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AMERICAN LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES: ANGELS VS. MINNESOTA

Ante Up

Twin players remember what it was to pay their dues; whether ownership will reward them remains a question

October 08, 2002|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MINNEAPOLIS — What Minnesota Twin first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz remembers most about the 1999 season, which he refers to as "the most miserable year of my life," is the silence.

The Metrodome may be the loudest place on earth tonight, when the Twins and Angels open the American League championship series before a Homer Hanky-waving sellout crowd of 56,000, but three years ago the place was as lifeless as a morgue.

"You could hear someone buying a hot dog in the upper deck," Mientkiewicz said. "If someone yawned in the stands, you heard it."

Those yawns weren't limited to the bleachers. The small-market Twins went to a total youth movement in 1999, paring their payroll to $15 million on orders from owner Carl Pohlad and carrying 16 rookies, their lineup filled with anonymous kids such as Mientkiewicz, outfielders Torii Hunter and Jacque Jones, infielders Corey Koskie and Cristian Guzman and pitcher Joe Mays.

Minnesota was overmatched from the start, going 63-97 and finishing 33 games out of first place in the AL Central. ESPN analyst Peter Gammons called the Twins "the best triple-A team in the big leagues," and he was right; most of these guys had no business being here.

They had some skill, some athleticism, some potential. But they were force-fed into the big leagues, chewed up and spit out by opponents. They were outscored, 845-686. They hit 105 homers and allowed 208. They were, in a word, "boring."

"To be honest with you," said Rick Stelmaszek, the Twins' longtime bullpen coach, "I fell asleep a few times during games."

From those humble origins rose the core of a team that won the AL Central by 13 1/2 games this season, upset the Oakland Athletics in a five-game division series and is four wins from reaching the World Series.

You thought the 1969 Mets were Amazin'? From a leap of faith, the Twins are now a hop, skip and a jump away from the Fall Classic.

"We always said in 1999 that we're going to take our lumps, but we're eventually going to return the favor," Mientkiewicz said. "My hat goes off to [Manager] Ron Gardenhire, [former manager] Tom Kelly and [General Manager] Terry Ryan. They kept the group together. They knew we could win. We just needed to learn how to win on the big-league level."

The growing pains were sharp, the scars deep. Mientkiewicz hit .229 that season and was sent back to triple-A Salt Lake for most of 2000. Guzman hit .226 with one homer and 90 strikeouts in 1999. Hunter hit .255. Mays went 6-11. The group had won together in the minor leagues but crashed into a wall in the big leagues.

"It was just too much too soon for most of them," Kelly said. "Most of them skipped triple A and went right to the big leagues. When you strap 16 rookies onto a roster and throw them against the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians, you're going to take your lumps, and we did."

It wasn't so much the physical aspects of the game that overwhelmed the Twins.

"Some of us were scared," Mientkiewicz said. "T.K. kept putting us out there, and we all struggled. Geez, we must have put 25 years on T.K. in one year. There were too many guys trying to feel their way through the big leagues without worrying about whether we won or lost."

The toughest part of that season?

"Every day at 7 p.m.," Mientkiewicz said. "Not knowing what you're gonna get."

The volatile Twins were just as likely to blow a six-run lead in the seventh inning as they were to throw a no-hitter, which left-hander Eric Milton did against the equally woebegone Angels on Sept. 11 of that year, the highlight of Minnesota's season and the lowlight of a 70-92 Angel season in which manager Terry Collins and general manager Bill Bavasi resigned under duress.

While the Angels rebuilt under a new regime with General Manager Bill Stoneman and Manager Mike Scioscia, the Twins injected some more youth in 2000, adding catcher A.J. Pierzynski, second baseman Luis Rivas and pitcher J.C. Romero to the mix.

Hunter, after a torrid 55-game stretch in triple A, where he hit .368 with 18 homers and 61 runs batted in, improved his major league average to .280. Guzman jumped to .247, Jones hit .289, and Pierzynski and Rivas each hit over .300.

"We knew we had a lot to learn, we had our ups and downs, and a lot of guys were sent out and brought back," Hunter said. "After a while you start to figure out what pitchers are doing to you."

The kids seemed to be maturing, and though their record (69-93) wasn't much better in 2000, they began to come of age in the last week of the season, when they won two of four over the Indians to deny Cleveland a playoff spot.

"We didn't know how to maintain leads, to finish games--we were waiting to lose rather than trying to win," Jones said. "That changed at the end of 2000. We made that series against Cleveland our playoffs. If we weren't going, they weren't going either. That rolled into 2001 and set the tone. We started taking it to teams."

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