It is October. The Minnesota Twins have just accomplished in the American League playoffs what they could seldom do in the last two regular seasons—beaten the New York Yankees. Now they are about to play the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. Minnesota's Gene Mauch, no longer the best manager who never won a pennant, announces his pitching rotation. Dave Goltz, Paul Thormodsgard, Pete Redfern and Geoff Zahn, he says. An entire nation yawns. Nobody has heard of Goltz, Thormodsgard, Red-fern and Zahn. Therefore, acting in the best interests of the American Broadcasting Company, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn declares the Twins ineligible.
If all of this seems unlikely, that's just fine, because the unlikely has become a specialty of the Twins. Compared to the team that made a belated rush at the championship in the Western Division last year, on paper this Minnesota club seems worse. But instead of suffering from the free-agent and expansion-draft losses of Pitchers Bill Campbell and Bill Singer and DH Steve Braun, the Twins have inexplicably risen to the top. They have been there, in fact, since May 3, seemingly unaffected by the weaknesses of their anonymous starting pitchers, the inconsistency of their defense and the salary holdouts of six of their players. It appears that the only problem the Twins cannot shake off is the fact that much of their success has taken place before so many empty seats in Metropolitan Stadium. With an average turnout of 11,679, Minnesota ranks 24th in major league attendance.
The absence of fans bothers Rod Carew more than any pitcher ever has. "For years people said we couldn't win," Carew says. "Well, we're winning now, and they still won't come out. It gets depressing. I wonder if they are waiting to see if we're going to collapse. Who knows, they might be in for a long wait."
If the customers wait too long, they might miss a chance to say hello to the Twins' first Western Division title in seven years and the opportunity to say goodby to three of the men who helped most to make it possible. Carew is so disturbed by the small crowds that he is talking about taking his magic bat and .328 lifetime average elsewhere. "If it keeps up like this, I don't want to come back to play here." he says. Left-fielder Larry Hisle (.314, 15 home runs and a league-leading 54 RBIs) and Centerfielder Lyman Bostock (.341) are among the unsigned players who are potential free agents.
Surprisingly, none of this has weakened the team on the field. And Mauch has shown he knows exactly what to do with the Minnesota talent, which—the starting pitchers aside—is better and deeper than he had during most of his 16 National League seasons in Philadelphia and Montreal. By both necessity and design, Mauch alters his lineup as frequently as a mother changes an infant's diapers. He platoons left-handed and right-handed hitters at second, third, right field and in the DH spot, and he makes additional adjustments to the batting order almost every time the opposition changes pitchers. He also keeps a steady flow of relief pitchers coming in from the bullpen. After one particularly complicated set of maneuvers in a game last week, Catcher Butch Wynegar, the 1976 Rookie of the Year, found himself playing third base.
Despite such unorthodox moves and a mild slump last week in which they won just three of seven games, the Twins have stayed on top of the division. In recent weeks, Minnesota's only real challengers have been the equally unlikely White Sox. The West's big guns, the free-agent-rich Angels and Rangers and the defending champion Royals, have been unable to come closer to first than four games.
Because financially pressed owner Calvin Griffith hates the very idea of free agents, the Twins did not seek to sign any. So Mauch has overcome the inadequacies of his starters with sterling relief pitching and first-rate hitting, especially now that Hisle is backing up the singles of Carew and Bostock with a rash of run-scoring long balls. When this season began, the only man in the rotation with a winning major league record was Goltz, and he had been a .500 pitcher in four of his five seasons. Redfern was also a model of mediocrity, going 8-8 last year as a rookie, while both Thormodsgard and Zahn joined the staff this season after being released by other organizations. Only two years ago, Thor, as the name on the back of his uniform mercifully reads, was out of the game entirely, playing third base in a California fast-pitch softball league. He returned to baseball in 1976 after a chiropractor helped him recover from arm trouble.
It would have been easier for Mauch if these four pitchers had overcome their undistinguished pasts and pitched Minnesota to the top, but they have not. Their cumulative record is 17-15, with no shutouts and only seven complete games. By comparison, the relief pitchers have made 93 appearances, won 15 of 22 decisions and posted 13 saves. Lefthander Tom Burgmeier and righthander Tom Johnson have done most of the work, with 11 wins and 11 saves between them in 52 appearances.
"I just tell the starters to bust it for as long as they can, and then I go to the bullpen," says Mauch. "We want them to contain the other team long enough for us to get our offense in operation."
This was the pattern in two of the Twins' victories last week, important one-run decisions over second-place Chicago and Kansas City. Against the White Sox, Minnesota tied the game with a run in the bottom of the ninth and won it with another in the 11th as Johnson pitched two scoreless innings. Against the Royals, another last-chance rally sent the game into extra innings. Then Hisle, who had averaged only 15 home runs and 65 RBIs in his six previous full big league seasons, clouted his second homer of the night to give Reliever Dave Johnson the victory.
It is this kind of explosive run production that causes Mauch to say, "I still agonize over a loss, but when I think about our hitting, I can't wait to get back to the park the next day."
Carew alone is worth the trip. Now 31 and in his 11th season, his .388 average at the end of last week was 45 points better than his nearest rival's, putting him on target for his sixth batting title. While Carew was taking batting practice before a typical three-hit performance against New York last week, Reggie Jackson came out of the Yankee clubhouse just to admire Carew's style. "This is the only man in baseball who can bring me to the batting cage to watch him hit," Jackson said. Bostock calls Carew "No. 29" in tones of reverence. Even though Bostock is fourth among American League hitters, the same position he occupied at the end of last season, he says, "The only thing No. 29 and I have in common is that we both like to swing at the first pitch."
"Give us two pitchers like Ryan and Tanana and you could rack the table because the game would be over," says Mauch greedily. Actually, just one topflight starter would probably be enough to put the Twins in the World Series.
Carew, who already had 90 hits by the end of last week, could coast to his sixth batting title.
To Minnesota's few fans, Hisle has become a star.