Saturday, September 25, 2010

Minnesota Twins Win Their Sixth Division Title in Nine Years

I have been blessed to witness the Minnesota Twins win 2 World Championships (1987 & 1991). Watching those wins provide me with an amazing feeling that cannot truly be described. I have talked to several younger folks who are now rabid Twins fans and are too young or were not even around to see the Twins win the World Series 1991. These folks want a chance to experience what I did in 1987 and 1991. Thanks to the Twins posting the best second half record (42-15) in baseball this season, these folks have another chance to get their wish as the Twins have won their sixth division title in nine years.

This Twins team had high expectations entering the season, and so far they have lived up to them. This has been an impressive season for many reasons. The Twins lost their All-Star closer Joe Nathan even before the season began. At the halfway point of the season, All-Star 1st baseman Justin Morneau, who was having a MVP worthy season, endured a concussion and has not played since. Three fourths of the Twins opening days starting rotation (Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, and Kevin Slowey) have been injured and /or wildly inconsistent. The Twins 3rd base platoon of Nick Punto and Brendan Harris imploded with Harris being demoted and Punto spending more time injured than healthy.

Add to those problems the fact that suppose lineup stalwarts centerfielder Denard Span and designated hitter / outfielder Jason Kubel have had subpar seasons offensively, and this division title looks even more impressive.

How did they Twins overcome these obstacles to achieve success? A group of unexpected contributors emerged, and the team’s MVP decided to kick it into high gear.

Entering the season Francisco Liriano was the team’s fifth starter, and his future was in doubt. Today Liriano has become the team’s ace, and will start game 1 of the playoffs. Liriano is finally recovered from the Tommy John surgery he had late in 2006 and it shows. Liriano’s emergence gives the Twins a legitimate pitching ace and hope for a deep playoff run.

Entering the season Delmon Young was considered a bust as player. On opening night he homer then in July he almost singled handily carried the Twins offense. Young has achieved career highs in home runs (18) and RBIs (105), and shown some actual personality. Young is still a work in progress, especially on defense, but he has finally emerged as a player and in the process helped the Twins into first place.

Brian Duensing entered the season in the bullpen. He soon became the team’s most reliable reliever; then Nick Blackburn imploded and Duensing was forced back into the rotation and promptly went 7-1 with an ERA of 2.43 in 11 starts. Duensing won’t be going back to the bullpen instead he will be starting game 3 of the playoffs with a spot in next season rotation already reserved for him.

Reliever Jesse Crain entered the season under a death watch. Most fans expected the option on Crain’s contract for 2010 would not be picked up – it was. After a rough first half of the season, Crain looked to be on the verge of being released. At the Twins autograph party in June I found fan after fan who could not stand the name Jesse Crain. Then after the all-star break something clicked, and Crain became the team’s indispensable setup man and arguably their most important reliever. Crain got the Twins out of jam after jam and has become so loved by Twins fans that many are saying Crain should be considered the Twins MVP.

Many Twins fans were surprised that the Twins signed designated hitter Jim Thome in the off-season. Fans wondered what the team would do with Thome when we already had a good designated hitter in Jason Kubel. Then Justin Morneau was injured, Michael Cuddyer had to take over at 1st, Jason Kubel had to play right field, and Jim Thome took over at DH. Despite limited playing time, Thome now leads the team in home runs with 25. His walk off home run against the White Soxs in the bottom of the 10th on August 17th was the turning point in the Twins season and will go down as one of the great moments in Twins history. No one is wondering anymore why Jim Thome was signed last off-season, they are only hoping he will come back next season.

Entering the season Carl Pavano was considered one of the biggest busts in free agent history. After a couple of good years in Florida, Pavano signed a large free agent contract with the New York Yankees. His four years with the Yankees were pathetic, and Yankee fans still sheath with anger at the mere mention of Pavano’s name. Pavano started last year in Cleveland and was traded to the Twins in the second half of the 2009 season. He pitched admirably, and was offered a 1 year contract for 2010. After exploring free agency and finding no one really interested, Pavano took the Twins 1 year offer. All Pavano has done this year is lead the Twins in wins (17) and innings pitched (210). In era where pitchers rarely pitch complete games, Pavano has 7 with many of them coming at crucial times when the Twins bullpen needed a rest. It is safe to say Pavano has been anything by a bust in Minnesota.

Danny Valencia was supposed to be the future at 3rd base. At least that was what we heard for most 2009. Then when the September call ups in 2009 were announced, Valencia was not among them. The Twins said he was not ready. In spring training this year Valencia was cut early on. His performance in the minors was ordinary, and it looked like he was no longer the future at 3rd. Then the Twins needed someone to play 3rd base and Valencia was the only warm body available. Like Denard Span in 2008, Valencia came up and played so well the Twins could not send him back down. To date Valencia is hitting .328 with an OPS + of 121. Valencia is no longer the future at 3rd, he is the present.

In the end though, the Twins are Joe Mauer’s team. Entering this season Mauer was the reigning American League MVP and had just signed a $184 million contract extension making him a Twin for life. Mauer, the Twins best and most important player, was supposed to repeat his MVP year and carry the Twins to the World Series.

Instead Mauer started off slow and was hitting only .293 at the all-star break with no signs of the home run power he had shown in 2009. The Twins were barely above .500. There were rumors Mauer was hurt, or too burden by the expectations bought on by his $184 million contract. Then Mauer kicked it into high gear, and since the All-star has hit .382 raising his batting average from .293 to .331. As Mauer started to hit, the Twins started win. Over the years people have tried to point out that Justin Morenau and Joe Nathan are more valuable to this team than Joe Mauer. This season proves that is not the case. Morneau and Nathan are nowhere to be seen, and yet the Twins are division champs. Joe Mauer has brilliant years in 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2010. In three of those years they have won division titles. The one year they did not (2008) they lost the division by 1 game when they lost a one game playoff to decide the division winner. Mauer in the lineup and playing brilliantly equals the Twins winning. Joe Mauer is this team’s MVP.

Below is a video taken by a fan of Jim Thome's August 17th walk off home run. You might want to turn your volume down when watching it as it is a little loud.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Country Music's CMA Awards 2010

The country music I loved died a while back and has been replaced by the pop light music now being passed off as country music. A few artists still make music I like such as Miranda Lambert. I was pleased to see Lambert received 9 nominations for this year’s Country Music Association Awards (CMA).

Lambert received two nominations each for Single and Song of the Year. Usually this means she won’t win the either category because the two songs split the vote, but that is not always the case. In 2002 Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stop Turning)” won Single and Song of the Year even though Jackson’s “Drive (For Daddy Gene)” was also nominated for Single and Song of Year. That said “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” had such momentum that no song that year was even close to it in creed and popularity.

I expect Lambert to win Female Vocalist of the Year and Album of the Year. Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” will likely win Single and Song of the Year.

Much of the discussion about the CMA nominations centers on Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood being excluded from the Entertainer of the Year nominations. I was surprised too, but there is some precedent to this.

In 1998 the CMA bestowed the Entertainer of the Year on Shania Twain and then failed to nominate her the next year. The same thing has now happened to Taylor Swift who won last year and was not nominated this year. The reason is simple, the CMA voting membership dislikes Swift’s blatant attempt to make pop music and call it country just as they disliked Twain’s similar attempt. Of course the hypocrites who point their fingers at Swift are the same people who are systematically destroying traditional country music by producing the watered down pop music that is today called country music.

Carrie Underwood’s case is more complex, but none less hypocritical. Underwood is artist of great vocal talent who seems to represent all the good traits a country artist is suppose to represent. Underwood has also embraced country music’s past while trying to keep her pop audience gained when she won American Idol.

Underwood was a blessing to country music when she arrived. She was a ready made star who looked fabulous and sang even better. The country music world could not wait to build Underwood up as a mega-star. However, our society loves building people up only to systematically tear them back down. Call it the backlash against being to successful.

Underwood sang too good, looked too beautiful, sold too many albums, got too many #1 singles, and won too many awards. It happened to the Judds and Randy Travis. They were highly successful only to be denied the CMA Entertainer of the Year Award because they were jealously viewed as “too successful”. It also happened to Garth Brooks who after a string of amazing successes was sent into exile by the CMA. Today Brooks is seen as a greedy egoist; no matter that his drive to sell more albums, play to more fans, and be the center of attention was always part of who he was and help him make himself and country music more successful.

George Strait, Alan Jackson, and Brooks & Dunn are about the only people to survive this backlash against success, but even they were not completely immune. Now Brooks & Dunn have retired. Jackson is aging and not the commercial force he once was. Strait is not young either who could retire a moment’s notice.

Underwood may be able to reverse this backlash. She may make that album or record that song that is so good no one can deny her. Until then it is Miranda Lambert’s world, or it is until backlash against her success begins.

Friday, September 3, 2010

50 Years of Minnesota Twins Baseball

2010 marks the 50th Anniversary of Minnesota Twins. The Twins were the Washington Senators for 59 years before moving to Minnesota and playing the first game here in 1961. In their 50 years in Minnesota the Twins have won 2 World Championships (87 & 91), been to 3 World Series (65, 87 & 91), and won 9 division titles (69, 70, 87, 91, 02, 03, 04, 06, 09). The Twins have also finished last in all of baseball twice (82 & 00).

The Twins have been blessed to have 3 Hall of Fame players in Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, and Kirby Puckett who played the majority of their careers with the Twins. The Twins are equally blessed to have a future Hall of Famer in Joe Mauer currently playing for them.

Five Twins have won the American League MVP (Zoilo Versalles in 65, Killebrew in 69, Carew in 77, Justin Morneau in 06, and Mauer in 2009). Three Twins have won the American League CY Young Award (Jim Perry in 70, Frank Viola in 88, and Johan Santana in 04 & 06).

The most staggering accomplishment in Twins history might be that in 14 of the Twins 50 years of existences a Twins player has lead the American League in batting average (Carew 7x, Mauer 3x, Tony Olivia 3x, Puckett 1x). That’s 28% of the batting titles in last 50 years won by Twins players.

The Twins strongest position in their history seems to be 1st base which featured Harmon Killebrew, Kent Hrbek, & Justin Morneau. Killebrew and Hrbek already have their numbers retired by the Twins, and Morneau is on his way to have having his retired as well. All three men were/are great hitters with Hrbek and Morneau also playing well on defense.

The weakest position in Twins history looks to be shortstop. There have been moments at short like Versalles MVP year in 65 and Roy Smalley’s All-Star year in 79, but on the whole it has been a problem area. Only Greg Gagne (9 years as a starter) and Leo Cardenas (3 years as a starter) have given the Twins any real above average play at short.

Pitching wise the Twins have always seem to have better relievers than starters. Late innings pitchers like Al Worthington, Ron Perranoski, Bill Campbell, Tommy Johnson, Mike Marshall, Doug Corbett, Jeff Reardon, Rick Aguilera, Eddie Guardado, and Joe Nathan seem to always be there for the Twins.

The greatest single game performance by a Twins player was by Jack Morris. In Game 7 of the 1991 World Series Morris pitched 10 innings of shutout baseball to win the game 1-0. Think about it, Morris basically had to pitch the whole game knowing one mistake would cost his team a World Championship. More pressure? Morris is from St. Paul, Minnesota pitching at home in front of friends and family and a national television audience for the team he grew up watching. There have been other great hitting and pitching performances, but none done with such pressure.

Harmon Killebrew was loved by Twins fans. Kirby Puckett was beloved by Twins fans, and named Minnesota Athlete of Century. However, Joe Mauer is obsessively loved by Twins fans. It help of course that Mauer is not only a great player, but that he is from St. Paul, Minnesota. Twins fans love rooting for hometown kids.

I love Joe Mauer too as I do the Minnesota Twins as a whole. We Twins fans have been very lucky. We have won Championships and had some great players to root for. Teams like the Texas and Seattle have never been to the World Series. San Diego, Houston, and others have never won a World Series.

I have been around for a good number of the Twins 50 years and my best memories are of 77, 79, 84, 87, 91, 02, 03, 04, 06, and the last 2 years. I rejoiced at the World Championship, cringed at meltdown in 84, and am growing frustrated with the playoff failing the last few years, but I have enjoyed watching.

Gary Gaetti is my favorite Twin of all-time. I think the Metrodome was not as bad of a stadium as people made it out to be; Target Field is not a great as people make it out to be.

I saw my first game in person in 1979. In 1984 I attend 41 Twins games, the most I have ever attended. I have travelled to Kansas City (1x) and Milwaukee (4 x) to see the Twins play.

683 (and counting) players have worn the Twins uniform. Most of them for did not last for long. Of those that did even fewer became stars. Below I have created a 50th Anniversary All-Time Twins teams.

A few thoughts about how I created it.

Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is a stat which measures how many more wins a player is worth to a team than a replacement player. For hitters WAR is calculated using a formula measuring runs produced on offense and run prevented on defense. For pitchers it is about things pitchers can control like earned runs allowed, strikeouts, walks, home runs allowed, etc. I used this stat in helping pick my team, but I also used OPS +, ERA +, and more traditional stats like home runs, batting average, ERA, wins, etc. I also use Myth.

Myth can be defined as a traditional story accepted as history. When Kirby Puckett played everyone knew they were watching a future Hall of Famer. Puckett was the greatest all around hitter in Twins history. He was one of the greatest defensive center fielders of not only his time, but all-time. He always produced in the clutch. He led the Twins to 2 World Championship. Was all of this true? The myth says it was. Fans believe myth. Myth has power. Myth can grow stronger and stronger until it becomes irrefutable even when evidence says it was wrong. People love myth. Myths provide material for stories, and we all love stories especially baseball fans love stories.

Here is my team:

Catcher – Joe Mauer

1st Base – Harmon Killebrew

2nd Base – Rod Carew

SS – Greg Gagne

3rd Base – Gary Gaetti

LF – Bob Allison

CF – Kirby Puckett

RF – Tony Olivia

P – Bert Blyleven

P – Johan Santana

P – Frank Viola

P – Camilo Pascual

P – Jim Kaat

RP – Joe Nathan

RP – Rick Aguilera

Mgr - Tom Kelly

I think this is a pretty impressive group. Mauer, Killebrew, Carew, Puckett, Olivia, Blyleven, and Santana are in or worthy of Hall of Fame consideration though obviously not all are or will ever be in the Hall of Fame. The only player on the Twins who is not an All-Star level player is Gagne who was a borderline All-Star player.

While doing research I found out that Shane Mack, Brad Radke, and Larry Hisle are some of the most underappreciated Twins of all-time; while Jim Kaat (still made the team though), Jim “Mudcat” Grant, Zoilo Versalles, Dan Gladden, and Torii Hunter come out looking a little overrated.

Earl Battey, Justin Morneau, Kent Hrbek, Chuck Knoblauch, Cesar Tover, Dave Goltz, Jim Perry, Corey Koskie, Tom Brunansky, and Hunter were deserving of consideration for the All-Time Team as well, but they just were quite good enough or some cases block by superior players.

For the most part the first 50 years of Twins baseball have been good; hopefully the next 50 will be even better.