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Children attending TwinsFest swarmed Gophers junior Chauncy Handran as they played home run derby with a whiffle ball on Saturday at the Metrodome. Handran is a pitcher and outfielder for the Gophers. TwinsFest ends today.

David Joles, Star Tribune

Heaven in the cold: the Hot Stove League

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN
  • Star Tribune
  • January 27, 2008 - 12:16 AM

This might sound like blasphemy. It's actually an acknowledgement of the popularity of the Twins and a testament to the public's fascination with winter baseball news.

Here's the blasphemous premise: The Hot Stove League has become more interesting than the World Series.

When was the last compelling Series? Probably 2003, when the Marlins upset the Yankees in six games. By comparison, when was the last time the Twins, and baseball in general, didn't compel you to scour your favorite news sources for the developments that would shape the upcoming season? It's been a while, and this winter has again trumped the World Series for drama.

Minnesota baseball fans probably don't appreciate how unique this week is every year, and especially how unique and portentous it has been this year.

Dozens of ballplayers from warm weather states fly to the Twin Cities, load into vans and hit 91 stops in 66 cities from Fargo to Iowa. The Twins say they get more of their players involved in the Twins Caravan than any pro sports team does in any other offseason event.

The Diamond Awards, the hot stove banquet and fund-raiser operated by the Minnesota Medical Foundation and the Minnesota chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, has raised about $1.7 million in three years to battle diseases such as ataxia and ALS. In the audience and on the podium each year are luminaries such as Rod Carew, Tony Oliva, Harmon Killebrew, Paul Molitor, Bert Blyleven and Kent Hrbek.

At the Diamond Awards on Thursday, we learned that our own Pat Neshek never owned a suit in his life until this week, when he put on one to receive an award at the banquet. We also learned that Terry Ryan, in his reduced role with the Twins, works from home and has learned to tackle a honey-do list and watch daytime TV.

"There's this woman on in the afternoons,'' he said. "I think her name is 'Oprah.'"

This winter, the Twins also unveiled the model of their new ballpark, began pouring concrete at the building site and signed two players for what could turn out to be $115 million, taking the necessary step of proving that they are willing to spend lots of money for the right players at the right juncture of their careers.

Let's not forget, either, as the Twins close in on a trade of Johan Santana, that he sneered when offered a five-year, $93 million contract extension. He is probably correct in thinking he will make more with an East Coast team, but $93 million is a lot of money for anyone who plays 33 days a year and is one elbow twinge away from the disabled list.

In the past two weeks the Twins have conducted "tours'' of their stadium model and visits to the building site. The Pohlads are funding about $15 million in cost overruns, making this a very expensive week for even a wealthy family.

This weekend, the team is holding TwinsFest at the Metrodome, giving us a taste of summer during the heart of the winter. Friday afternoon, before the doors opened, fans stood in lines stretching around the Dome, braving the cold for a chance to take a breath of baseball.

The Twins have also taken a new philosophical approach this winter, placing more emphasis on building a formidable lineup than amassing pitchers. Trading Matt Garza for Delmon Young and signing Michael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau is an acknowledgement that in modern baseball you have to hit to win, and that position players are safer investments than pitchers.

This could be a rough season for the Twins. Once they trade Santana, they'll be forced to rely on an inexperienced rotation while competing in what might be baseball's best and deepest division. They could receive representative performances from all of their key players and still finish near the bottom of the AL Central.

That's OK. Baseball fans have next winter, and the new stadium, to look forward to.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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