And the Last Became First
Last weekend the Twins clinched the American League West title to become the first team in major league history to finish in first place after coming in last the season before. But the Twins didn't seem overly impressed with their historic accomplishment because in 1990 they weren't your ordinary last-place club, having won 74 games while completely overhauling their pitching staff.
"We sacrificed last year to redo the staff," says Minnesota pitching coach Dick Such. "The players sensed what we were doing, but some weren't totally sure what was happening, and I think they got a little frustrated. It's not like we weren't trying, but we had to develop the young pitchers."
The sacrifice actually began on July 31, 1989, when pitcher Frank Viola was traded to the Mets for pitchers Kevin Tapani, Rick Aguilera and David West. That left the Twins with Allan Anderson and Roy Smith as their top two starters going into last year, and neither of them worked out; Smith was released after the 1990 season, and Anderson might be let go after this one. So the Twins had to sink or swim with Tapani as a starter, even though he'd had only five previous major league starts. Later they called up rookie Scott Erickson to fill another starting spot. Now both are Cy Young candidates. Erickson, who as of Sunday was tied for the American League lead in wins with 19, was the best pitcher in baseball for the first half of the season, while Tapani, 16-9 with a 2.90 ERA at week's end, has been the best pitcher in baseball for the second half. Then there's Aguilera, a converted starter who saved 32 games last year and had 40 saves through Sunday. He might be the Twins' most valuable player.
Because of their pitching strength, the Twins roll into postseason play as the favorites to win the American League pennant. Few teams have a better defense than Minnesota's, and the Twins were leading the league in hitting through Sunday with a .282 batting average.
More important, Minnesota has a gigantic home field advantage at the Metro-dome. As the last week of the regular season began, the Twins were 50-28 in the Dome this year—the best home field record in the American League—and were hitting .304 there while their opponents were batting only .258. If the playoffs go seven games, four games will be played in the Dome. If the Twins make it to the World Series and the Series goes seven games, four of those games will be played in the Dome, too. In their championship year of 1987, the Twins went 6-0 in the Dome in the postseason. Whoever Minnesota plays for the American League pennant, whether it's the Blue Jays or the fast-fading Red Sox, you can be sure that the Dome will be rocking and the Homer Hankies will be waving.
Meanwhile, in New York...
The Mets, the team that helped the Twins get to the playoffs by giving them Tapani and Aguilera, are undergoing major changes in the front office. Last Friday the club's senior executive vice-president, Frank Cashen, 65, relinquished the day-to-day operation of the club, and Al Harazin, 49, was named general manager. Then on Sunday, manager Buddy Harrelson was mercifully fired after proving incapable of handling the pressure of managing in New York.
Hitting coach Mike Cubbage replaced Harrelson for the final seven games, but it's uncertain who will take over next year. It probably won't be Cubbage, and don't bet on Dallas Green, either.
Whoever the new manager is, he faces a difficult job making contenders of the Mets again. Starting pitchers Dwight Gooden (partially torn right rotator cuff) and Sid Fernandez (torn cartilage in his left knee) will have to come back from season-ending surgery, and another starter, Frank Viola, could leave via free agency if the Mets don't meet his asking price, which in the spring was $20 million for four years. Viola has pitched well at times, but at week's end he had won just one game since Aug. 8 and was 13-15 with a 3.98 ERA for the season.
The new management will be more aggressive in pursuing free agents, especially Pirate outfielder Bobby Bonilla. But Cashen may have let slip his feelings about the future of the Mets when he said on Friday, "I would have preferred to go out a world champion again, but if I did that, I may be here until I had a long beard and great-grandchildren."
Through Sunday the Mets were 75-80. If they finish below .500, it will be the first time in Howard Johnson's 10-year major league career that he has played on a losing team. Former Yankee Frank Crosetti (1932-48) has the alltime record for playing only for winning teams.... The race for worst big-money free-agent signing of last winter is close. Danny Jackson by the Cubs? Franklin Stubbs by the Brewers? Boston fans will vote for lefthander Matt Young, who was 3-7 with a 5.18 ERA through Sunday. After Young lost in relief to the Yankees on Sept. 22, Blue Jay outfielder Joe Carter, watching the game on TV, said, "As soon as Matt Young came in the game, I knew we had it won."
Since the trade, Viola (left) and Tapani have taken their teams in opposite directions.
[See caption above.]