Our local sports franchise is cursed. And if you think that’s a reference to the Minnesota Timberwolves, you’re stuck at the turn of the century.
On Wednesday night, center fielder Byron Buxton, the best prospect in all of baseball, played in his first game at Class AA. He was supposed to reach that level much earlier in the year, but two wrist injuries — one serious, one not — cost him nearly a full season of growth and advancement.
So on Wednesday night, Buxton used his remarkable speed to chase a ball in the gap, and dived, and collided with right fielder Mike Kvasnicka. Buxton was knocked unconscious, and lay on the field for 15 minutes while medical attendants worried about a spinal injury.
Tests revealed that Buxton had suffered a concussion. A few officials offered that news in relief, using the phrase “only a concussion,’’ quite a turn of phrase considering that the Twins have watched concussions alter the careers of two franchise players in the past four years.
Injuries are commonplace in sports, but Buxton’s latest injury is a reminder that the Twins have had franchise history altered so often that they might need a witch doctor more than an M.D.
When the Twins were considered the smartest franchise in baseball, in the early ’90s, Kent Hrbek saw his promising career ended by a series of bothersome injuries. Considered a player with Hall of Fame talent, he retired following the 1994 season, at 34, with 293 career home runs.
In 1996, Kirby Puckett, so driven to revisit his prime that he worked out in the offseason for the first time, awoke on the last day of spring training blind in one eye. He would never play again.
That same week, Rick Aguilera, the Twins’ longtime closer who had agreed to act as the ace of the starting pitching staff, picked up a suitcase and injured his wrist.
Without Puckett and Aguilera, the Twins remained competitive until late August. With them, the Twins might have made the playoffs. Instead, beginning in 1997, the franchise entered a stretch of noncompetitive baseball that would lead to owner Carl Pohlad offering the team up for contraction.
In 2006, the Twins played like the best team in baseball for much of the summer because of lefthanded aces Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano. Liriano walked off the mound in August holding his elbow, and the Twins, in a rare turn as playoff favorites, were swept by one of Oakland’s lesser teams in the first round.
In 2010, Justin Morneau, four years after being named the American League MVP, reached a career apex. His on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) was a career-best 1.055 on July 7 when he took a knee to the head while sliding into second base in Toronto.
He would not recover his swing or power in a Twins uniform.
In 2011, Joe Mauer, two years after winning the AL MVP award, suffered from a mystery ailment. Like Puckett, he never would perform as well under the terms of an exorbitant contract as he did before signing it. Last fall, after he managed to play in only 113 games during the 2013 season, Mauer was moved from catcher to first base because of concussions. Even at first base, Mauer has played in only 79 of 119 games this year because of other injuries.
This summer, the Twins hoped that their two best prospects, Buxton and Miguel Sano, would make their way to the big leagues. Sano injured his right elbow in spring training and underwent Tommy John ligament replacement surgery, costing him this season. Buxton suffered a wrist injury in spring training and has yet to regain the dominance that turned him into a national story last summer.
Tony Oliva. Hrbek. Puckett. Aguilera. Liriano. Morneau. Mauer. Sano. Buxton.
Puckett made it to the Hall of Fame despite his ailment. Oliva, Hrbek, Morneau, Liriano and Mauer possessed the ability to become Hall of Fame players. Sano and Buxton could become the most talented duo to wear Twinstripes since Hrbek and Puckett in their prime, or Santana and Liriano for a few months in 2006.
Whether coincidence or curse, the Twins have reeled from a stretch of bad luck that almost destroyed the franchise in the ’90s, and is contributing heavily to four years of embarrassing performances in Target Field.