Wednesday, July 29, 2015

My journey as a Twins fan part 2: Dougie and division titles

Among some of my other highlights as a Twins fan, I spent a couple birthdays - Sweet 16 and No. 20 -  at the Dome. My parents were nice enough to have a birthday message put on the scoreboard for me. With a Sept. 29 birthday, it's usually the last series of the regular season, and it just depends on whether the Twins are in town. Luckily, these two worked out.

My brother Kyle and me at the Dome.

Dougie... alphabet? 
Now let's talk about Dougie Baseball.

I'm not big on having favorite players, mostly because I learned that sports is a business and guys get traded or retire often enough. But I really loved watching Doug Mientkiewicz. He won a Gold Glove in 2001 for his defensive play at first base. His batting helmet was disgustingly-full of pine tar. He had a superstitious spot in the dugout where he sat as the Twins tried to rally.

He was traded to the Boston Red Sox in 2004, a move that was part of a four-way trade, I think. It was disappointing for me, but the Twins were making way for their first baseman of the future: Justin Morneau.

Players get traded at the July deadline all the time, but this was special because the Twins were at home in the middle of a series with the Red Sox when he was traded. So all he had to do was walk over to the visitor's club house. We were at that game, and you can bet I was one of the Twins fans giving Mientkiewicz a warm ovation as he stepped to the plate for his first at-bat with Boston.

Outdoor baseball in KC
In 2006, Mientkiewicz was playing for the Kansas City Royals. Remember, this was before Target Field and outdoor baseball in Minnesota. I hadn't seen a Major League Baseball game in an open-air stadium before. So, we took a road trip that summer to Kauffman Stadium.

It was a sweltering day, but our seats were under an overhang, so we at least had some shade. The disappointment was that Mientkiewicz was out of the lineup with an injury. I wanted to see him play, but taking in outdoor baseball was fun all on its own.

Decade of division titles
The Twins won division crowns in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2009 and 2010. But arguably the only successful postseason was 2002 when the Twins beat Oakland only to lose in the American League Championship Series to the Angels. I think they were still the Anaheim Angels at that time, pre-Los Angeles.

Anyway, most of the time, the Twins were plagued by the Yankees. It's become a painful memory where the Yanks always found a way to win, while the Twins let it get in their heads that they couldn't beat Goliath. It even happened in 2010, when the Twins had rare homefield advantage against the Yankees in the inaugural season at Target Field.

Perhaps the most disappointing postseason for the Twins was 2006. They had homefield advantage, won the division, drew Oakland as a Division Series opponent rather New York, had the Cy Young winner: Johan Santana, AL Batting Champion: Joe Mauer and MVP: Morneau on their team. That's like a full house in poker, right? Everything in their favor.

And the Twins were swept out of the ALDS in three heartbreaking games. My family and I attended games one and two at the Dome. I even skipped part of a journalism class to make it in time.

I was a sophomore in college at the time, and after the Twins season ended, my friends and I dressed up for Halloween. I went as a Twins mourner. I'm not kidding. I threw on my jersey, painted blue tears on my face and carried around a Twins tissue box. That's how disappointed I was with the outcome of the season. Dramatic? Maybe. But I was just being a passionate fan.

Game 163. It's still cool.
Then there were games 163 in 2008 and 2009. I watched the '09 game (the Twins final regular season game at the Dome) with my friend Cassie at Joe Senser's in Bloomington. It was a nail-biter in the later innings, especially when the game got turned over to the Twins bullpen. We sat there holding our breath and barely keeping our eyes open with each pitch.

I'll never forget when it was finally over and the Twins beat the Tigers. The place went nuts. I jumped up and down and cheered with the rest of the restaurant patrons.

My journey as a Twins fan part 1: A bite from the sports bug

My journey as a Twins fans part 3: The Target Field era

Friday, July 24, 2015

My journey as a Twins fan part 1: A bite from the sports bug

Me, as a young sports fan.
I suppose you could say I've been a Twins fan all my life. I mean, I was around for both the 1987 and 1991 World Series titles. Of course, I was all of 1 year old in 1987. But my parents tell me I was part of the festivities.

They bundled me up in the stroller as we trucked down to Minneapolis to wait in line for all the World Series apparel. I wasn't a sports nut in '91 either. As a 5-year-old, I'm sure I was too busy enjoying Sesame Street and my dolls to care about watching sports.

Throughout the rest of the '90s however, our family went to the Metrodome for a few games here and there. It was easy to head down on a Friday night, get tickets in the outfield "cheap seats" and enjoy the game. Part of the reason for this, I now know, is because the Twins didn't field very competitive teams throughout much of the decade.

It was one of those slumps that just happens at some point within a franchise. Still, it was fun cheering for the favorites like Kent Hrbek, Marty Cordova, Chuck Knoblauch (yes, at the time) and of course, the legendary Kirby Puckett.

I remember being there for the pre-game festivities honoring Kirby after his playing career ended. When he and his then-wife Tonya came onto the field in a convertible, I remember being part of a lengthy standing ovation. I remember thinking that was the longest I had clapped for anything or anybody in my young life. Now, I know standing ovations have changed over the years. Today it seems they've become almost meaningless - we'll clap for just about anything.

But the ovation for Kirby was completely genuine.

Baseball: America's pastime. My pastime. 
The sports fandom bug really bit me at the start of the Twins 2001 season. I heard that they won their first three games, so I figured I'd watch a little and see how the team looked. Turns out, that was the start of an amazing decade for Minnesota Twins baseball, which would be bookended with a brand new ballpark.

They didn't win the AL Central Division right away, but they made great strides in 2001. Then manager Tom Kelly retired and the Ron Gardenhire era began.

Those first couple summers, I'd say I was a pretty dedicated Twins fan. If the Twins were playing, that meant I was in front of the set watching. It got so involved that my dad had to tell me to get out and enjoy the nice summer nights in Minnesota, since we all know the nice weather isn't around long. There's 162 games, and I didn't need to watch all of them, basically.

I must have relaxed a little, but I was still hooked. The Twins promotional tagline back then was "Get to Know 'Em." Boy, did I. I knew the players, jersey numbers, positions, even their batting stance routines, which I often imitated out in the yard as my brother and I played a little baseball.

Learning my team, then writing a letter
Just by watching so much baseball, I learned more about the game, too. I learned from watching, listening to the broadcasters dissect plays and explain obscure rules, and by asking my parents questions.

Following the 2001 season, the fate of the Twins was threatened with a little thing call contraction. I wasn't even sure what that meant. "The Twins will just go away? But how can they do that?" As a relatively new fan who was so dedicated, I was pretty upset.

I even wrote a letter to MLB commissioner Bud Selig. A strongly-worded letter, I'd say. The one thing I remember writing is explaining the "Get to Know 'Em" slogan and wrote that I "got to know 'em." Luckily, the Twins are still around. I'm sure it was my letter that kept contraction away.

A girl can dream, right?

My journey as a Twins fan part 2: Dougie and division titles

My journey as a Twins fan part 3: The Target Field era

Saturday, July 11, 2015

What a comeback, what a game: Dozier blasts another walk-off homer in Twins win

It's one of those instant classics. Perhaps the game of the 2015 season so far for the Minnesota Twins. An 8-6 victory over the Detroit Tigers Friday night doesn't seem like much without the context of how that final score came to be: A 7-run, bottom of the 9th comeback victory for the Twins, capped by a 3-run, walk-off homer from none other than Brian Dozier.

I'll say it again: What. A. Game. The Twins got their fourth walk-off win this season off the bat of, who else, Brian Dozier. The man of the hour, man of the week and major snub in the #FinalVote for the All-Star Game.

Where do I start? There are so many things to write about from this amazing comeback victory, in a game that the Twins just did not seem to be in until the 8th inning. The Twins put together just two hits through seven innings; two singles off the bats of Miguel Sano and Kurt Suzuki. That was it. No runs, as Justin Verlander pitched into the 8th inning and looked dominant against the Twins, as he has so many times before.

Even after Dozier got an RBI single in the 8th to get his team on the board, 6-1 at that point, it still didn’t seem like they could pull off a win. OK, it seemed very, very unlikely.

Well, the game did a 180.

An are-you-kidding-me kind of comeback
Along comes the bottom of the 9th inning. Joe Mauer leads it off with a single, and Sano follows that up with a ground-rule double to left. Trevor Plouffe strikes out. Eddie Rosario singles to make it 6-2 and steals a base, an original out call that was overturned thanks to a Molitor challenge. 

Then Detroit closer Joakim Soria comes in. He walks Aaron Hicks to fill the bases. With no place to put the No. 8-hitting Suzuki, Soria beans him with a pitch, giving the Twins another run. It’s 6-3 now with the bases full. Danny Santana came through with a two-run single up the middle, despite cries from social media circles and the press box for Molitor to bring in a pinch hitter. Suddenly it’s 6-5 and Target Field, for those loyal fans that didn’t leave to get a jump on the traffic, was rocking. 

Who steps up to the plate but Dozier. One of the best second baseman in the American League and in all of baseball. Just look at some of the stat sheets; he's leading or near the top in most of the categories. But he didn’t get voted to the All-Star Game the first time around. And he wasn’t named as a reserve player by the AL manager. He lost out on the #FinalVote Friday to Mike Moustakas of Kansas City, despite one of the coolest social media campaigns out there. #VoteDozier

Dozier goes deep
So, this non-All Star didn’t waste any time. He blasted the first pitch he saw to the left field seats. It was the same place he put his other walk-off home run earlier this week in a victory over the Baltimore Orioles. Before that, he didn’t have a walk-off homer to his name. Give him a week, and he has two of them.

If you like stats, here's a couple good ones for you. Dozier is the first player in Twins history, since 1961, with multiple walk-off homers in a week and the first in franchise history since Roy Sievers in 1958, according to ESPN Stats/Info.  He’s also four home runs away from tying his career-high of 23, which he achieved last season. 

The Twins finished the game with 10 hits, after they had two through seven innings. They had eight runs, seven of those coming in the bottom of the ninth inning. According to ESPN Stats/Info, the Twins are the first team in baseball in two seasons to overcome a deficit of five runs in the ninth. 

This was a pretty great game, and one of the best rallies you’ll see for a long time. It’s one thing to see your team get a walk-off win on a home run. But for it to come from Dozier this week, twice, was pretty awesome. It makes for some great stories, that’s for sure.