Startribune.com digital sports editor Howard Sinker used to cover the Twins and now shares season tickets with friends in Section 219 of Target Field. He blogs about baseball from the perspective of a long-time fan who loves the game, doesn’t always believe the hype and likes hearing what others think. Howard sometimes talks about sports with Cathy Wurzer on MPR's Morning Edition.
First, my personal Paul Molitor story.
I got to work one day in my rookie year at the Minneapolis Tribune and was called into the editor's office. I was actually a temporary employee at the time, working nights and doing whatever needed to be done in the sports department, and that night what needed to be done was to go to Paul Molitor's house in St. Paul.
He'd just finished his rookie season in Milwaukee and his mother, Kathy, had just found out that Paul had been named the Sporting News Rookie of the Year among American League position players. She'd called, asking if we wanted to do a story. Paul would be hone in an hour or so, Kathy said.
There was only one condition: We couldn't tell Paul that mom had told us the news.
I don't remember much about the story, but I remember sitting in the living room talking about this and that and some baseball and some other stuff. We were about the same age and had longer hair than we do now. He was engaging and smart. I've only talked to him a few of times since, including once at the Metrodome to offer condolences after his mom died. (Note to young journalists: Parents are great sources. Get to know 'em. Note to readers: Yeah, I'm probably older than you.)
Now, on to what's happening with the Twins. The interesting thing about much of the angst over Molitor's selection being a safe choice is that it's really no such thing.
Is it safe to hire a manager who hasn't held that job at any level? A Hall of Famer when the track record of really good players-turned-manages isn't good? A guy who was a union activist in his playing days? There are all kinds of things that would make Molitor look like an outside-the-box pick if it wasn't for his connections to the Twins and to the Pohlad family. (In addition to the baseball ties, one of Carl Pohlad's grandchildren and one of Molitor's children co-own a juice bar in Uptown.)
So the choice is between being cynical about the hire or wondering -- by accident or design -- if the Twins have latched themselves to a different kind of manager who can return the team to competence. For what it's worth, he was seen as an outsider in Ron Gardenhire's tightly knit coaching staff, which Molitor joined last season. He's interesting to listen to when he's talking baseball. I suspect there will be fewer quips and more depth coming from the manager's office.
As much as anything, I'm intrigued by how some of Molitor's experiences, beyond being an excellent hitter and base runner, will have an impact on the way he'll manage. He was a moved from position to position to position early in his career to make room for others, once expressing frustration by wondering publicly whether he'd become Milwaukee's closer if the future Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers left the team. His drug issues during the 1980s have been well chronicled, and may give him a better understanding than other managers of choices facing younger players. He was around the game long enough to know the impact and influence veteran players can have on less experienced ones. Maybe having several seasons cut short by injuries taught him about keys to staying healthy that can be applied to others.
I got the impression from listening to Molitor on his first day of talking about the job that he feels a different tone needs to be set with the Twins. Tone doesn't win baseball games, but being a step ahead of what's happening on the field won't hurt. I was especially intrigued to read what Brian Dozier and Glen Perkins said about learning from Molitor in this story by Chip Scoggins. You can study baseball's advanced metrics, which are a good thing, all you want -- but examples cited by the players are a lesson in how the numbers can come alive on the field.
In Terry Ryan's role, you can get blasted for whatever choice you make, especially in hindsight.
If the highlight of Molitor's tenure is the words that were spoken at Target Field on Tuesday, shame on the Twins for choosing someone who'd never managed. If the Twins had chosen Doug Mientkiewicz and that flopped, shame on the Twins for thinking that success in the low minors would mean anything in the majors. Choose a coach with a good reputation from elsewhere and you'd wonder why that guy didn't get the other jobs he was seeking. Choose a guy who'd managed elsewhere and it's the old boys' club at work.
Oh, and there's this one: Pass over Joe Maddon? Using hindsight, Maddon-to-the-Cubs was pretty well ordained about 15 seconds from the time he opted out of his Tampa Bay contract.
Honestly, I don't know whether this is a good or bad hire -- and you don't, either. The Twins have done so many things to antagonize their fans over the last couple of years that I understand if Molitor's hiring doesn't bring you any closer to Target Field for now. What I do know is that my interest is piqued about what will follow this winter -- and what will come of it next season. Molitor and the Twins won that battle on Tuesday.
I covered the firings of the two managers before Tom Kelly was hired by the Twins. Billy Gardner was cut loose in 1985 and conducted a one-liner filled exit interview with me 'n' Patrick Reusse, who was working in St. Paul at the time, in the Super 8 motel room in Roseville where he lived during the season. Little more than a year later, Ray Miller waxed bitter about his firing in the downtown Minneapolis high rise where he lived during his brief and flawed stint with the Twins.
You could see those coming too, even if both of them were in some denial about what led to their job loss.
Ron Gardenhire went out differently. I really think that every word he spoke on Monday afternoon, after Terry Ryan announced the change, was from the heart. For him to stay on as manager of the Twins would have been the wrong thing on many fronts. This is a team that needs a new voice, especially if that voice is intended to be heard for as long as Gardenhire's and Tom Kelly's were. This is a voice intended to be heard in 2025 as well as 2015, if Ryan and the Twins make the right choice.
I was among the first to write this season that a change of manager was needed. If you think I was happy to write that, you're mistaken. I was as happy to make that case as Ryan was to tell Gardy that he was gone.
Gardenhire's spring training tryout with the Twins came in 1987, the last year I covered the team, and he lost out on a reserve's job (as did Ron Washington) after the Twins traded for Al Newman. Gardy played in 10 games that spring. He made five errors and didn't hit much. Kelly made no secret that he was looking for a glove more than a bat -- and Gardy was cut at the end of camp (on the same day the Twins traded with San Francisco for Dan Gladden).
I saw a lot of those fringe guys come through spring training. None of them came back and made an impact, other than Gardy. When the curmudgeon Kelly resigned, Gardy was the folksy, cheerful replacement. He was a voice the Twins needed and he was the right manager to guide the group that he took over, which is a very different group than the one that led to Gardy being thrown overboard.
This group needs a voice more strident than folksy. If you want a leader for a core of self-starters who are going to demand the most from each other, Gardy is among the best choices to manage. That's not a description of the current Twins, who act way too content with being on the periphery of other teams' success. As constructed by Ryan, this wasn't a team good enough to contend -- and I got the sense that didn't bother players as much as it should have.
So why not sack Ryan, too?
Well, if that happened, whom in the organization would you trust to find his replacement -- much less a new manager? Starting pitching isn't the only area in which the Twins have little depth.
The choice of a new manager and the revisions made to the current roster will, basically, be a referendum on Ryan. He has done some things for the minor-league organization to help it recover from the fraying that took place between his general manager stints. But the real challenge is whether that will soon pay off at Target Field.
In addition to hiring a new manager, I hope Ryan hires a top assistant to work with him. The next year or two will be a test of his abilities to construct a winning major league team, and if the troubles continue, his job should be the next on the line. So I want the coming changes to include someone who could well be the Twins' next general manager.
Worst case is that change needs making in a year or two.
Best case for the Twins is that the right moves are made and Ryan is replaced when he damn well pleases -- and well down the road.
This may have been the ultimate First World issue, whether the Twins should have found a way to give pitcher Phil Hughes the $500,000 bonus he would have earned if a rain delay hadn't robbed him of a chance to get one more out on Wednesday.
(For those who haven't been following the deal, Hughes had that bonus in his contract for pitching 210 innings -- and he'll finish the season with 209 2/3.)
The Twins offered to let Hughes pitch against Detroit to earn the bonus. Hughes declined, and apparently rebuffed efforts to find a way to have the money given to him in some other way. It would have been deserved, but Hughes took the position that he just didn't feel right about any of the ideas that had been put forward.
Both the Twins and Hughes came away looking good.
That's a small but important thing.
However the Twins move forward in reshaping the team for 2015 and beyond, they need to be perceived in a better way than they are right now.. J.J. Hardy, Vance Worley and Carlos Gomez have been among those with unflattering things to say after their exits. The David Ortiz complaints, however ancient (or valid) they may be, are ancient history.
Much had been made about the success of players after they have left the team, whether it's the All-Star status of Gomez, the three ex-Twins among National League batting average leaders or the attention that Francisco Liriano and Worley have gotten for their work in Pittsburgh. Combine those with the tumble from postseason staple to baseball bottom-dweller and the picture is pretty ugly.
Obviously, $500,000 isn't much to Twins management or to a pitcher making an $8 million salary this season. By themselves, the positions of the Twins and Hughes don't mean much.
But as one step toward reshaping the team's image, it's a start.
And, yes, there's still a lot of work to do.
To that end, here are a few interesting reads and listens for the final weekend of the season:
Steve Buhr, who has written for Section 219 as "Jim Crikket," writes about what he'd do if he owned the Twins.
ESPN 1500's Phil Mackey has this in-depth look at the deterioration of the Twins.
Here's the Star Tribune's special report from earlier this week on what needs to be done to fix the Twins.
And I was invited to talk about the Twins (from bobbleheads to bobbled grounders) on the Talk to Contact podcast on Thursday night. I had fun ... and only cussed once.
I will be as direct as possible here.
When I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I said that if Ron Gardenhire could keep the Twins together and finish the season in a way that showed some improvement over the last three seasons of almost 100-losses apiece, I’d like to see him get a shot at managing the 2015 Twins.
Based on the first eight games of the post-All Star home stand, I can’t see that improvement happening. The Twins have stumbled to a couple of victories and bumbled their way to a half-dozen defeats during a stretch of games that could have kept them relevant.
None were against teams with the eight best records in the American League. In other words, the players who were making pleas to keep the roster together for the season’s final months, couldn’t back up their talk with any kind of action in games against flawed opponents.
That shouldn’t be a surprise. Words have become hollow at Target Field. And with other distractions coming along – Vikings training camp, Gophers football starting soon, the Lynx and Minnesota United chasing titles in basketball and soccer, even your local high school teams – anything that comes from Target Field will be increasingly ignored.
I went to the Lynx game Friday night and didn’t even bother checking on the Twins afterward. Twitter told me everything I needed to know. Later, I walked by the game replay on FSNorth and saw Kevin Correia's best toss of the night, when he hurled his chewing gum after a grooved pitch that Chicago's Jose Abreu smashed for a three-run homer in the first inning.
I’m not going to judge whether the best of the young pitchers should be called up soon instead of being targeted for 2015. What I do know is that I’d have a hard time justifying exposing any kind of promising young talent to what’s going on with the Twins right now. There’s too much bad out there. Let Yohan Pino be exposed to that instead of Alex Meyer.
Let Parmelee, Fuld, Fryer, Colabello and the other borderline major leaguers finish out this season and start fresh without them (and some others) in 2015. That must be ownership’s commitment to fans who have been sickened into apathy by the last four seasons. Just saying "losing sucks," a Jim Pohlad line from a couple of years back, doesn't win anything except wondering if he really means it.
A fresh start includes hiring a new manager.
In addition to not being very good, the Twins over and over again are showing that they’re not very baseball smart. I saw it in Wednesday’s victory when Brian Dozier, who is usually better than that, shoveled a gloved-hand throw over the first baseman’s head on a play he had no business even trying. I’ve also seen it in grooved pitches and taken pitches and poorly focused at-bats and base-running mistakes. You can get by with some suspect players if their mental game props up their physical limitations, but second-tier players making beer league choices equals no hope.
The endless loop of mental mistakes, which hasn’t improved as players have gotten more experience, is on the manager and his coaching staff. When I teach my college students, there are times when the repeated mistakes of a student wear me down to where I don’t see them. So if Gardy is worn down by what he keeps seeing, I get it.
Gardy has been given his chances to make things better – and his successes before 2011 earned him bonus chances that wouldn’t have been given to others. It hasn’t worked. If he gets a job managing elsewhere, which many of his supporters contend would happen, so be it.
That’s not a reason for keeping him.
I don’t know if Twins management has fully accepted the level of casual mocking that their team gets. It’s not just the always-angry on social media. It’s the people I know who have stopped going to games and those who are questioning whether to keep buying tickets – whether it’s to single games or season packages. Without the All-Star Game as incentive and with another sorry season concluding, many people aren’t going to keep buying in without an overhaul.
I asked around on Twitter for people to share their thoughts about the Twins.
There was this:
@afansview I hate to say this as a fan, but at this point I'm almost rooting for them to lose just to drive the point home to the Pohlads...— Matt Krier (@matthewkrier) July 26, 2014
@afansview The Twins are making me look forward to the NFL exhibition games.....— Big Steve (@darbywisdom) July 26, 2014
@afansview - I don't think it will hit the front office like it has is fans until it hurt them where it matters most- their pocket books.— Ex Twins News (@Ex_Twins_News) July 26, 2014
@afansview no apathy here. Frustration at about 8. Mix of feeling cursed due to injuries, and tired of seeing more AAA filler for 4th year.— Matt Kummer (@mattkummer) July 26, 2014
There's more, which you can find on my feed.
And there was this, from an email by Twins fan Max Athorn, who wanted to go beyond 140 characters to address stuff:
"This season, for some reason that I am still not entirely sure, I have actually paid closer attention to them than I have during the last three awful years. I have paid attention to the roster moves, read the blogs, read the scouting reports, and watched the brutally uncompetitive 3-1 losses (that are way different from the occasionally competitive 3-1 losses). I love the Twins, and to that end, I love these Twins just as much as I've loved any Twins in the thirty years I've lived. But now, as things just seemingly refuse to get any better or worse, to such a bizarre degree that they are just simply the same-ol' same, I have been more inclined to re-evaluate my position."
Among the follies of this season was starting out in spring training believing that Pedro Florimon would be the starting shortstop; Aaron Hicks was ready for center field (without any kind of serious Plan B; Danny Santana has been a lucky stopgap that spared us another Darin Mastroianni-type); the pitching staff would be better, and a couple of returnees named Jason would help with their experience. That’s not hitless in four tries.
That’s four strikeouts on 12 pitches.
It doesn’t matter if I thought Hicks was ready, Florimon would be fine or Jason Kubel and/or Jason Bartlett could play a role. It was the organization’s call and it failed miserably. Perhaps the surprise of 2014 should be that the Twins didn’t become ignorable more quickly. But giving Gardy and his staff credit for that is a C-minus paper in a year of failing work. It’s not enough to pass. Because Terry Ryan was out of the general manager’s office at the time fighting his cancer battle, it was even more important for the field staff to fight for the right moves during spring training.
Here's more from fan Max Athorn's email:
"As the weeks and months of mediocrity in Minneapolis drag on, there is one thing that we have learned that Ron Gardenhire is NOT: He's not an innovator. He can't pull any tricks that he hasn't already pulled. He has no secret weapons and no master plan. Finally, a couple of days ago, I realized where it stands for me: I feel the same way about Ron Gardenhire as the Twins feel about Matt Guerrier.
"The Twins loved Matt Guerrier, and I think most Twins fans understood why. This past week, though, it became clear that Matt Guerrier just didn't represent the same stability and success that he once did.
"My favorite part about the Twins broadcasts are Ron Gardenhire's press conferences. (Let that set in for a minute!) Actually, I truly enjoy watching him. I think he's funny, I think he's thoughtful, I think he's empathetic and articulate and I think he knows a lot about baseball. I like that he's a little erratic, and I like that he's curmudgeonly; I like his loyalty to his pitching coach and his most hard-working players. I like everything that I know about him.
"The Twins' failure is not Ron Gardenhire's fault. But it becomes increasingly clear to me, that the next time the Twins are riding a September winning streak into the playoffs, it won't be because of Ron Gardenhire."
Gardy’s contract runs through next season, so there would be a year of severance for him as a reward for the better times. That’s fine with me. I don’t know whether the next manager is sitting in the Twins’ dugout, another team’s dugout or a broadcast booth. I do know that I can’t imagine a scene in which Gardy returns and the team has any credibility with many, many of its fans.
It’s time for a change. I’ve been cautious in reaching that conclusion -- frustratingly so to some of you, I know – but I think that gives my conclusion extra weight.
I don't think anyone was expecting the Kendrys Morales news, and that's a gold star for a Twins front office that has so far this season given reasons to feel it wasn't up to figure out how to make the team better.
Adding a switch-hitting, power-hitting, cleanup-hitting potential fixture to the roster has good ramifications for both the short term and the long term.
In the short term, it means roster juggling can take place without having Gardy worry about which mediocrity he'll be forced to use in a day's lineup. One piece already played out Sunday morning when the official announcement of the Morales deal allowed the Twins to rid themselves of overmatched Jason Kubel, whose struggles this spring were sad to watch. Another can happen when Sam Fuld returns and the Twins can move Aaron Hicks to the minors to work on his right-handed-only batting.
Between Fuld and Danny Santana, the Twins can get by just fine in center field in the short term. And maybe Hicks will be in position to help the team next season -- not to mention having an inside track on left field when the Byron Buxton era eventually begins. And I won't be surprised if Santana gets more time at shortstop.
In the longer term, providing the Twins keep Morales, it prepares the Twins for life without Josh Willingham in 2015. Morales is the DH -- could spell Joe Mauer at first base. As excited as you may be about what the addition says about 2014, it will feel a bit hollow if Morales goes elsewhere after this season -- unless he pulls a Jack Morris and is remembered for Game 7 World Series heroics on his way out. (No, I'm not holding my breath.)
Yes, this cuts into the idea of Josmil Pinto's offensive presence as a designated hitter. (I know he has the same number of extra-base hits as Joe Mauer in 98 fewer plate appearances**) But I'm reasonably certain the only way to maintain Kurt Suzuki's unexpected impact over the rest of the season is for him to catch fewer games. I could see a 60/40 split between Suzuki and Pinto as time goes on, or even closer to 50/50. I also buy the position that, as a catcher, Pinto is learning even when he isn't playing.
Many of us may have forgotten this as we've watched the Twins slide, but good teams have depth. Josmil Pinto > Chris Herrmann; Danny Santana > Darin Mastroianni + Alex Presley + Pedro Florimon.
And I'll give the Twins credit for one more thing right now. The willingness to sign Morales makes you intrigued about what they may do next week, next month or beyond. There are nine teams within 3 1/2 games of the two American League wild-card spots. I've written, enough times to bore you in the last couple of seasons, that the Twins failed their fans and themselves by not bringing in players who could put the team in a competitive position while waiting for the ones who are expected to make 'em really good.
I'm seeing that change.
The signings of Phil Hughes, Ricky Nolasco (even taking into account Nolasco's struggles so far) and Suzuki, combined with the Morales addition, gives reason to believe that Minnesota is being seen by players as a place to come after the talent migration that started with Michael Cuddyer and some of the others after Target Field opened. If that's true, it's nothing but good.
(**Gratuitous Mauer mention in the spirit of the years of gratuitous Nick Punto mentions here and elsewhere over the years. You can also do this: Willie Mays at age 31: .315/.390/.585; Joe Mauer at age 31: .320/.402/.462.)
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