Everywhere I went at the Beijing Olympics, people stopped me to ask about the Twins. And that was just the Chinese.
The question most often asked was, "How are the Twins doing it?"
The easy answer is that this is a miracle. The 2008 Twins are making up for their youth with a lack of experience, assuaging their lack of power with key injuries. Their ability to stick near the top of the standings makes little sense ... unless you grasp recent history, which tells us that this franchise has made a habit of winning.
Since the start of the 2001 season, when the Twins returned to relevance, only six big-league teams have won more games. They are the Yankees, Red Sox, Cardinals, A's, Angels and Braves.
Five of those six teams enjoy dramatic financial advantages over the Twins, whether that advantage is a new stadium, soaring media revenues, an aggressive owner or a huge, rabid fan base. Only the A's can be considered similar to the Twins in approach and wherewithal, and while the A's have won 16 more games since 2001, they seem to be on the downslope of their bell curve of success.
The Twins, conversely, are set up brilliantly for the next three or four years and the opening of their new stadium, with their key players signed to long-term deals and their best young players years from threatening the team's payroll limits.
Compare the Twins to other Midwestern middle-market teams, regardless of stadium situation or owner generosity, and you gain a true appreciation for the success of a franchise that has turned over its roster regularly and is still stuck in the awful Metrodome.
The Twins have won 695 games since the start of 2001. Compare that to the White Sox at 670, the Cubs at 647, Indians at 645, Brewers at 577, Reds at 574, Tigers at 555, Pirates at 540, and Royals at 512.
Even if the Twins fall apart in September, even if they can be needled for a few bad acquisitions last winter or their typical cautiousness in the midseason trade market, we should appreciate the most surprising baseball franchise of the decade.
The Tampa Bay Rays are the story of this season, because their success is following hard on one of the most remarkable stretches of ineptitude in sports history.
The Boston Red Sox are the team of the decade, having won two more World Series than they had in the previous 86 years.
The most surprising, overachieving team in baseball in the new millennium? It's either the A's or the Twins.
Consider the depths at which this franchise resided just seven years ago. In 2000, the Twins lost 93 games, giving them eight consecutive losing seasons. During that stretch, Kirby Puckett went blind overnight, Kent Hrbek retired early, and Chuck Knoblauch demanded a trade when he was the team's only outstanding player. All stadium initiatives failed badly, and two waves of young players failed to make struggling General Manager Terry Ryan look capable of rebuilding one of the most forlorn teams in sports.
In 2001, a young group of players stayed in the race until a terrible September collapse. Since then, the Twins, without spending crazily, have given us the ALCS appearance of 2002, the great comeback of 2003, the 2004 playoff dramas in Yankee Stadium, the 2006 miracle and, now, the 2008 miracle.
The 2006 team will always be celebrated for playing the best four months of baseball in franchise history, for winning a seemingly unwinnable division on the last day. But as miraculous as the comeback was, the roster was loaded with superlative talent, including Johan Santana, Torii Hunter, Joe Nathan, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Luis Castillo.
We should be more surprised by the 2008 Twins. They just lost Santana and Hunter. They have received little help from Michael Cuddyer, thought to be the team's most important righthanded hitter. They have received wildly inconsistent and declining performances from center fielder Carlos Gomez, meaning the Santana trade has provided little immediate help.
They have tried a dozen different infield combinations, turning back to Nick Punto as an everyday player after spending the winter trying to ensure that he'd be on the bench. They have tried Brendan Harris at three positions. They called up three players who failed to win jobs in spring training -- Brian Buscher, Denard Span and Alexi Casilla -- and watched them become vital players. They have relied on five young starters and a well-bruised bullpen.
The Twins don't belong in this race, and yet here they are, entering September in far better shape than the $200 million Yankees.
The Twins are flawed, as a team and a franchise. This decade, though, they've left most of their peers far behind.
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. • firstname.lastname@example.org