My first vivid memory of a national sports happening was Willie Mays’ catch in center field on a drive by Cleveland’s Vic Wertz in the immense Polo Grounds on Sept. 29, 1954. This was in Game 1 of the World Series and created the momentum for the New York Giants to sweep the Indians (111-43) in a four-game upset.
This was three weeks before my ninth birthday, verifying that I wasn’t one of those prodigies that claims to have memories dating to age 3.
This does provide full awareness to the time when baseball was the unchallenged king of American sports, and the World Series stood alone in importance.
The champions of the American and the National Leagues advanced directly to the best-of-seven showdown. The country stood transfixed, even though it would be four more years before Willie’s New York Giants moved to San Francisco and the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles, creating Major League Baseball west of Missouri.
Minnesota benefited from the major leagues’ first expansion, from eight teams per league to 10, in 1961-62, and baseball continued to reign supreme on the sports landscape for several more years.
The first Super Bowl was played after the 1966 season and started the NFL toward being the juggernaut.
Another round of baseball expansion came in 1969, and this led to divisional play and a playoff series leading to the World Series. Four playoff teams became eight in 1995, and 10 with the addition of a second wild card in 2012.
The postseason expansion has helped to create generations of sports followers who look at baseball with the same jaundiced view as is the case with the NFL, NBA or NHL:
All success is based on a team reaching the playoffs, and then winning when it gets there.
I’ve read numerous responses in the past several days that nothing done by the 2019 Twins is worthy of praise, all that matters is success in the postseason — and they failed.
Sorry. I go back too far with baseball as my No. 1 preference in sports to not look at the Grand Old Game as a special case.
The reason for that is rudimentary: length of schedule.
Back when Willie was robbing Wertz, the eight teams of the American and National Leagues played 154 games. That was increased to 162 with AL expansion in 1961 (and 1962 in the NL’s case).
And through 1968, only one of those teams per league advanced.
Thus, my theory was formed early: The main goal for a favorite team at the start of every season was to provide a relevant summer.
The Twins, after decades of losing as the Washington Senators, went 91-71 in 1962, their second season here, finishing second and five games behind the Yankees. We were ecstatic. And they were 91-70 the next season and finished third behind the Yankees and White Sox.
Top third of the standings two years in a row. Way to go, Twins.
This theory of relevancy is not one that I would expect to be shared by post-Baby Boomer generations, which is 80% of you. And it’s certainly not something that followers of the Yankees and the Dodgers, or the Cubs and Red Sox (now that they think it’s their destiny to win it all) will accept in any form.
Still, in the Age of the Internet, we have too many people who watch baseball as if they are watching football, where every blip is a crisis.
It’s not. There are 162 of these things and they come in every form imaginable. They should be viewed in hunks, not in single outcomes, not even in disappointing three-game eliminations.
The latest of those eliminations gave the Twins a 16-game postseason losing streak. This is both historic and frightening, yet I look back at the decade when it started — 2001-10 — as an exceptional period in franchise history.
There was the turnaround season of 2001, followed by six division titles, plus a 1-0 loss to the White Sox in a Game 163 in 2008.
Winning summers followed by losing Octobers; that’s a trade worth making for any baseball-loving kid from the 1950s.
The finish came quickly again this time, to the great delight of the New York tabloids, where the Yankees’ latest sweep of the Twins drew these hammer heads:
Daily News — “Identical Twins.” Post — “Twin There, Done That.”
Funny stuff, but also an improbable season to remember for the home club, with 101 wins, more home runs (307) than any team in baseball’s zany Year of the Home Run, and the summer of slugger Nelson Cruz meeting sprinkler Luis Arraez.
I loved it, start to finish.
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