Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Ladies and Gentlemen, your 1st Place Minnesota Twins

Danville, Kentucky – This past weekend, on my way back from visiting Kansas City, I found myself in a familiar situation: behind the wheels of my ’69 Ford, with the open road ahead of me and open bottles of alcohol all around me, due to the lax regulations governing open alcohol containers in the great state of Missouri. After about 7 hours of traversing the vast nothingness of the Mid West on my way back to the even greater state of Kentucky, I pulled into a truck-stop Arby’s reeking like Limearitas, feeling a sort of serenity that nerds strive for but never acquire. I was at peace with the world; a classic Beef & Cheddar sandwich in my hand, dripping grease and cheese on my Brayan Pena shirsey, surrounded by folks wearing camouflage and shirts they bought at the 1984 Ted Nugent tour. Everything was in its right place.

After discarding the remains of my Curly Fries and Horsey Sauce, I wiped my glistening fingers on my shirt and proceeded to utilize this Kentucky truck-stop’s showering facilities. As the hot water washed away the smell of cigarettes, Limearita, and roast beef, I thought only of returning home to my lovely abode in Danville, where I would sit on my favorite chair on my front porch with the Cincinnati Reds game on the radio, and my loyal companion Barry Goldwater by my side.

I am an utterly predictable man. I love chain restaurants and hate math; always have, always will. I’ve been a Reds fan since I first saw Jimmy Maloney pitch in 1966, and haven’t wavered since. On most summer afternoons you can find me either on the porch with the dog, or knocking back appetizer after appetizer at the Chili’s in Lexington. I’ve been married four times, and divorced four times, with all four marriages and divorces featuring the same, predictable plotline involving my wives trying to pressure my sons into learning Common Core, or whatever they call it.

Perhaps it is because I’m such a predictable man that I am drawn to baseball, which tends to be an unpredictable game. As I write this, the Cinderella story Minnesota Twins just conquered old game-163 nemesis Rick Porcello and the Boston Red Sox to claim a spot atop the AL Central in a first-place tie with the powerhouse, AL Champion Kansas City Royals. The Twins and Royals are currently a game ahead of the Detroit Tigers and 7 games ahead of the pre-season nerd favorites, the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox.

You really can’t exaggerate just how badly the so-called “experts” counted out the Twins. Just about every pre-season projection or prediction described the AL Central as a hotly contested, four-way battle, with the lowly Twins always on the outside looking in, like me as I make my annual pilgrimage to revisit the Kentucky farmhouse where my senior prom-date showed me true love and true heartbreak, robbing me of my child-like innocence. In the pre-season analysis of nerds like Jonah Keri, the Twins were always occupying the #5 spot in the AL Central, consigned to irrelevance and “rebuilding.”

Yet here we are, almost two months into the season, and the Twinkies have made the “experts” look about as foolish as myself that one time my third wife caught me weeping while watching The Rookie. However, the Twins did not catch me off guard. I knew this team would compete for a playoff spot. They are clearly a better team than the Indians or White Sox at this point. In fact, had the Twins not gone 2-7 vs. the Tigers thus far, they could very well have a comfortable first place lead in the AL Central.
Torii Going Yard on the AL Central Favorite Indians
What, you might ask, has made the Twins so good that the nerds failed to see? Several things:

1) Their starting rotation is stacked top to bottom with aces like Mike Pelfrey, Kyle Gibson, and Ricky Nolasco. Just the type of guys you’d want taking the mound for you in October.

2) Their closer, the wily veteran Glen Perkins, has the most saves in the league (18). Perkins has been more lights out than Pakistan during a fuel shortage.

3) They’re going completely bonkers in the early innings, scoring runs at a far greater clip than the average MLB team. This is a team that ambushes starters to knock in a few runs early, then confidently coasts to the finish line, giving their pitching staff more breathing room than those fancy movie theaters with luxury seating that serve food and alcohol, which I can’t afford since losing my job at the GM plant because of NAFTA. The team is among the most entertaining in baseball, especially when Torii graces the crowd with a signature old-man bat flip.

4) Above all else, the Twins have won because they’ve played like a team, not a stat-line. Pre-season projections love to focus on things you can quantify: the OBP of new position players, the xFIP of the probable rotation, and Pythagorean win expectancies. More often than not, they totally ignore the human element. When the Twins announced the signing of Torii Hunter, most “experts” rolled their eyes and chalked the move up to nostalgia for the glory days of the Twins AL Central reign earlier this millennium. Yet, the immortal and ageless Torii now stands tall with 7 HRs and 27 RBIs, super-charging the Twin’s offense like the 5-hour energy & Bourbon cocktail I drink every morning before taking Barry Goldwater on the walk and grabbing the newspaper.

However, looking at Hunter’s HRs and RBIs still wouldn’t tell the full story of his value to this team. Like I said he would, Torii has taught these boys how to compete and brought a winning culture back to Minneapolis. Nerds looked at the Twins roster and predicted a 5th place team, but looking at slash-lines without any context tells you very little about how a team will play on the field. These players are human beings; a veteran leader in the clubhouse can motivate flesh-and-blood players to out-perform their STEAMER projections, nerds be damned. Having Hunter on the team is the equivalent of having three managers, in addition to Paul Molitor and fellow player-manager and veteran, the mighty Joe Mauer. There simply isn’t a better environment for developing the young talent of this Minnesotan squad.

However, they still have a long way to go. To keep their playoff dreams alive, the Twins will have to best the division’s heavyweights, Detroit and Kansas City. The situation reminds me of a similar upstart Minnesota team that battled a Royals team led by Carlos Beltran in 2003. While Beltran hasn’t come home, having recently raked against his former team this past weekend in New York Yankees pinstripes, Hunter has come home and will now be tasked to lead his Twins past the Royals and the Tigers, another team he once cried and bled and fought for. The difficulty of Minnesota’s goal cannot be understated: unlike 2003, this year’s Royals have more than just former rookie of the year Beltran – they have a pennant. And, the last time Detroit didn’t win the division (2010), the Doritos Locos Taco was just a dream waiting to be realized by the master culinary artists at Yum! Foods.

I’m merely a humble man from Danville and have no idea what will happen next, but the Twins have already proven the Jonah Keris of the world wrong. Things will really get interesting if Ervin Santana solidifies the starting rotation, and if young talent like Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano are called up. If and when these game-changing moves occur, the Twins could very well leave the rest of the division in the dust, like I leave my troubled past in the dust every time a certain truck-stop Arby’s becomes smaller and smaller in the rear-view mirror of my ’69 Ford while I voyage across the Mid West.