that yesterday shaped up to be a magnificent, historic night all over both leagues.  If you aren't, you probably don't care at all.  But suspense and thrill seemed universal in watching the last night of the regular season unfold: take your pick between the Rays coming back from seven runs down to beat the Yankees and grab the wild card, the Phillies beating the Braves in extra innings to close the book on Atlanta's collapse, and the Orioles sending the Red Sox home after a long rain delay.  Do you remember a few weeks back when baseball analysts lamented the lack of division races still in play?

No, the Twins won't be playing this weekend in the first round of the playoffs.  Yes, the season was unbelievably disappointing for all parties involved.  But last night was a reminder of the intangible thrill that a win-loss record and run differential statistics don't capture. You can still get goosebumps in the ninth inning of the last game of a 99-loss season.

See you April 9 for the home opener.

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