Baseball is the North American leader in team sports when it comes to marketing its past. The Twins brought back the 2002 team for a reunion April 9, 2012, Opening Day for Target Field’s third season.
Media commentators and cynics in the public aimed considerable ridicule at this, leaning on the theory a team that won neither the American League pennant nor the World Series was unworthy of one of the Twins’ frequent anniversary celebrations.
We were wrong.
The 2002 Twins stand with the handful of most important teams in franchise history, with the first ever in 1961 (of course), the AL champions of 1965, and the World Series winners of 1987 and 1991.
Those ’02 Twins were the team that survived the contraction threat and created the momentum to get Target Field approved (in 2006) and then built. And today, as Rocco Baldelli’s improbable sluggers ready for a best-of-five division series vs. the Bronx Bombers, the ’02 Twins remain the franchise’s last to win a postseason series.
The Twins were 0-3 in such series in 1965, 1969 and 1970, 4-0 in 1987 and 1991, and made it a five-series winning streak by beating the “Moneyball” A’s in 2002.
Since then, not too good: six consecutive series losses, from the Angels in the 2002 ALCS to the Yankees in a Division Series in 2010, plus a wild-card loss in the Bronx in 2017 that put the current postseason losing streak at 13 games.
“You know what made that team different?” said Doug Mientkiewicz, the Twins first baseman in 2002. “Attitude. We started it in 2001 and we were angry that we didn’t finish, didn’t win the division. We went into ’02 saying, ‘We’re going to finish.’
“And if you don’t believe the attitude was different with that team, look at how long some of our guys played. It’s amazing.”
So amazing, there were a number of no-shows for the 10-year reunion for the best of reasons: They were still playing.
• LaTroy Hawkins, a setup man for Eddie Guardado in ’02, pitched in another 750 games in the major leagues after the 2002 season, retiring in 2015 with 1,042 regular-season appearances — 10th all-time.
• David Ortiz, unceremoniously let go by the Twins after that season, went to Boston and became “Big Papi.” He had 48 doubles, 38 home runs and 127 RBI in 2016, and then retired at age 40.
• A.J. Pierzynski last played in 2016, finally being dragged off the diamond with 1,936 games caught in the regular season, No. 9 on the all-time list.
• Torii Hunter played 13 more seasons as a magnificent outfielder (“Borderline Hall of Famer,” Mientkiewicz said), retiring after a productive 2015 encore with the Twins at age 40.
“You look at LaTroy, Papi, A.J., Torii, quite a few more guys, that just wanted to keep playing,” Mientkiewicz said. “You’re proud to have competed with players like that.”
The Twins won a second World Series in 1991, had a chance again in 1992 and faded, and then went into an eight-season losing streak. Kirby Puckett went blind in his right eye, the pitching evaporated, and the Metrodome turned into a tomb.
Owner Carl Pohlad was demeaned when he appeared at the Legislature to make a pitch for a new ballpark. Follies followed: A “sale” to a gent named Don Beaver who planned to move the team to the Piedmont Triad (Greensboro, Winston-Salem, High Point) in North Carolina; the master plan of short-term team executive Chris Clouser to build a temporary Porta-Potty Park in the Mall of America parking lot; and, lastly, the contraction scam.
After those lost years, Tom Kelly lobbied to save his job because he saw potential with the nucleus of the 2000 team. He was right. There was a 90-game run (57-33) to start 2001, before the failure the finish.
Kelly resigned, Ron Gardenhire took over, and then came an ability to finish the regular season: The 2002 Twins won 94 games, cruised to the AL Central title by 13 games, and prepared as substantial underdogs to take on Oakland:
The A’s had 103 wins, a big three of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Cy Young winner Barry Zito, a 20-game winning streak in August and early September. They also had an unknown to A’s outsiders: Michael Lewis was working with General Manager Billy Beane on “Moneyball,” a book that was released in 2003 and would revolutionize baseball’s front office thinking.
It was released as a popular film in 2011, with Brad Pitt playing Beane, and with the A’s famous ’02 season ending as it did with a Game 5 loss to the Twins.
“We also ended their winning streak … remember that?” Hawkins said recently. “[Brad] Radke shut ’em out in the Dome. We ended the winning streak, and we ended the movie.”
This was offered with a smile that was somehow stern. That was also LaTroy inside the clubhouse, Mientkiewicz said.
“A.J. gets all the credit for being the hardnose, for having the snarl,” Mientkiewicz said. “Later maybe, but not in 2002. That was LaTroy. Too much messing around as a game approached, LaTroy would let you know.”
Hawkins might have learned that from Mike Jackson, the veteran who joined the Twins bullpen that year.
“First five innings in the bullpen, you could screw around,” Hawkins said. “But when it was getting to be time to get a call, it was all business. And Big Mike made sure you flipped that switch.”
The Twins won the opener of the best-of-five in Oakland 7-5, then lost two in a row. They beat Hudson for the second time 11-2 in Game 4 to tie the series, then the two teams flew to Oakland for the decider the next afternoon.
Pierzynski’s two-run homer in the ninth, and Corey Koskie’s RBI single, made it 5-1. Closer Eddie Guardado entered and … well, as a Twins follower since Day 1, I contend that Eddie walking the plank before getting the final out on that Sunday in the 5-4 victory over Oakland ranks among the greatest dramas in Twins history.
The ’02 Twins then encountered a force mightier than their fierce attitude, the Rally Monkey, and lost in five games in the ALCS to the team that would win the Angels’ lone World Series.
To me the symbol of that team (even with Mientkiewicz’s disclaimer) was Pierzynski. And I can’t think of A.J. and the 2002 Twins without remembering the quote from Ozzie Guillen, his manager with the championship White Sox:
“If you play against him, you hate him. If you play with him, you hate him a little less.”
Brilliant — as were the feisty 2002 Twins. Without them, we might never have had a Bombas Counter.